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Wind power gets a boost from government. But it faces challenges from landowners

Wind turbines have become a common site throughout rural Iowa like this wind farm along Interstate 80 in Adair County, Iowa.
Clay Masters
Wind turbines have become a common site throughout rural Iowa like this wind farm along Interstate 80 in Adair County, Iowa.

Updated August 17, 2022 at 6:41 AM ET

SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Large wind turbines have become a common sight in middle America – from Texas up through the Dakotas – but wind power accounts for less than 10% of the nation's electricity generation.

Now, the Inflation Reduction Act that President Biden signed Tuesday extends a tax credit for wind energy production through 2025. That's a welcome move for the wind energy industry because since the 1990s, extending that tax credit has only been temporary leading to major ramp-ups in production followed by abrupt halts. Industry leaders now feel like they can plan long-term.

Wind turbines use large blades to collect the wind's kinetic energy, according to the U.S Energy Information Administration. The large blades are connected to a drive shaft that turns an electric generation and produces energy.

The industry faces new hurdles in ramping up production and Iowa provides a glimpse into the challenges ahead.

It's not unusual to drive in Iowa and suddenly be surrounded by dozens of massive wind turbines twirling in the wind on either side of the interstate. At night, flashing red lights flicker from atop the turbines to alert airplanes and light up the sky. Utility company MidAmerican Energy has plans to build dozens in northwest Iowa's Woodbury County. Some landowners there – like farmer Daniel Hair - showed up at a Board of Supervisors meeting there last week and they weren't happy.

Hornick, Iowa — Daniel Hair speaks at a Woodbury County, Iowa Board of Supervisors meeting on August 9, 2022. He was there along with other landowners asking the supervisors to increase the distance between turbines in the county
/ Clay Masters
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Clay Masters
Hornick, Iowa — Daniel Hair speaks at a Woodbury County, Iowa Board of Supervisors meeting on August 9, 2022. He was there along with other landowners asking the supervisors to increase the distance between turbines in the county

Some landowners don't want wind turbines on their landscape

"I think maybe there's a time and a place for wind but it's not here in this county where all these people live," Hair told NPR after the meeting. "My argument to them is it's not meant to be here in Woodbury county, build elsewhere."

Landowners complained they didn't want the towers on their landscape because all those turbines would alter the way their natural land looks. They were concerned that the flashing lights would keep them up at night and that the money the local county would bring in wasn't worth it. NPR reported earlier this year that there is also a lot of misinformation about health effects of wind turbines that is derailing projects throughout the country.

The supervisors are considering amending an ordinance that would increase the distance between towers from 1,250 feet to 2500 feet. A representative from MidAmerican told the board that wind energy is not experimental and has a long track record of success in Iowa. They say the longer distance would severely hinder the wind farm because it means neighbors could dictate prohibit these large clusters of wind turbines.

"A 2,500 foot setback would allow someone a half mile away to prohibit what a landlord owner can use their property for," MidAmerican's Adam Jablonski told the board.

Heather Zichal with the American Clean Power Association says the pros of wind energy outweigh any cons.

Iowa can be a model for the country because 60% of its electricity comes from wind power"

"Wind is a free resource," Zichal says. "It is not subject to the whims of what's happening in Ukraine, or the global commodities, prices for natural gas, farmers and communities are benefiting from the taxes and fees paid to landowners and state and local governments."

Zichal says Iowa can be a model for the rest of the country because a whopping 60% of the state's electricity comes from wind power and it garners bipartisan support. For example, Iowa's Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, who's up for re-election this year and voted against the Inflation Reduction Act, is seen as the father of the wind production tax credit. Zichal thinks other states can follow in the Hawkeye state's footsteps.

"I'm confident that we're going to see states across the country replicating and trying to take over the leadership position that Iowa established," Zichal says.

MidAmerican pointed out property owners in Woodbury County would receive between $76 and $96 million over 40 years of the project through payments to farmers and taxes collected by the county.

While some people in this part of the state are resisting plans to expand wind power, others have had turbines on their land for years. Like David Johnson who has four turbines on his farm near the Minnesota border on the other side of the state.

"Oh my gosh, you cannot believe the positive cash flows that that creates," Johnson says. "And minimal impact."

Environmental scientists hope this investment in clean energy will help deter impacts of climate change

Johnson says the regular payments from the turbines allowed his adult son to come back and work on the farm. The industry and environmental groups are banking on landowners like Johnson to allow new turbines.

But there's another challenge across the country. Increasing the storage and transmission lines to pump that energy throughout the country. Kerri Johannsen is with the nonprofit Iowa Environmental Council. She says a new set of transmission lines went up this summer in the Midwest.

"That will greatly enhance the ability of all the states in the region to increase adoption of renewable energy and then to share those renewable energy resources across state lines. If the wind is blowing in western Iowa maybe it's not blowing in western Michigan. There's the ability for Iowa, then to benefit from selling that wind when we have access into Michigan. And then vice versa."

Wherever the wind is blowing, environmental scientists hope this historic investment in clean energy will help steer the country away from the worst impacts of climate change. And that more landowners remain open for these turbines to fill the countryside and provide clean energy.

Copyright 2022 Iowa Public Radio

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Clay Masters
Clay Masters is a reporter for Iowa Public Radio and formerly for Harvest Public Media. His stories have appeared on NPR