Earlier this week, in Iowa, something really big happened.
No, I’m not talking about the surprise cancellation of the Iowa Chocolate Festival, nixed at the last minute after a scheduling snafu resulted in lots of melted confectionery and bitterly disappointed chocoholics. Something even bigger than that. I’m referring to Monday’s release of a strangely enthralling time-lapse video (below) depicting the erection of the tallest land-based wind turbine in the country—smack in the middle of Adams County, Iowa, which up until this week was most famous for being the birthplace of Johnny Carson.
Measuring 379 feet from ground to rotor, the concrete turbine positively dwarfs its 63 steel-towered neighbors on MidAmerican Energy’s new Adams wind farm, besting most of them by 100 feet or more. (With its blades extended, the structure stands just a smidgen taller than the Washington Monument.) Concrete construction gives the tower greater stability, allowing it to reach much higher altitudes—and much stronger winds. For the moment, Adams County’s newest skyscraper functions as a prototype, helping MidAmerican discern the precise relationship between the height of its turbines and the amount of wind energy they’re capable of generating.
It’s fitting that the tallest wind turbine ever to be built on American soil would be built in Iowa—the state that blows all the others away when it comes to investing in this clean, renewable energy source. Iowa was the first state to pass a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) back in 1983; since then, it’s become the country’s undisputed leader in pursuing wind energy. Last year, more than 30 percent of its in-state electricity generation came from wind. Before the end of the decade, that figure is expected to rise to 40 percent—representing nearly 10,000 megawatts of wind-fueled power.
Whenever you encounter someone yammering on and on about the mechanical infeasibility or economic unviability of transitioning to a renewable energy economy, it’s fun to tell him about what’s happening in the Hawkeye State these days. Because without a doubt, Iowa is giving the lie to the cynic’s take on renewables—by showing the country that investing in wind yields multiple dividends: new jobs, cheaper energy prices, and stimulated economies, not to mention cleaner air and a smaller carbon footprint.
As the longest-serving governor in American history, Republican Terry Branstad—who has been Iowa’s governor for nearly 20 years, though not consecutively—has been one of wind’s fiercest proponents since the early 1980s. In fact, it was none other than Branstad himself who signed the state’s pioneering RPS back in 1983, during the very first of his six terms. That standard directed Iowa utilities to incorporate renewables into the state’s energy mix to the tune of at least 105 megawatts of capacity.
It was, at the time, an appropriately modest goal. But it would become the sturdy foundation for a long-term commitment to wind energy, one that now serves as a model for others. While no state in the country even comes close, at the moment, to matching Iowa’s wind-power yields, a number of its windswept neighbors—including Kansas, Oklahoma, and North and South Dakota—have taken inspiration from Iowa. Each of them now generates more than 10 percent of its electricity from wind.
What’s so significant about that particular list of states? Lots. For one thing, all of them are dominated politically by Republicans—and conservative Republicans, at that. A number of them also have entrenched oil and gas industries that wield disproportionate power within their business and government sectors. None of them, at first glance, would seem to be the kind of state where you’d find the political establishment trumpeting the virtues of clean, renewable wind energy, and drawing attention—intentionally or not—to the many advantages it holds over coal, oil, and even natural gas.
Nevertheless, that’s exactly what’s happening. In Iowa, the state’s massive investment in wind has led directly to lower energy prices; one recent report estimates that it will end up saving Iowans $3.68 billion on their electricity bills by the middle of this century. On top of that, more than 7,000 people in the state are currently employed in the manufacture and maintenance of wind infrastructure. And what’s more, most of these turbine farms are located on privately owned farmland, the long-term leases on which provide a steady extra income for farmers in this agriculture-heavy state.
Most auspicious of all, Iowa provides ample evidence that large-scale investment in renewables actually attracts outside investment in those states that take it seriously—and do it right. Recently, companies like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft have injected more than $12 billion into Iowa’s economy, mainly through the massive expansion of their data centers there. Why would the tech titans of Seattle and Silicon Valley be drawn to a place best known for its rolling fields of corn and soy? Because renewable energy, in addition to being clean energy, is cheap energy—and the computer servers at the heart of our digital culture require an insane amount of it just to keep the modern world running.
When the governors and legislators of neighboring states look at Iowa, they can’t help but think to themselves: Hey, the same wind that blows so hard and steadily across Iowa's wide-open plains blows across my wide-open plains, too. How do we get in on that action?
The answer, of course, is investment. Because Iowa was such an early adopter, it’s reaping the lion’s share of wind's significant rewards at the moment. But the great thing about wind—and the great thing about all renewables, for that matter—is that it’s never too late to get on board. Terry Branstad, conservative Republican and vocal champion of wind energy, would be among the the very first to tell you that.
Now if we could only get him to reconsider that whole ethanol thing…
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