By Steve Jordon, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.
Sep. 3–SCHALLER, Iowa – Corn, soybeans and electricity – that’s what Jim Young’s farm produces, thanks to the rich Iowa soil, regular rainfall and 13 wind turbine towers on his land.
Some neighbors don’t like the whirling blades, with their tips traveling more than 100 miles an hour on a typical windy day, and the turbines buzzing 350 feet above the ridge where rainfall divides between the Missouri and the Mississippi.
For Young, electricity is a cash crop, $4,000 a year for each turbine. The turbines also produce local property taxes of about $13,000 a year each, too.
“They’re clean, and I don’t think they bother anybody, really.”
The turbines do bother some folks, including Glenn R. Schleede, a retired power company executive from Round Hill, Va., who said the wind power industry puts out “absolute baloney” to justify its existence.
“I’m tired of subsidizing Warren Buffett companies,” Schleede said, referring to federal tax subsidies that go to MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., a division of Omaha-based Berkshire Hathaway Inc. that is headed by Buffett. Those are MidAmerican’s turbines in the fields around Schaller.
Schleede’s criticisms, mostly in academic-style papers he writes, concentrate on the economics of wind power and what he called “false claims about how this is good for an energy system.”
“In fact, these things, because they’re intermittent and volatile and unpredictable, they don’t really add a lot of capacity to an electric grid,” he said. “When you see these things advertised, they talk about how many megawatts of capacity, the number of homes served and all that garbage.
“I would maintain that they don’t serve any homes.”
But Schleede’s objections haven’t deterred wind power development in Iowa, where support is so widespread and opponents so scarce that Iowa generates more electricity from the wind than any state except California and Texas.
Plenty of support
MidAmerican is moving ahead with its fourth large wind-power plant, bringing its Iowa wind investment over the past decade to about a half-billion dollars. Last week, an Iowa Falls investment group announced plans for a separate $200 million wind project in north-central Iowa.
Environmentalists favor wind’s no-pollution feature, especially now that power companies are keeping turbines from disturbing wildlife and sensitive habitats. The mono-crop fields of Iowa’s factory-line farms are a perfect spot, they say, and every five-second turn of the turbine means a bit of coal unburned.
For environmentalists, a key issue is, if not coal, then what?
Mark Kresowik, a Sierra Club organizer who is battling a proposed coal-fired electricity plant in Waterloo, Iowa, said, “Wind becomes a very prominent factor in that discussion.”
MidAmerican and the investment group, Iowa Winds LLC, are interested because federal subsidies make wind power profitable, thanks to taxpayers. Even Nebraska’s public power districts are willing to use a little money from electricity customers to subsidize wind power.
“It’s a little bit more expensive,” said retired Holdrege farmer Bruce Gustafson, a longtime Nebraska Public Power District board member. “But it’s a step in the right direction.”
Omaha Public Power District pays NPPD an average of $100,000 a month for wind electricity, even though most wind-generated electricity in most cases costs more than power from coal. The electricity comes from NPPD’s $81 million wind generation facility near Ainsworth.
OPPD Chairman Del Weber said the publicly elected board supports wind power and makes the NPPD payment rather than building its own wind farm partly because the Omaha district doesn’t have the steady, strong wind that would generate enough electricity.
Despite the higher cost of wind energy, Weber said, “I think energy companies want to be on top of it. There are some very interesting kinds of developments in wind power.”
As wind technology becomes more efficient, natural gas prices are rising, and pollution-control equipment adds to the costs at OPPD’s new coal-fired plant at Nebraska City. Electricity from the plant costs 2.9 cents per kilowatt hour, spokesman Mike Jones said, close to the 3.4-cent per-kilowatt-hour cost at NPPD’s wind-power plant.
Even so, Weber said, wind power seems destined to remain only a supplemental source of electricity. “My guess is that wind power’s never going to replace any kind of base power, but I think we should use it wherever we can.”
Some individual utility customers volunteer to pay extra to support wind energy – 3,400 in Omaha, for example, and another 970 Lincoln Electric System customers.
Political leaders, such as Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a co-sponsor of the federal tax benefit legislation, and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, generally come down in favor of renewable energy. Public-opinion researchers, including the Gallup Organization, say a wide majority of Americans support government spending to develop wind as an energy source.
For John Lichter, wind power is a direct benefit. He was commuting 50 miles to a job in Sioux City, Iowa, when enXco, a contractor for MidAmerican, hired him onto the crew on the wind farm near Schaller.
He helps repair and monitor the 66 turbines. Remote sensors report wind speed and direction, electricity output and, occasionally, an idle turbine, “stopped due to calm.”
Civil engineer Tom Budler, MidAmerican’s wind project manager, oversees the installation of a new wind farm near Westside, plans for another near Palmer and operation of the existing sites – in all, 305 turbines.
The rotating turbine blades go “whump, whump, whump” on each turn, but they’re at least 1,200 feet away from houses. To avoid tipping over, they rest on 7-foot-deep foundations that are 50 feet in diameter.
The machines, designed to withstand 115 mph winds, begin generating electricity when the breeze hits 6 mph, with optimum generation between 23 and 50 mph. Winds above 50 mph trigger a shut-down process.
Underground cables from the towers lead to a power station, which sends the juice along an existing long-distance transmission line nearby.
As the wind-generated electricity flows, MidAmerican backs off its “higher-cost” coal or natural gas plans, Budler said – higher in the sense that the wind is free, even though the cost of wind generators and other expenses make wind power more expensive than other energy sources.
Budler said the wind power helps MidAmerican meet its demand, including one especially hot day in July when the wind system set a generating record. He said it also helps protect against rising prices for other fuel.
‘Part of scenery’
During the construction phase, as many as 200 people will work at a wind power site.
Janet Winkler, a cook at Sparky’s gas station in Schaller, remembers it well – 50 to 60 construction workers coming in at one time for breakfast burritos or sandwiches. “It was a crowd. The guys were all nice.”
The network of windmills on the rural landscape was disconcerting for a while, Winkler said. “Now it’s just part of the scenery.”
Sam Wandrey, who owns Lobo’s, a bar and grill, began serving special Wednesday night suppers and kept the weekly specials going after the construction workers left last year.
The crew that built the first 100 turbines was well-behaved, Wandrey said, but the group that added 22 turbines included some men who tossed pizzas and became rowdy. “I had to throw a few of them out,” he said.
Overall, he said, “It helped the economy.”
Some objections to the wind turbines are financial.
Nevada, Iowa, farmer Dale Swanson said he and his son and a woman whose land they farm turned down MidAmerican’s offer to locate two or three of the turbines on the property.
He objected to the 30-year, fixed $4,000-per-year payment.
“As you look forward for 30 years, that’s a pretty small price for the amount of things they get for it,” Swanson said.
The tower and the maintenance road would have cut across some of the best farmland, he said, and the company would have the right to come on the property for maintenance and repairs.
He said there was no provision for removing the tower after 30 years, and the concrete base would be expensive to pull out once the contract ends.
An earlier option from MidAmerican called for an inflation adjustment after 15 years, he said, but the contract it actually offered removed that.
“They came along and said this was a much better contract, but it wasn’t,” he said. The switch “was a pretty slick, city-boy deal.”
“I guess maybe you could say I didn’t need the money bad enough that I would put up with that for 30 years.”
The project went ahead.
“I don’t like the landscape at all anymore,” Swanson said. “But I think we’re going to need all the energy that we can get. So I think from a national standpoint it’s a good deal.”
Officials from Iowa Winds LLC, the investment group proposing the $200 million wind development in Franklin County, touts the 30 to 40 technical jobs it will create, among other things, by 2008.
Local officials call the plan a “win-win.”
Jerry Hentges, a hydrologist in the Des Moines office of Terracon of Lenexa, Kan., said wind farm developers are sensitive to public opinion. Power companies like MidAmerican pay Terracon to study environmental and other factors important to choosing turbine sites.
“They always want to have a real positive impact,” he said. “They’re very sensitive to the environmental conditions and generally go further than they have to as far as complying with the rules.”
The companies study the noise that the turbines make, the effects on nesting and flying birds, and fish and other wildlife. The companies avoid wetlands, grasslands, migration routes and wildlife refuges.
One company, Hentges said, re-routed underground power cables to avoid dairy cattle after farmers worried that the current might lower milk production, even though there isn’t proof that could happen.
“They feel they should be an example of observing and meeting government requirements,” he said. “This is simply a green way to generate energy, and my feeling is they don’t want to see future negative press associated with their project whatsoever.”
Shane Patterson of Ames, Iowa, an Audubon Society biologist, said he has studied older wind farms in prairie areas of southwestern Minnesota.
“They were utterly silent,” he said. “It’s not a prairie anymore because there are no prairie birds.”
Power companies now avoid such areas, he said.
“I can’t speak for every project, but it seems that the power companies are at least willing to listen,” he said. “They do want information on where they shouldn’t place these turbines.”
Spencer banker Lee Schoenewe, who is active in the region’s Audubon Society and is a trustee of the Iowa Nature Conservancy, said the groups’ latest concern in Iowa is that improperly placed wind turbines cause nesting birds to avoid grassland habitats.
The “scarecrow effect” seems to drive away birds that normally nest in grasslands, he said. “We’re already in a position where temperate grasslands are one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world, especially in the central U.S. where the wind blows.”
Power companies have been good at avoiding such sites, he said, and the Nature Conservancy and local Audubon chapter have helped them find sites.
He also has no problem with the government subsidies.
“It shouldn’t be permanent but to develop alternative sources of energy. As energy gets more expensive, those subsidies certainly should be reduced. I think that’s just intelligent in the long run.”
But Schoenewe doesn’t like the way the turbines look.
“My perspective is that they can ruin a landscape, but a lot of people down in the Storm Lake area like to drive around and look at them,” he said. “As a conservationist I’m very much in favor of renewable energy.
“If we have to put up with losing a gorgeous sunset across a ridgeline in the distance to have this kind of thing available, I guess that’s part of the bargain. I’m smart enough to know that there are other things beyond esthetics.
“If we can preserve some of the pristine grasslands we have in this part of the country and put the turbines in agricultural fields, that’s probably the best balance we can hope for.”
Copyright (c) 2006, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.
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