Residents Push Back Against Wind Turbine Expansion

Sep 20, 2019  | 6 min  | Ep4505

In the 1970s, renewable energy was touted as a way to save the planet. Power companies resisted saying fossil fuels were the most reliable, cost effective method of producing energy.

Today, power producers like Mid-American Energy, have changed their tune. But, as producer John Torpy discovered, there are detractors to the energy giant’s work to employ renewables.

It should be noted that Mid-American Energy helps fund Iowa Public Television, where Market to Market is produced. Producer contact torpy@iptv.org

In recent decades, the number of whirling blades scraping Midwestern skies has grown steadily across the nation’s midsection. That growth may soon have to contend with the loss of a primary building block - the Energy Production Tax Credit.

In the early 1990’s, the tax-deferred program passed through Congress, helping stabilize and expand the use of renewable energy. The credits helped companies like Iowa-based MidAmerican Energy invest heavily in wind energy production. In 2016, nearly half of the power provided to customers was produced by wind turbines. The company plans on making 100 percent of its power portfolio renewable by 2021.

The tax credits also spurred growth in the industry and helped wind power producers update aging infrastructure. MidAmerican officials say the credits made it possible to pay for the upgrades without passing the cost along to customers.

Spencer Moore, VP of Generation, MidAmerican Energy: ”… as we look at the project, the real benefit for our customers is that we're going to get a million, about a million megawatt-hours a year of additional energy out of these existing projects.”

MidAmerican, like other wind energy providers, is working on a tight timetable. With passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, wind energy businesses may be witness to the curtain call for Energy Production Tax Credits. Wind energy projects starting construction by December 2019 are eligible for the full credit. Projects starting after 2019 will see the credit shrink by 20 percent per year until the program expires in 2022.

Those companies working to expand their production capacity also face hurdles in communities where the towers are being erected. Some landowners charge that sight and noise pollution hurts property values as well as creating a potential health risk. Environmental groups contend the turbines are a threat to bats and birds.

However, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife data, the number of birds killed by buildings is 1,500 times greater than the number of birds killed by wind turbines. Further, a 2014 National Institutes of Health study revealed noise and visual complaints had more to do with who was receiving economic benefit from nearby wind farms. And three university studies showed wind farms had no impact on housing prices.

     In the town of Winterset, Iowa, residents on both sides of the wind energy discussion packed a Madison County board of supervisor’s meeting to capacity. At issue is a proposed one-year moratorium on new renewable energy projects.

     The complaint centers around MidAmerican’s recently secured permission to build 52 new wind turbines in the southwestern Iowa county. These structures will rise almost 500 feet above the landscape, be 1,500 feet from the nearest home, and cost nearly $3 million dollars each. A large percentage of those living in the construction area signed a petition to delay the project.

     Following a recommendation by the County Board of Health, county supervisors met to weigh the merits of the idea.

Alan Lange, Winterset, Iowa: “I do think that it's time to take a step back and consider the concerns that the community, that the community has brought forth.”

     Some attendees showed their support for the wind industry.

Bonnie Halgen, Winterset, Iowa:” I just want to be the personal face of the 10,000 rural Americans who are working in wind and a time when more young Iowans are leaving our state, looking for good paying jobs. I think it's important the decisions that we make to help keep our young people at home.”

     Other residents felt energy companies are pushing new construction through without giving local residents any time to ask questions.

Mary Jobst, Earlham, Iowa: “MidAmerican Energy claims they are a moral and ethical company that is obsessively, relentlessly at our service. A moral and ethical company, who is a good neighbor, does not force wind turbines on people who do not want them.”

     Officials with MidAmerican Energy point out wind energy has a proven economic benefit for rural communities.

Adam Jablonski, Director of Renewable Energy, MidAmerican Energy:” We've got land owner participation. We've got, you know, over 2,600 operating turbines across state. There's more than 4,800 turbines currently operating across the state. Some more than two decades in a, we, we, we didn't know why there was an issue with this particular, you know, handful of turbines here. Um, so let's, we're coming just to make sure people get the facts when they're making their decisions.”

       Some of those sitting on the board of supervisors worry the bigger structures will have an unfavorable impact and question the motivation of those who approved the project.

Diane Fitch, Madison County Supervisor: ”I think this is, weak kneed pandering politicians that buy into big corporate America and they have huge lobbyists and they're giving our money. It's our money. It's not their money. It's our money that they're taking and putting these up. I don't think it's fair.”

After all the voices were heard, the three member board of supervisors voted 2-1 in favor of a one-year new construction moratorium. The ruling must survive two more votes before it takes effect.

     For Market to Market, I’m John Torpy

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