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Testing wind power potential

A 200-foot meteorological tower has sprung up this week in rural Johnson County, the first step for a planned wind farm that could one day stretch more than 3,000 acres near Solon.

Workers on Wednesday erected the narrow, cable-supported structure in a farm field off 210th Street west of Highway 1 – about seven miles northeast of Iowa City – where it will gauge the area’s wind resources in the coming year.

PNE Wind USA, a Chicago-based company, announced plans in February to build 10 to 20 turbines on land leased from private owners as soon as 2013. It would be Johnson County’s first commercial wind farm, and one of the first in southeast Iowa.

Keith Kurtz, the wind company’s project developer, said the weather studies will be coupled with surveys of the area’s bat and bird populations, with the goal of minimizing the ecological impact of the turbines.

“We’re very environmentally conscious,” Kurtz said. “The main purpose for a wind project itself is they’re green projects. A lot of people think a lot of birds and bats are killed when that’s not the truth at all.”

The meteorological tower will study wind speed, velocity, temperature and pressure, Kurtz said. The data will determine the area’s energy potential, the size of turbines the company can build and where to position them.

Kurtz said sensors also are fixed on the weather tower at various heights to detect bat chirps, particularly that of the Indiana bat, which is on the endangered species list. Likewise, the company will commission a study of local bird flight patterns, hiring an environmental firm that will work with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.

The environmental workers will locate bird nests to get an idea of the species in the area and attach GPS sensors to birds to map their flight patterns, Kurtz said. Raptors will be the focus of the study, and mainly bald eagles, he said.

“This will help us to design the project so that we’ll have as few bird and bat kills as possible,” Kurtz said. “… It’s not so much that the turbines turn fast enough to say, chop a bird up or anything like that, but the birds and bats could fly into the tower.”

Charles Gleason, the property owner and farmer whose land is home to the new meteorological tower, said he is open to the idea of leasing his land for turbines but said the project is still early in the planning stages to say anything is certain. He was among other residents who attended an informational meeting hosted by the company this week.

“I think you’ve got some people who are leery about it and some people who are very interested,” Gleason said.

PNE is eying 2013 as the construction date for the turbines, which Kurtz said typically stand 260 feet tall from the base to the center of the rotor, with 100-foot blades. The 30-megawatt farm is projected to power 9,000 homes, with electricity being sold to a local utility company and transmitted via existing lines.

Iowa ranks second nationally behind Texas in existing wind farm energy capacity by the American Wind Energy Association, with the vast majority of the farms located in western and central Iowa, where the wind capabilities exceed those in Eastern Iowa.

Harold Prior, executive director of the Iowa Wind Energy Association, said many wind farms in northwestern Iowa have begun surpassing their transmission capacity, leading companies to look at untapped areas like Eastern Iowa, where room for transmission is available on the existing grid.

“These are being developed because, while they don’t have quite as good wind resources, they have suitable wind resources, and they have available transmission capacity to be able to move the energy effectively,” Prior said of newer projects in the works, including the Solon site.

Prior said with 75 percent of Iowa being suitable for wind farm development, the state has a vast potential for growth in the industry.

“We want to continue to expand the export market for wind energy, just like we’ve grown our export markets for corn and soybeans and hogs and cattle and other agricultural products,” Prior said.