Iowa’s “Community Wind” Leads the Nation

Photo by Christopher Jones

Photo by Christopher Jones

Nearly a decade ago, Iowa farmer Randy Caviness had an epiphany. In the gas- and diesel-driven machinery that tilled his 4,000 acres of corn and soybeans, the propane tanks that flanked area farms, and the electricity that powered his entire property, he saw vast energy consumption. It was a way of life, replicated on farms throughout the region.

Kim Eckart

Kim Eckart is an associate editor for YES! Magazine.

But what if, Caviness thought as the wind rippled over his rolling fields, he turned to a never-ending resource?

What if he and his neighbors harnessed the wind?

“With wind, you don’t buy any fuel, the resource never stops, the price doesn’t go up. There’s not going to be a strike or a shortage,” he explains. So a project to fund a wind turbine was born.

Since then, Caviness, his neighbors, and other local investors have installed nine wind turbines around their southwest Iowa county, with a total of 15 megawatts generating capacity. Theirs is one of at least 60 community wind projects around the state, which combined with dozens of commercial projects run by large utilities, make Iowa the national leader in the percentage of electricity generated from wind. Nationwide, about 4 percent of electricity is generated from wind—a fraction of what Iowa generates.

The state is typically considered conservative, but Iowa’s rise to the top in wind energy is a story of bipartisan cooperation, of a broad effort among industry, lawmakers, farmers, and environmentalists to embrace the potential of a renewable resource. It’s a story that ends where it begins: with the people.

In the early 1980s, electricity rates were increasing. The Midwest struggled with the Farm Crisis, when rising debts forced farmers to give up their land, and small towns withered. Iowa legislators cast about for an economic bone to throw consumers. With no significant oil or natural-gas interests to stand in the way, Democrats and Republicans alike settled on a law that would require the state’s two biggest utilities to buy or contract some of their power from renewable energy.

The argument was about the economy, points out David Osterberg, an associate clinical professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa, which made it easier to bring everyone to the table, including the powerful Iowa Farm Bureau.

“Any time you can say something is good for the farmer, you have a good chance of it passing,” he adds.

But some renewable-energy plans struggled to gain traction. Solar never took off, and hydro projects proved difficult to execute. And so Iowa, one of the windiest states in the country, where windmills are part of its heritage, cultivated an industry. Over time, utility giants such as MidAmerican Energy jumped in the game, as did municipalities, schools, and farms. Today, Iowa has more than 3,400 wind turbines, generating 5,710 megawatts—28 percent of the state’s total electricity generation, the equivalent of 1.5 million homes powered by wind. Community colleges have created wind-technology programs. Wind-technology manufacturers and suppliers have opened plants.

Tom Wind, a central Iowa farmer, longtime wind-industry consultant, and investor in two community wind projects, credits a receptive public—and resource abundance—with the renewable’s success. “We can use this to benefit the world, to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and to be more energy-independent. It all works together.”

Kim Eckart

Kim Eckart is an associate editor for YES! Magazine.