Return to Nicholas Johnson's Main Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Coralville Rain Forest Web Site

Iowa's Winds Carry Potential for Economic Impact

Richard Doak

Des Moines Register

March 19, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

The March winds sweep across the prairie pothole region around Mason City at an average speed of almost 17 miles per hour.

It’s a windy city — windy enough to make it a paying proposition for some homeowners and businesses to put up turbines to generate part of their own electricity.

Roughly the northwest half of Iowa has similar potential. Perhaps Mason City can show the way for communities across the state to turn the potential into real wealth.

In February, Mason City adopted what is believed to be the first zoning ordinance in Iowa that allows small wind-energy systems to be erected in residential areas. The new ordinance also establishes rules that allow large, industrial-scale wind turbines, which were previously prohibited.

Tricia Sandahl, city planner and zoning administrator, spoke at a recent wind-energy conference in Des Moines and told how the Mason City ordinance came about.

When a local business owner asked permission in 2003 to erect a turbine on a 100-foot tower, residential neighbors expressed numerous concerns, and the City Council imposed a moratorium on tower construction.

Then, Sandahl said, a consultant working for two major industries approached the city about the possibility of erecting large turbines. The industries were looking at on-site generators as a way to reduce the amount of electricity they must purchase, hence cutting their energy costs.

That got people to thinking about harnessing Mason City’s abundant wind as a tool for economic development. If industries can be more competitive by locating where wind can cheaply supply part of their energy needs, Mason City would have an advantage over other locations.

The zoning ordinance was redrafted to permit large wind-conversion systems on towers up to 350 feet high, provided they’re on lots of 10 acres or more.

The ordinance also allows small systems, with towers up to 100 feet high, in residential areas. No one has applied for a backyard system yet, but Sandahl said she has received many inquiries, and she expects the business that made the original request in 2003 to be back with a new application soon.

Not that anyone expects towers to be popping up all over Mason City. The typical residential lot might not be suitable. The tower must be confined to the back yard, and there must be enough space that if the tower collapses it would fall entirely on its owner’s property.

Cost could be a barrier, too. The American Wind Energy Association estimates a typical small system costs about $40,000 and takes the better part of a decade to pay for itself.

Putting up a tower and turbine is not a decision to be made casually. That was made clear at the conference where Sandahl spoke. It was sponsored by Windustry, a Minnesota-based organization that fosters wind development. Panelists briefed attendees on a thicket of legal, regulatory and technical issues that prospective wind developers must cope with.

Still, the hassles of development should lessen as wind systems become more common.

The potential is mind-boggling. In theory, there is enough wind in Iowa to generate more than four times the amount of electricity Iowans use. Iowa is rated 10th among the states in wind-energy potential and is third in wind-generated electricity currently, behind only California and Texas.

Every dollar’s worth of electricity generated by the wind in Iowa is a dollar that stays in the state, instead of being spent to fire generators with Wyoming coal or Kansas natural gas.

Small turbines on farms, businesses and schools account for a small fraction of the wind generation in Iowa. Far more comes from giant wind farms supplying the major utility companies. Big wind farms are more efficient than the small units and will probably always produce the bulk of wind-generated electricity in Iowa.

Still, the small units will supplement the big wind farms, they’ll provide jobs in installation and maintenance, and increasingly should be a selling point in economic development, as in Mason City.

As the March winds howl, don’t think of them as an irritant. Think of them as opportunity blowing our way.