By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

When the boys and girls of Spirit Lake, Iowa, loaded their backpacks for classes this fall, each child in grades 5 to 12 packed a lap top computer provided by the school district.

This bit of good fortune was funded by a special initiative. But it was not the first time Spirit Lake stepped up to embrace new technology. In 1993 – back when “renewable energy” was not widely discussed — it became the first school district in the nation to install a wind turbine, a move that has saved the district some $200,000 in energy costs.

When that pokey Wind World 250 KW turbine, financed by the state and a federal grant, was paid off, Spirit Lake put up another turbine, this one a hefty 750 KW NEGMicon, in 2001.

“We couldn’t get the second one up fast enough,” says Jim Tirevold, director of operations for the 1,200 student district. In 2011, Spirit Lake will pay off that turbine and enjoy an anticipated windfall of about $140,000 in annual energy savings.

“That could fund two to three teachers, and when times are bad like they’ve been, that will be a big positive for the school that we’ll be able to do that,” Tirevold said. “Our foresight is going to help us in the long run.”

Wind turbines near Adair, Iowa (Photo: Iowa Department of Economic Development)

The story of Spirit Lake parallels that of wind power in Iowa, where there appears to be an abundance of both breezes and foresight. The Hawkeye state now leads the nation in the percentage of wind power it produces.

More than 17 percent of the electricity generated in Iowa comes from wind power, according to the Iowa Office of Energy Independence. (American Wind Energy Association statistics from 2009 put the figure at 14 percent). And the state ranks second (after Texas) in total wind generation with 3,670 Megawatts of installed capacity via 2,534 turbines across the state.

In addition to the wind farms rising above the corn fields, Iowa has been attracting the manufacturing facilities necessary to make wind a self-sustaining American enterprise, with nine international companies starting factories in Iowa.

Iowa, which ranks 9th among states for the strength of its winds, has inched ahead of others with stronger winds because it is geographically well positioned and has been aggressively cultivating this new clean technology, according to Iowa advocates.

The state’s lead position in the wind game has been a triumph of political will and coordination, says P. Barry Butler, chairman of and dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Iowa.

Iowa put policies in place that encouraged wind. It sweetened the deal with financial incentives, and added educational programs to attract wind pioneers.

What climate change controversy?

Unlike states where wind power was being debated or ignored, Iowa assembled a web of support that extended from community colleges with new courses for wind technicians (Iowa offered the first two-year program in the nation) all the way up to the Capitol in Des Moines, where Gov. Tom Vilsack (now U.S. Agriculture Secretary) and later Gov. Chet Culver could be counted on to back wind endeavors.

Iowa Gov. Chet Culver

Gov. Culver has emerged as a vocal proponent for wind. As head of the Governors’s Wind Energy Coalition, he’s argued for more federal tax support to develop what he sees as the path to national energy independence. He’s openly frustration that clean energy supports have “gotten hung up in the climate debate,” and insistent that Congress pass measures to push the technology forward.

“We need to tap every state’s potential,” Culver urged at the national WIND2010 conference in Dallas in May, where he joked that Iowa was “coming after” Texas for the Number 1 position in wind production.

It could happen. Iowa’s long-term unofficial goal is to extend the state’s production of windpower to 10 Gigwatts by 2020 — which a study by Navigant Consulting determined could bring Iowa “cumulative economic benefits of $3.2 billion.”

Back in DesMoines, Culver, the son of former Sen. John Culver, often turns up at local industry events “to chat up Iowa,” says Butler. To constituents, he touts the jobs the industry sustains. Jobs related to wind production employ more than 5,000 Iowans and wind manufacturing provides another 2,300 jobs, with commitments for more.

The state has leveraged this boost to the economy with considerable investment.

Iowa has put up millions in rebates, grants, loans and property tax reductions to lure wind operations, with funding coming from its $500 million “Iowa Values Fund” and another $100 million research and development fund.

ACCIONA found the welcome mat was out in Iowa. (Photo: Acciona)

Wind companies have noticed. Joe Baker, CEO of ACCIONA Windpower North America, said the company found it easy to locate a wind turbine manufacturing plant in West Branch, Iowa because it felt the state supported the industry at all levels of government, provided a skilled workforce with access to training programs as well as good universities and technical schools. The central location of Iowa and its location near “great wind resources” also were key factors, he said. As a bonus, ACCIONA was able to retrofit an abandoned plant in the eastern Iowa community, hewing to its goal of building sustainably.

Culver’s got a growing legion of community cheerleaders at his back.  State lawmakers, community and economic development leaders and even college presidents have been working together to show the wind industry that Iowa’s committed to developing its natural resource, Butler said.

“The state being as small as it is, these relationships develop pretty quickly. And on the wind side of it, we know each other. People see that (as they travel) around the state,” said Butler, who also serves in the board for the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) in Washington.

Regular Iowans have been positive, or at least unruffled, by the growth of wind. Community wind operations have blossomed in towns and nine other Iowa school districts that have followed Spirit Lake’s example.

“Iowans are very accepting of wind,” said Elizabeth Conley, project manager for wind with the Iowa Department of Economic Development. They see it both as environmentally friendly and economically advantageous. If they had wanted to stop the development they were uniquely well positioned to, she added, because permitting for wind turbines is handled at the county level.

As the industry moved in with big commercial wind farms, largely into the north-central and western regions where the prairie winds are strongest, farmers found that a wind lease brought extra cash and that towering industrial turbines didn’t claim too much crop land.

Hundreds of farmers signed land leases and now share in the $11 million in annual lease payments that come into Iowa. Other farmers, like corn and soybean grower David Ausberger, formed cooperatives with their neighbors and equity investor partners, so they could host their own turbines. In both scenarios, farmers discovered they could “farm right up to the base of the tower,” Ausberger said.

He remembers when his Suzlon turbine was installed three years ago, it drew interest like an old-time barn raising.  “It was a big deal for our community…Mine was the first to go up and on that gravel road, the cars were just lined up with people out there with their cameras and binoculars,” recalls Ausberger, 44, who returned to the family farm outside Jefferson after working in sports communications with the Olympics.

Iowa, it seems, offers the right mix of open land for turbines combined with population centers that need energy.

Even though the state is chockablock with farms, it also is well populated with many small and medium-sized cities, such from Davenport to Dubuque, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, DesMoines, Sioux City and Council Bluffs. And it lies just west of Chicago, a major electricity market.