Iowa Public Television


Small Wind Makes A Comeback In Rural America

posted on August 21, 2009

Earlier this week, Secretary Vilsack announced that 46 rural utilities and cooperatives in 30 states have been selected to receive more than $1 billion in guaranteed loans to repair infrastructure and develop new energy projects. And when it comes to new sources of electricity, few things moved faster recently than wind.

According to the American Wind Energy Association, or AWEA, the U.S. wind industry accounted for 42 percent of new electricity generation installed in 2008. The surge in construction created 35,000 jobs last year, bringing the number of wind power employees to 85,000.

While the vast majority of current wind power comes from large commercial operations, homeowners also are embracing the "winds of change." And as David Miller discovered last spring, some rural Americans are reintroducing themselves to an old friend.

The idea behind home power generation is not a new one. Thousands of small wind turbines dotted the landscape in the early part of the last century only to be replaced by Rural Electric Cooperatives or RECs. Though most of the first generation turbines may have been relegated to ornamental status there has been a resurgence of the concept over the past few years.

For John Clough of rural Nevada, Iowa today signals the end of eight months of research and four months of climbing over paperwork and construction hurdles.

John Clough, Nevada, Iowa: "I can't believe it at this point. You think back to the winds of January when you had no idea that you were going to make it this can't believe it."

As chief accountant for the Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory, located on the campus of Iowa State University, Clough was inspired to erect a turbine on his acreage to cover some of his electrical demand.

John Clough, Nevada, Iowa: "It's the right time to do it, you want to think green. And also I work in a place that works with energy. If the people who are creating energy solutions aren't doing it, no one else can believe it."

Updated for the 21st century, the new units turn in winds of as little as 8 miles per hour and provide alternating current to operate readily available household appliances. More often than not, the units not only supplement power needs in rural settings but they supply enough electricity to run a home completely disconnected from the power grid.

After learning the price of his electricity was going to increase this year, Clough knew the $17,000 he paid for the 1.8 kilowatt turbine was a good idea. Several states offer incentives for renewable energy investment and Clough will be taking advantage of the federal government's 30 percent tax credit.

John Clough, Nevada, Iowa: "...people are talking about it, people are doing it, it's something that for a person who is out in a rural situation and has a little higher electrical bills it makes sense at this time, it's a long-term thing, it could take 20 years to recoup the costs but still you're doing your part. I can potentially reduce maybe a third to half of the monthly bill."

According to the American Wind Energy Association, or AWEA, Iowa ranks second in commercial wind power generation, turning out nearly 3,000 of the sectors 28,000 megawatts. When it comes to what is now known as "small wind", AWEA statistics show there are more than 10,000 turbines in the U.S. are producing power a little more than 17 megawatts. More than 90 percent of the units are grid-connected like Clough's. And, according to a 2009 AWEA study, sales of small turbines between 2008 and 2009 increased by 20 percent.

Sixty-five miles to the southwest, another small-wind user is already taking advantage of the savings. Roy Jobst, put up a wind turbine on his rural Earlham, Iowa farm where his auto repair business and house share property. Since its installation in March, Jobst has watched his turbine feed power back to the grid on the meter outside his shop.

Roy Jobst, Earlham, Iowa: "The first bill we got was, our electric bill was $50, normally it's around $120."

With days like this one, Jobst is expecting his turbine to pay for itself in 10 years.

Roy Jobst, Earlham, Iowa: "Well, everybody's going green, you know. This is a coming through down the road and wind energy basically is free, all you do is pay for the original investment and from there on it's 'money in the bank.'"

Both Jobst and Clough are customers of small wind vendor James McCain. McCain became interested in helping Iowans generate their own green power after receiving his two-year degree in 2007. Instead of investing in two more years of higher education, he decided to fulfill his dream by opening Innovative Kinetics.

James McCain, Innovative Kinetics: "I was looking for people in this industry and I realized there's nobody in 200 miles doing what I do. So, rather than spend that money on education I figured I'd start my own company and be even farther ahead than where I would be coming out of college. So, it was really kind of passion and just chance that drove me to this spot. And it was really a way for me to quit complaining about what was going on and actually do something about the problems."

From his Des Moines, Iowa-based business, McCain specializes in sales and installation of small-scale wind turbines, solar power arrays, and biodiesel distillation units.

McCain says there are still several hurdles that small-wind owners encounter like permitting. Because the turbines are mounted on towers over 50 feet tall Jobst paid nearly $1000 for the proper permits but Clough paid only $25.

James McCain, Innovative Kinetics: "...every time we do this it gets easier and easier and we start to see some real fruits of our labors coming out of it."

While working through the bureaucratic paperwork maze, both men had to get interconnection agreements with their local power providers. Clough's provider is Consumers Energy, an REC with five thousand members in five central Iowa counties.

David Stineman, Energy Solutions Manager, Consumers Energy: "I mean there's hardly a week goes by that we don't get three or four phone calls about wind turbines. ...These aren't farmers that have a bunch of land they want to lease to a wind farm, but mostly homeowners that want to cut their energy bill."

In the past, power companies have had a reputation of balking at the purchase of more expensive so-called renewable energy, but officials at Consumers were more than willing to honor requests made by their members.

David Stineman, Energy Solutions Manager, Consumers Energy: "I think probably for most utilities it is a change of mind. As time has gone by you realize that, 'hey this is the way it's going to go. We're going to have more renewable energy.' It's not going to replace the base load that we need out there because if the wind doesn't blow it's going to get hot and the lights won't be very bright, you know. So, we know that there's a need for the base load and the wind is a good supplement."

Clough pays 12 cents for every kilowatt he purchases from Consumers. In turn, Consumers will bank any unused electricity and off-set Clough's bill at the same 12-cent-per-kilowatt rate.

Clough realizes he is a pioneer in small wind power generation but he readily embraces his role.

John Clough, Nevada, Iowa: "...someone has got to take the chance, someone has got to be the first, someone has got to help out in their little way and that's where I've also come from beyond the economics. You've got to say, well, here's my little part."

For Market to Market, I'm David Miller.


Tags: alternative energy Iowa news rural wind wind power