Is the Answer Blowin' in the Wind?

On the campaign trail President-Elect Barack Obama made a commitment to revitalize the economy with green-collar jobs as part of his overall energy initiative. After he takes office on January 20, the nation will be watching to see which components of his energy initiative actually make it into legislation. And many states will be anxiously calculating how many new jobs these changes will bring to their struggling local economies.

Along with accelerating the production of plug-in hybrid vehicles and low-emission coal plants, some key elements of the proposed Obama-Biden green job investments may have a significant impact in the state of Iowa. With the state’s recent track record on clean energy research, development and manufacturing, Iowa may have a head start when it comes to utilizing any earmarked federal funds.

Wind farmOne component of the Obama-Biden plan is energy efficiency. (Remember his accurate, but much-criticized comment about tire pressure during the campaign?) In 2008, Iowa created the Green Iowa AmeriCorps, a separate unit of our state’s AmeriCorps dedicated to helping people conserve energy in their homes. Two leading energy suppliers, MidAmerican Energy and Alliant Energy, also offer free home energy audits to their customers throughout Iowa.

Another important step of the new administration’s plan is to accelerate the next generation of biofuels. Our state is currently first in ethanol production (providing 30 percent of the nation’s supply). We’re second in the production of biodiesel (providing 25 percent of the nation’s supply). However, these fuels aren’t perfect, so Iowa is also supporting the research and development of future biofuels, such as cellulosic ethanol, which uses corn fiber and cobs instead of the grain and would therefore have less effect on the price of corn.

Blowing in the Wind

While Iowa’s innovation in biofuels is certainly something to be proud of, Iowa’s commitment to wind power as a viable energy source may be where the real excitement is.

As Governor Chet Culver put it in his keynote address at the first-ever Iowa Wind Energy Association Conference in March of 2008, “We are truly beginning the process of making our entire state a laboratory, so we remain on the cutting edge in all forms of renewable energy,” said Governor Culver. “We hope to build the ‘Silicon Valley of the Midwest’ by developing the next generation of renewable energy and technology – and it starts here, with wind.”

Those traveling across the state over the holidays will likely noticed more and more wind turbines scattered along the interstate. They also may even see a massive 50-yard blade on the road next to them being hauled by a massive semi-truck. In fact, a few months ago one of these blades actually tipped off a trailer while the driver was negotiating the sharp I-80 on-ramp west of Iowa City, tying up traffic for hours.

It’s no surprise Iowa is currently third in the nation when it comes to wind power and one of only two states to manufacture all of the components of windmills (towers, turbines and blades). This manufacturing capacity has certainly helped us establish a reputation in the growing U.S. wind industry, which increased the country’s new wind capacity by 50 percent in 2008.

Obama hopes to promote commercial scale development of renewable energy by passing a 10 percent federal Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), which would require 10 percent of the electricity consumed in the United States be clean, renewable energy by 2012.

  • Iowa was the first state in the nation to establish a state-wide RPS back in 1990. Our RPS is currently at two percent, yet as much as 8.4 percent of the electricity consumed in Iowa is from renewable sources–well on the way to achieving the 10 percent goal of the new administration.
  • The state of Iowa is also supporting a project called the Iowa Stored Energy Park, a facility designed to store wind energy from a large wind farm and release it to power companies during peak power demands. A joint venture with Iowa municipal utilities and several nearby states. Current plans call for the facility to be up and running by 2011, making wind power in Iowa a more stable energy source.

Converting manufacturing centers into clean technology leaders is also an important aspect of Obama’s plan. Iowa has already begun the practice of refurbishing old manufacturing plants for the clean energy economy. In West Branch, Iowa, workers are building Acciona wind turbines in a former hydraulic pump factory. In Newton, TPI Composites is filling the void made when the Maytag plant closed. Now the town is turning out wind turbine blades to supply GE Energy.

Of the six companies currently investing in Iowa’s wind power industry, only three are U.S. companies, and a cursory glance at their websites shows that they are the smallest, youngest companies in the bunch. American innovation is not a fixture in the global history of wind power. Instead, it is dominated by countries such as Spain, Denmark and Germany. However, Iowa is reaching out and making alliances, gathering new technology, and making a case for being a national center for wind power in the years ahead.

Are Iowans crazy to be this optimistic in the midst of a stunning national recession? Yes, the recession is starting to hit Iowa. Iowa Workforce Development tells us that October 2008 brought our second consecutive month of job losses. And news of area layoffs at Rockwell Collins, Yellow Pages, Paetec, Buckle Down Publishing and even the Press Citizen seem to dominate the weekly headlines.

However, while experts tend to agree that the wind industry may face a slowdown in the next couple years, its long-term potential for growth remains strong. If Congress passes even half of the programs suggested in the Obama-Biden Energy Initiative, components like a federal RPS and a Wind Production Tax Credit seem likely to stabilize this industry and help create new jobs in Iowa.

Even the City of Iowa City is starting to factor in the wind industry. The City is in the process of annexing a tract of land southwest of town, formerly the Bonnie Prybil estate. Once annexed, the City plans to rezone the property for industrial use and extend utility infrastructure to the area.

What does this have to do with wind energy? While working to attract a manufacturing company to the site, the Iowa City Area Development Group (ICAD) has placed notices in wind energy trade publications. It’s still too early to speculate on possible offers, you have to applaud ICAD for their initiative in recognizing the site’s potential and communicating it to an exciting new audience.