DG 5 Transcript - Tom Wind on Iowa’s Wind Industry
Tom Wind: With a name like mine, you’d think I’d be eternally biased toward wind power, but really I’m not. I’m a power engineer and I’ve worked in coal–fired power plants. I’ve seen nuclear power. I’ve seen every type of power plant. I love all power plants. I just think wind is kind of the nicest and best on the environment right now. Our big challenge I see is climate change.
Of all the types of power plants, wind power is probably the most effective at addressing the climate change issue. It generates a lot of kilowatt hours for probably the lowest cost right now and I just see this as a great tool for helping our electric power industry manage this problem.
But I think solar is going to be the up-and-comer because you can put it anywhere. You don’t have to find a windy hill to put a solar panel on. You can put it all throughout the United States. I think solar and wind power together are a wonderful combination. It will allow us to slowly wean our electric system off of fossil fuels, which is, I think is imperative.
Voiceover: Welcome to the Dream Green series with co–host Stuart Tanner and James Moore on solar-powered KRUU–FM. Iowans creating a greener tomorrow today; a journey of discovery across the state, featuring innovators, cutting–edge projects and communities leading the way to an energy–independent and sustainable future. Visit our website at greeniowa.org.
James Moore: And we are on the road again. This is James Moore with Stuart Tanner in our continuing saga of discovery across this great State of Iowa for the Dream Green series. We’ve been having a lot of fun talking to some really great people and we’re going to continue to do that.
Today we are on our way to a place that, well, this is an interesting one–we’re going to Jamaica, mon. Yah, we’re going to Jamaica. We’re going to see a man called Wind who’s going to talk to us about wind. Go figure. It’s almost like something you’ve made up. Joining me on this journey, my co-host, Stuart Tanner. How are you doing today, Mr. Tanner?
Stuart Tanner: I’m doing fine. Did you say about the weather? We always talk about the weather. I don’t know, did you?
JM: I actually haven’t because it sounds like a broken record with the mist out there, but go ahead.
ST: It’s raining. But that doesn’t stop the wind blowing. So we’re actually going to wind country. Not oil country, but wind country because I was looking at the maps the other day for the amount of wind there is in Iowa. And one of the reasons why the turbines and wind farms are up this way more is because towards the north of the state the wind is stronger and more consistent. So that’s the way that we’re blowing today.
JM: And here we are pulling up to the Tom and Sue Wind residence; a beautiful house here off the gravel road. We just missed our GPS lady saying, “You have arrived at your destination.” Here we are. And so our adventure continues.
ST: Yeah, if you look at over the fields, you can see all the soya plants and the corn bending in the breeze, so clearly it’s a windy area that Tom and Sue Wind live in with wind turbines just down the road. So it’s going to feature a lot of wind in this program.
JM: Thank God for the wind. We’ll be back in just a moment.
TW: Tom Wind.
ST: Stuart. Stuart.
TW: How are you?
JM: Tom Wind.
JM: I’m James Moore. Nice to see you.
TW: Yes, I’m Tom Wind. Nice to meet you, James.
JM: We’re doing a live as–we–travel kind of series here. So we’re just getting our bearings, but certainly a windy day. How are you doing today?
TW: Just very good. Beautiful, cool weather out here. Maybe the sun’ll shine today.
JM: And this is James Moore. We are inside the Wind house. Tom Wind does wind consulting, kind of a one–stop shop. He’ll explain what he does and what he’s done and for how long he’s done it. He’s been involved in this area since the ‘90s and we are really delighted to have the opportunity to speak with him about such an important component of Iowa’s energy makeup. And as often our tradition, I’ll turn it over to my good Welsh–Brit, Stuart Tanner, to jump in. How are you doing, Stuart?
ST: I should talk with a Welsh accent then, is it?
JM: It would be good.
ST: Instead of a British one. No, um, today, yeah, great to have a chance to talk to you, Tom. So I think first place to start is really to have a description of what you do, your specialization. We know you’re a wind consultant. What does that involve?
TW: Well, I’m a consulting engineer and an electric power engineer and I used to work for Electric Utility in Southern Island in Centerville for about 15 years and then went out on my own back to the family farm, in fact, to farm for awhile. And then, also, I started consulting on the side dealing with typically small electric utilities like city–owned utilities, cooperatives.
And then one of my clients, Waverly Light and Power, decided to put up a wind turbine and they said with a name like mine, I need to get involved in this area. So I took them up on that offer and I just started studying about wind power and going to conferences and seminars. Did my first wind project in 1994, was a study. It was feasible for a group of towns to put up a wind farm and obtain part of their power from that. So that’s what started my career in wind power. And since that time I’ve worked on numerous projects involving cities like Fairfield, for example, wanting to put up a wind turbine, rural electric cooperatives, farmers, community members, schools, colleges. And then I do some consulting outside of that area but generally it’s in the area of wind power. So I’ve been doing wind power since about 1994 and that primarily composes most of my work.
JM: I just wanted to ask one thing. Wind–what nationality is that?
TW: Well, it’s a German name and I think it’s pronounced Vin rather than Wind, but most people don’t know that and I get this–asked this question all the time, “Did I change my last name?” And so I, you know, I didn’t but I’d say, “Well, it used to be Tom Waters and use to work on hydroelectric project but they all dried up and so I changed my name.” So–but that’s not the case.
ST: Excellent. So maybe we could have your opinion in terms of an overview of wind energy in Iowa. Seems to be that it’s a good place for it. It’s really taken off in the state. It’s had state support. Where would you say we are and what are the key features and where we’re going in the future?
TW: Well, Iowa is in a unique spot, geographically and demographically, that makes wind power a good deal. And the reason I say that is because there are a lot windier spots than Iowa. For example, if you go to the western states–Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska–it’s windier out there. Wind turbines produce lower cost power but there is not as many people out there and they don’t need as much electricity. And it’s harder to incorporate a large amount of wind power when they just don’t use as much power.
But the State of Iowa has a good combination of population–we have over 3 million people, which means that we use quite a little bit of electricity–and we’re also closer to the larger population centers to the east of us. That would be Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis, where a lot of electricity is used. So Iowa is just in a good spot where it’s windy enough and there’s enough electricity used here and there’s enough electricity used to the east of us that is easy to integrate a large amount of wind power into the grid without causing problems. So that’s probably the key feature that makes Iowa one of the leaders.
A second factor is that Iowa does not have a fossil fuel industry. We don’t have any coal to speak of or oil or natural gas. And some of the states to the west of us had those industries. And as a result, they were a little bit more reluctant to do renewable resources, for whatever reason. It could be the jobs weren’t there. The fossil fuel industries felt a little threatened by it. But Iowa did not have that situation. So it was easier for our policy makers to adopt and to incorporate renewable energy policies which they did at a very early stage. Iowa was the first state to have a requirement for renewable energy.
JM: What I’ve heard is that per capita, Iowa produces the most wind. I know Texas produces more, but of course they are a much bigger state. So I’m just wondering, give us a little breakdown on that.
TW: Some days when it’s windy and there’s not a lot of electrical use like mild weather, maybe on a weekend, I would guess that Iowa would get over, well over 50%, perhaps 60% of its electricity from wind power. But on an average day throughout the course of the year it’s going to be over 20% after all the wind turbines that get added this year which is a record for the United States.
ST: That’s pretty impressive. It’s amazing to be able to say that on some days, windy days obviously, that the energy consumption in Iowa is 50% wind. I think that’s a pretty staggering number actually. Really, it’s quite something and very heartening. And clearly going into the future it looks as though these numbers are going to be increasing.
I just wanted to focus in on this idea of putting electricity from wind turbines into the grid. So how does it work, in the sense, that you say you’re putting up a wind farm then really is there potential that you’re selling on the energy and then it goes into the grid and then that actually might go to a state next door or how does it work?
TW: We’ve had this grid here in place and this grid has been able – capable to export roughly 2,000 megawatts out of the state of Iowa. And our total electricity usage in the state of Iowa is I believe it’s about 8,000 to 9,000 megawatts on a summer peak day like 9,000 megawatts. And our generating capacity is, I believe, is something 13,000 megawatts right now with all the wind power we have. So we can move about 2,000 megawatts out of the state.
Now, when all the wind turbines are added, the wind turbines are added – they were added to the existing grid. We have not really expanded the grid in the state of Iowa to accommodate the wind generation. We’ve just taken advantage of where the grid was and used up its remaining capacity.
So, as you can see in the map there, most of the wind turbines are added in Northern Iowa and Northwestern Iowa and now some along the western edge of Iowa. And most of those areas now, the grid is pretty much full. Now when it’s a windy day you can’t get hardly anymore power on that grid. The transmission engineers have done a really good job of maximizing use of that grid.
So on a windy day, when we have all this extra power, for example, 50% of the power from the states coming from wind turbines, that power goes into the grid and it just goes wherever it is needed. It kind of, in a sense, follows the path of least resistance. Sometimes, that power goes north into Minnesota. A lot of times it goes east. Sometimes it spills over into Illinois. Sometimes it goes south into Missouri. It just depends upon where the power plants are running that day, what utilities are selling power, which way. And so it’s kind of a complicated affair. And it is a very well coordinated plan and, in fact, Iowa is part of a much larger region that shares power and plans and is part of the Midwest Independent System Operator, or MISO.
And so when we integrate our 3,700 megawatts into the state of Iowa, it’s really becoming a part of a much larger grid that has about 100,000 megawatts of load. So even though Iowa is let’s say about 10,000 megawatts of load is part of a much bigger area. So integrating that wind is a little bit easier since we’re connected to the other grids in the surrounding states, and so it’s a little bit easier to integrate it.
ST: So, that excess energy that’s going elsewhere, is that sold therefore outside the state? Is that bringing revenue to the state?
TW: Well, that’s a good question and it depends. I know some wind power is contracted to go outside of state. There have been some contracts to the major utility selling wind power to the east primarily. And then, also, Alliant Energy which serves in the state of Iowa and has a lot of–buys a lot of wind power, some of that wind power is for the state of Wisconsin, they serve in the State of Wisconsin. And Wisconsin has a requirement for renewable power. And so, some of that ends up going to Wisconsin, one way or another. So, some of it is sold.
And so [at] any one time power may be flowing to the east or to the south or to the north, and what does that mean when power flows one way or another? Well, whatever power plants running in the state of Iowa, whether it would be wind turbines or coal–fired energy, part of that power goes north, south or east or west. So on any one day most of the wind power is used in the state of Iowa but it could be flowing outside of the state. If it is, then it’s being sold to people in other states.
JM: Well, I’m so excited to learn about wind. And I want to remind listeners we are visiting with Tom Wind–no relation to Wind as it turns out–actually, it’s his family name. But this is James Moore with Stuart Tanner, part of the Dream Green series and you can also check out our journey to discover all the great green sustainable energy efficiency things happening around the state at greeniowa.org. You’re welcome to come there, blogs, pictures and much more.
Tom, I want to break it down one step, a little more simply. I look around the office here of your beautiful home. I see little wind models, wind turbines here and there. I want to just understand. It’s obvious, the turbine turns around, just give us a little bit of 101 on how the electricity, you know, how that works. Is there a standard sort of wind turbine? A hundred feet? 50 foot? Just give us a little bit of the rundown, or the lowdown, on the basics of wind.
TW: Well, wind power today is composed primarily of big wind turbines. Big, I mean, wind turbines where the nacelle, or where the generator pod is, it’s up about 260 feet in the air. And very large blades. The typical blade today on a wind turbine going up today is about 40 meters long –125, 130 feet or longer. That’s the size that we’re putting up in the air.
So the wind industry, primarily is composed of the big wind turbines. And they’re big because it’s more cost-efficient to put larger wind turbines up than it is a smaller wind turbine. When the wind power industry really started in Iowa with the large wind farms, the wind turbines were 3/4 of 1 megawatt in size. Since that time, the average sized wind turbine now is closer to 2 megawatts in size, or 2,000 kilowatts. 2 megawatts, you know, is about three times as big as the first ones.
Well, it turns out it takes about the same amount of labor and effort to maintain a larger wind turbine as it does a smaller wind turbine. And a larger wind turbine is higher in the air and the higher you go up above ground the windier it is. So as the turbines get bigger and bigger, they get higher and higher, taller and taller, and they catch more wind which makes them more efficient.
So the wind industry today is composed primarily of big turbines and which are getting bigger every year. And that’s because that’s the most cost-effective way to generate electricity.
JM: Oh, great. Now, I want to follow that up with just another one of those practical questions on how much does this cost, Mr. Wind, and give us a breakdown on the cost if you would of purchase but also of obviously putting these in the ground. It has to be quite an operation in themselves. So a little bit of an understanding of that.
TW: Well, yes, as the wind turbines get bigger, their cost, of course, goes up, too. And the rule of thumb is that it’s about $2 million per 1 megawatt. So if you have a 2 megawatt wind turbine, it’s about $4 million, total installed cost, including the erection of the turbine, the foundation, connecting it up to the grid. And it sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but a large wind turbine on a windy spot in Iowa can generate over 6 million kilowatt hours a year, maybe 7 million kilowatt hours a year which is enough for at least 400 or 500 homes. So it all works out in the end even though wind turbines are very expensive, the cost per kilowatt hour tends to come down over time as the wind turbines get larger.
You asked me earlier about the payback of wind power. I think one way to look at that is what we call a simple payback. The projects that I’ve been working on are typically around 15–year payback. Often times, money is borrowed over a term of 15 years and so your debt is typically paid off in 15 years and that’s kind of a benchmark of how long it takes to get it paid off.
ST: How does it stand as compared to other forms of energy? One, so if you’ve built that turbine, when do you get your money back? When do you start making a profit? How long does it take? And also, what is the cost of the wind energy compared to say coal or solar? Is it becoming much cheaper or is it becoming much more competitive in the market?
TW: Well, those are–those are good questions and there’s a lot of public debate and policy debates about that. For example, today, if you have on the grid the price of wholesale power is typically 3 to 5 cents a kilowatt hour today, a new wind turbine without any subsidies of any sort would probably be around 8 or 9 cents a kilowatt hour. But we have federal tax subsidies that bring the price down to typically today, a new wind farm in Iowa would be less than 5 cents a kilowatt hour, it’d be 4 to 5 cents a kilowatt hour. With an unsubsidized cost of let’s say about 8 cents a kilowatt hour, the subsidy represents quite a discount there.
And so that begs the question, “Well, is it really worth it to do this if it takes some federal subsidy?” And so that gets into the question of, “Well, what does it cost to build a new coal–fired power plant?” You know, we’ve got a lot of coal in the United States We’re very good at getting it out of the ground at an economical price. We’ve got [a] great railroad system to bring the coal to the power plants. But it costs money to clean up the coal after you burn it. There’s all types of impurities in coal and then you have the carbon dioxide that's emitted by coal, too.
So it gets into a discussion of, "Well, how much does it cost to clean this up and then the carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gases that come out of the coal plant?" There’s some value, there’s some cost, to the environment for those emissions. Those have not been quantified or they have not been–price has not been put on those in the United States yet. But most everybody realizes that the cost is there.
So, new coal-fired power plant is typically a minimum of 8 cents to 9 cents a kilowatt hour today. And that's typically what you see as a minimum cost and then I've seen costs of around 10, 11, 12 cents a kilowatt hour if you figured in the environmental cost also.
So wind power, in a sense, is economical with new fossil fuel energy plants today. Natural gas right now because there have been so many discoveries of it, the price of natural gas is lower. And so, natural gas–fired power plants are cost competitive right now. That's kind of good because a natural gas-fired power plant works really well with wind power because a gas–fired power plant can be started up fairly quickly, it can be shut down quickly, very easily. Whereas the coal-fired power plant is a much bigger plant, a lot of equipment in there and it's a little bit more difficult to move them up and down in power output and then they turn them off. It's really expensive to turn them off and turn them on.
So, it's working out now that as wind power prices have been coming down overtime and as fossil fuel prices have gone up and the cost of environmental regulation has gone up that it turns out that wind power is finding a sweet spot and everybody is starting to recognize, "Well, this wind power, really, we can incorporate it and the challenge is how much can we incorporate? How many wind turbines can we put on the system before they start causing problems because they're not always on the line, or their output goes up and down during the day." And that becomes the challenge. But our engineers that work for the utilities are figuring out ways to incorporate more and more wind power.
ST: One of the things I wanted to ask you is, obviously, your expertise area primarily is in wind. And there's probably some Tom Sun out there somewhere, a solar guy, and we're going to be talking to them. You're in the wind area and you look at solar and you think, "Yeah, it's kind of okay," and you look at biomass and you think, "Well, yeah, there's something with that." But, really, wind is where it's at. Or do you think they're all good in an equal kind of way or what's your feeling about that?
TW: Well, that's an interesting question. With a name like mine, you think I'd be eternally biased toward wind power. But, really, I'm not. I'm a power engineer and I've worked in coal–fired power plants. I've seen nuclear power. I've seen every type of power plant. I love all power plants. I just think wind is kind of the nicest and best on environment right now. Our big challenge I see is climate change.
Of all the types of power plants, wind power is probably the most effective at addressing the climate change issue that generates a lot of kilowatt hours for probably the lowest cost right now. And I just see this is a great tool for helping our electric power industry manage this problem.
But I think solar is going to be the up-and-comer because you can put it anywhere. You don't have to find a windy hill to put a solar panel on. You can put it all throughout the United States. I think solar and wind power together are a wonderful combination that will allow us to slowly wean our electric system off of fossil fuels, which is I think is imperative.
JM: Great. I just wonder about 2500 large wind turbines in Iowa, a couple of questions come to mind. I usually ask two at once, which is very much a no–no. I teach my radio broadcast class not to do that.
But one is, are there applications for businesses? We're seeing smaller, what seems to be smaller turbines sprouting out here and there. What's your thought on that? And then if you could address the issue of insurance, I mean, that's kind of one of the areas I think I've spoken with someone in our area they just put two wind turbines. It's a big cost.
When we talk about subsidies from the government, energy has always been supported one way or the other. Some have said if the same amount of support was put toward solar or toward wind that has been put toward the oil and fossil fuel industry, that we'd see really quite a parity. This has been informative to learn how much it does cost and how cost effective it is.
But could you address, if you remember the questions that I buried in this long comment. One is just about applications for businesses not in the wind farm zone and then also just about the insurance issue.
TW: Well, I thought I counted three questions in there because the last one was about subsidies, too. But business applications, in general, if you recall I said, "The larger the wind turbine, the lower the cost per kilowatt hour, the more cost effective it was. And so, that's why you see so much investment in the larger wind turbines. The 2500 turbines in the state of Iowa cost probably close to $7 billion, a total of $7 billion dollars.
I do feasibility studies for businesses and schools and colleges, and there are a lot of businesses like that that would like to put up a wind turbine because they think it's the right thing to do, they think they can save some money on their power bill. But it's a lot more difficult to make the economics work for a single wind turbine for a business or industry.
Oftentimes, the business or school or college is not in the windiest spot. Sometimes they're in the middle of town or sometimes they're in a river valley. Lots of towns are in river valleys, and the school maybe down there, too. So, because in the river valley, it's lower elevation and the wind is not as windy. So, it's not as windy usually where most businesses are. So, that hurts the economics.
And secondly, is most businesses cannot use all of the power from a great big 2 megawatt wind turbine. They can use the power for maybe a half a megawatt or a quarter of a megawatt wind turbine. And those wind turbines, the power coming out of those, costs probably twice as much per kilowatt hour as it does out of a large wind turbine. So, it cost more per kilowatt hour for that.
Insurance cost was your second question. And insurance cost for large wind turbines is a factor, for example, a large wind turbine insurance cost is going to be $10,000 to $15,000 per year. That insurance policy only covers catastrophic damages, damages caused by nature, things like it. It doesn't pay for the wear and tear, the normal wear and tear of a wind turbine. And that's a much larger cost, is maintaining that wind turbine, keeping it going, if it's got a gear box in there, gears wear out. All of those factors are very expensive to maintain overtime.
But for a very small wind turbine like what a homeowner would put up, like a 1 or 2 kilowatt wind turbine costing maybe $10,000 to $20,000 to $40,000, the insurance is a big factor there because the utilities will require you to have extra insurance on there, and that insurance may cost $100, $200, $300 a year, which can be a significant part of the energy savings. So it's a bigger factor for the smaller wind turbines.
JM: A big issue with wind is how to store when there's extra energy. We know there's some talk about compressed air and different types of things. I wonder if we could just get a quick pulse on any of your thoughts in that area.
TW: Some days, when you pass a wind farm, the wind turbines aren't turning. And some days it's cloudy and your solar collectors aren't putting out much power. That is the main challenge. But it's not a challenge yet today.
The reason you don't see a lot of large energy storage facilities is that you don't really need them yet today. As we've talked about, our grid is all interconnected. We're a part of the Midwest ISO here, which is 100,000 megawatts, which is about eight states connected all together. And when the wind is blowing strong in Iowa, it may not be blowing very strong in Illinois where those wind farms are, or Indiana where those wind farms are.
So, by connecting all this together, so that we can kind of average the use of these renewable resources, for example, if the sun is shining here, it may not be shining in Indiana, so the power tends to go that way. It all kind of works out.
And it allows us to put a lot more wind energy or solar energy into our particular area because the excess can go to the other areas. So, incorporating energy storage will be important and we will need it. And there's a lot of research going on it. And like Pat Higby mentioned, Iowa Stored Energy Park Pro3ject is a great step toward that." But it's not necessary yet. We're going to have to get to the penetration levels of 30, 40, 50% of our electricity coming from renewables before we're going to be able to say that, "Hey, it’s time to do this energy storage."
That’ll give us some time to research, to get the technology, better because energy storage is an expensive thing. But I'm confident that with all the effort that we put into it, that we're going to find a way to store this, which will allow us to use a lot more than 50% of our electricity from renewables in the long term.
ST: What about research and manufacturing? Is Iowa out there as a leader, in the development of the technology, in the manufacturing processes and the research as well?
TW: Iowa is one of the leaders when it comes to manufacturing wind turbines. We have I think, I believe, it's seven big facilities that either manufacturer blades or assembled comp and nacelles or build towers. But when it comes to the design and the original engineering, Iowa is not a leader. It's behind the curve.
And other states, Massachusetts, for example, believe it or not, even though they don't have many resources, they've been a leader for many years in the technolog. Really, the United States is not really where the best technology and the best engineering is, it's overseas in Europe because the modern wind industry really started in Denmark and Germany. And so, there's a lot of talent over there.
The next big player is going to be China. I think China is going to surpass the United States in the use of renewable energy. Unfortunately, Iowa is not. But it's surprising that you mentioned that. There's going to be the first of its kind conference between the American Wind Energy Association and the universities. It’s going to be in Iowa City. And it’s to focus on this issue, is that we need to produce more engineers that work in wind power and to solve those technical issues. We need to be better at this and try to be leaders in this area. And we have some catch up to do, but I think that we're going to be headed that way and that will help.
ST: Just on that, people have been calling out for quite some time for a switch in priorities and investment in the green technologies and renewable energy. Do you think America dropped the ball there in terms of not getting into this earlier and therefore, in some ways, paying the cost a little bit?
TW: Well, that's an interesting question because even though Denmark and Germany, I said, were leaders in the technology, the market first started in Californa. It was California and their very progressive vision of reducing their fossil fuel usage that started the market. And you remember out in – near Palm Springs and out – near the Mojave Desert at Tehachapi, I believe, east of Sacramento, the large wind farms were developed in. All types of experimentation was done on wind generation there, and a lot of American companies started there, too.
But we dropped the ball after that. The rest of the states did not do what California did. California started the market and it started the market for the whole entire world. But we've been so blessed with abundant fossil fuels that we have not had to do this. We've not seen the imperative to move to a renewable energy future because it was so cheap. So cheap, so abundant, we didn't need to do that.
And it's this issue now with climate change, and the greenhouse gas, and the environmental impact of all of these that's finally reawakening us, spurring us on to get back into a leadership position--and we are. Unfortunately, China is a lot bigger country and they're going to have a lot more than we are in the end because there's just a lot more people and they need to electrify their system. There's a lot of people that don't have electricity in China. And the best way to do that, I think, they sense it is to use a lot of renewable electricity. So it's going to be the bigger countries that are going to lead. And it's going to be China and, particularly, India and the United States.
JM: Well, it's interesting. Going forward, I know we're just about out of time here. We're going to take a little visit to a very special place that maybe you can give us an introduction to and then we're going to drive over to it, one of the community of wind farms that you've been involved with. We're speaking with Tom Wind. James Moore, and Stuart Tanner here .Dream Green series talking all about the good green stuff. What do you think going forward ten years or what do you see here in Iowa?
TW: I’m very encouraged by it. Iowa is a leader. I mean, it gets over 20% of its electricity this year from wind power because the policies here and the utilities have come to the point where they recognize the long-term value of renewable resources.
When you have a large company like MidAmerican that invest heavily in wind power, that tells you something. That tells you they see the long-term benefit not only for their customers, but also for their stockholders. It has to be driven by financial purposes for making money and to meeting the environmental goals. And so, I'm encouraged because of companies like Alliant and MidAmerican that embrace wind power.
And utilities in other parts of the country have not been as progressive as quickly as our two utilities have. But it's catching on, especially in the states where it's windy, those utilities realize now that it is a good deal and the long-term costs are competitive. So I'm encouraged Iowa is in a good spot to do that.
JM: Well, thank you very much. Do you want to give us just a little bit of a prequel as we head over to this project we're going to drive to and then get out and do some 3D in the wind. It's very windy. I'm sure you'll hear it on our little recording device. Give us just a little sense of what we're going to see.
TW: Well, one of my friends, Bill Sutton, approached me in 2004, early 2004, and said, "Tom, I think it would be a neat idea to put up some large wind turbines on my farm here," which is in a high area of the county. And I told him he was crazy, that it wouldn't work. It would not be cost-effective. It wouldn't pay for itself because I had been studying this for several years and I knew what you had to have. And at that time, I was right that the policies weren't in place to make that happen.
But I felt sorry for him and I said, "Okay, I tell you what, Bill. I'll pitch in 50-50 and we'll put an anemometer, a met tower, a measuring tower, up on the hill behind his farm there." So we installed that met tower up there and started monitoring the data. And, you know, it came out about as windy as we thought.
At the same time, Bill and I and several others in the states started working on the policy aspect of this saying, "We really ought to have a policy in the State of Iowa to encourage farmers, landowners, investors to invest in the smaller projects. You could see that the larger utilities could – were finding the economics in the larger projects. They didn't need any help. They could make the economics work.
But if a group of farmers wanted to do it, they couldn't quite get it done because of various reasons, a whole number of reasons. So the state agreed with us and we proposed some legislation. And so the state adopted a tax credit, tradeable state tax credit, that was available for small projects, or like one wind turbine at a time. And we worked at a deal with several adjoining landowners that we installed seven large wind turbines, 2.2 megawatt wind turbines, on about five parcels of land.
And there are seven people involved in this wind farm, seven owners. One owner per wind turbine and the local people that are owners are in partnership with the corporate partner on a financial arrangement so that they both financially benefit from this wind farm. So the wind farm was finally built and went online in May of 2007 and it has been operating since. So we're going to go out there and take a look at them.
JM: Fantastic. Off we go.
ST: Looking forward to seeing them, yeah.
JM: Thank you so much, Tom. We'll be back in just a moment as we head out into the wind with Mr. Wind, Tom Wind.
JM: And now we've turned down a gravel road. We are seeing a beautiful display of slowly moving turbines here. Stuart, what do you think?
ST: In a way, they look quite beautiful and the blades are arched back. I haven't quite seen that design before. Maybe that's a new innovation. They're turning gracefully against the sky. It's wonderful to think that that's a way that you can generate energy. When I see them all together on the landscape, I would say it looks like the future. That's what it looks like to me.
JM: Well, it sure does. And it spins so quietly and gracefully, you're right. I don't see any smokestacks or, hmmm--it looks pretty clean that way, too. We have Tom Wind in the car with us as we approach. What do you think, Tom?
TW: Well, they're so big. They stand out and they look beautiful, I think, out there. And it’s a beautiful sky in the background and you wonder, “Is this natural? Is this natural looking?” And I've always thought about that. When you put up a big wind turbine, you forever change the skyline around there.
And is that a good thing? Well, living in an agricultural community, every time a farmer builds a building, or puts up a high big silo--and there have been a lot big silos put in the past--it forever changes the landscape, and we get used to it. And they were built for a purpose and they were used for that.
And so, I think this fits in, too. Sometimes the landscape in Iowa can get a little bit boring with corn and soy beans. And to have something stick up and be moving and producing something of value to society, just like the corn and soybeans, producing something of value, it fits in.
ST: Yeah. You could think of them as just really tall plants on the landscape, a new kind of plant that generates energy, collects energy. Plants on the ground, collect energy. So this really tall plant with its big kind of flower of blades collects energy as well.
JM: Yeah. It’s like a skinny sunflower doing Freddie and the Dreamers--and I’m dating myself saying that. But anybody who remembers Freddie and the Dreamers during the Beatles era--well, they’re not kind of going out in all directions at once. Oh my, it is really gorgeous. I’ve not been this close to a big turbine. It’s elegant and really quite majestic. I can’t imagine children don’t just love these things. What’s your experience with that, Tom?
TW: Oh yeah, anything this big. Yeah, and it turns so gracefully and kids have to crane their necks and look up way high to see them and to see them move. It’s just kind of spellbinding in a way to look at them.
JM: Well, we’ve just pulled up. I feel the car stopping. We have our next guest that we’ll be talking to. We’ll learn about him in just a moment. You’re with us here in greeniowa.org-ville. We are in--well, near. outside of Jamaica. Where exactly are we, Tom?
TW: Well, this wind farm is right north of Jefferson, Iowa--about four, five miles north of Jefferson, Iowa, which is in west central Iowa.
JM: Fantastic. Well, we’ll be out and about in just a moment.
JM: Here we are. Can you feel that? The wind is blowing. Well, we’re in wind zone, right? Stuart and I and Tom Wind here. We’re meeting Nick, who works with--Suzlor, is that right?
Nick Hildreth: Suzlon.
JM: Suzlon. Excuse me. How are you doing, Nick? What’s your last name?
NH: Hildreth/ Nick Hildreth.
JM: Nick Hildreth. Well, he’s going to take us inside the turbine. Maybe we’ll be able to have a conversation there. Right now, we’re standing underneath the--oh my gosh, looking up, it’s so beautiful!
TW: Now, you noticed that the blades are pitching and the blades are turning so that their flat part is facing the wind. It’s like an airplane wing and they’re slowly pitching what we call to full power. And so the turbine is slowly going around. It’s going about less than one revolution per minute right now and then it’s slowly accelerating. It doesn’t look like it’s turning very fast down here, but right now the tip of the blade it’s probably going about 40 or 50-mile an hour. When we get us up to full speed here and we’ll be going over a 100-mile an hour, I think more like 120, 130–mile an hour out of the tip.
So, it’s slowly getting faster. It’s not generating any electricity yet. It won’t generate electricity until it gets up to the full speed, and then it will kick in and the generator will start, and then it’ll start generating electricity.
JM: Yeah, it’s starting to pick up some speed now. Man, it’s really something to stand directly under one of these things.
JM: Okay. We’re winding our way out of the wind as you can hear.
And now we’re inside the turbine. Wow, this is another one of those great Wizard of Oz moments. We’re all in here. We’re going to be speaking with Nick about–we’re getting our hard hats on now. Yeah, wow, this is beautiful. Quite a unit. A little bit silo-looking with some Star Trek entrance way here. Nick, again, tell us your last name.
JM: Hildreth. So grateful you’re taking a few minutes to give us the lowdown here. We were hearing that this is one of the first sets of turbines where? Tell us about that again.
NH: One of the first sites in the United States for this style of wind turbine.
JM: Fantastic. Stuart?
ST: What style of wind turbine is it?
NH: It’s a Suzlon 2.1 megawatt S88 wind turbine.
JM: Is it a stylistically different one or just this make?
NH: Just a different make. It’s got 2.1 megawatt generator up–tower. So, before, they had a smaller turbine and this is their next-size bigger.
ST: Perhaps you could talk to us about, Nick, the maintenance of a wind turbine. I mean, there’s many things that one might maintain in one’s life. I find maintaining a car is pretty challenging and there’s coal–fired stations, there’s nuclear stations. What is the wind turbine like to maintain?
NH: Well, it’s like any other big machine. You’ll have your torquing, greasing, cleaning, anything that needs done gets done. We go up there, we could spend on the annual service all day up there just torquing, tidying up, checking, basically preventative maintenance on everything so.
JM: Give us a breakdown on what we see right around us.
NH: These are just control cabinets. There’s a control cabinet. They call it a power cabinet. It’s got main contactors in it. This is where all the main electricity goes up and down the tower, and then all the control equipment’s over here on the left side. And basically, it’s just the brains of the tower right here. And there’s another cabinet just like this up-tower and they communicate together.
TW: How many times would you go up a typical tower, Nick, in a year’s period? Would it be three or four times?
NH: Yeah, three or four times because you’ll have–we’ll have three to five maintenances depending on the year and the cycle, and then just for repairs.
TW: And so, generally, they run by themselves. The computer is controlling it, and if there something happens or the temperature gets out of bounds or something, then it will turn itself off and then you, what do you do at that point?
NH: We receive a notification from our monitoring center. We have a center over in Chicago that watches these 24 hours a day. We can log in to it from wherever we’re at and see what is going on and go from there. Kind of make a game plan from there.
TW: And oftentimes, you can just restart the turbine from where you’re at, like up from a laptop computer, is that right? You can start it again from Chicago?
NH: Yep, that’s correct.
ST: One of the things that interests me is, you put a turbine here and you put a turbine there, and it’s creating jobs, of course, locally. Is there analysis of how many jobs you create for wind energy compared to, say, building a coal-fired station?
TW: Studies have been done and they find that wind generation actually generates more jobs in the long-term per amount of energy generated than a large coal-fired power plant would. A coal-fired power plant might have a staff of 100 to 150 people and they can generate 600, 700 megawatts. But for the same amount of energy, you’d have more technicians, wind technicians, out there in the field than you would at the power plant.
JM: We did notice there’s a little bit of a sound to them and right now, it’s so windy out there, a little hard to hear. What do you hear about that, the sound of wind turbines?
NH: Well, the windier it is, the more sound they put out. Typically, if you say, well, how much–is it too much sound, does it bother people? For example, there’s a farmstead that’s about a quarter of a mile south of us where we are right here. And on a windy day, you stand in that farmstead and what you’ll hear is the wind going through the trees and around the buildings in the farmstead. There’s just a lot of noise on a windy day just from the existing trees. I doubt that you could hear the noise from the wind turbine because it’s being overmasked or masked by all the other sounds there. If you stand right underneath it on a light wind day, you can hardly hear the wind turbine at all.
ST: I just wanted to ask you about the community aspect of this wind farm. Who owns it? How is it a community project? How does that work?
TW: Well, it’s a community project because the person that started this has a farm that’s right adjacent to this and there’s two wind turbines on his farmland. And then, we contacted the other adjacent landowners and asked them, “Hey, would you like to be a part of this? Would you – we’re putting together some funds here to study this, to see if we can figure this out. Who’s – who would be interested?”
And most of the people that we contacted wanted to be a part of it. A couple of people didn’t. And so the seven wind turbines here are on, I think, four, five parcels of land, and various family members. And so that’s how we got it started that way.
ST: Well, I have to say I’m mightily impressed. I really like them and they’re beautiful. I would like one. I want one. Maybe I’ll start with one of those model ones you’ve got in your office. That might power a toaster or something.
JM: Thank you both so much. Nick, appreciate it. Thanks so much. Keep up the good work, my friend.
NH: Right. Thank you.
JM: You bet. Tom, thank you so much. And we’ll be back with more Dream Green series -here in just a moment on solar-powered KRUU=FM and greeniowa.org.
JM: And we are back in Fairfield after a great trip up to Jamaica, mon, to Jamaica, Iowa. What a great experience it was to be that up close and personal to a mighty, majestic, as we’ve been mentioning, piece of machinery that is so gentle, so graceful, 280 feet tall, and that’s not even counting the blades, high, high into the sky. And speaking of high into the sky, beautiful music from Binghimon. “Love It Is” every time. Another Iowa group. Binghimon, Patrick White, spent 10 years in the other Jamaica, mon. That’s our tie-in there. Hope you’ve enjoyed that.
And speaking of Tom Wind, I thought it was interesting, Stuart, that he talked about wind in conjunction with solar as being something that could really make a difference. Your thoughts?
ST: Yeah. Well, so far, as we’ve been going around talking for different people who are advocates of renewable energy–they may be specialists in wind or solar or biomass–really, everybody’s on the same page, it seems, in regard to saying not one of these is the solution, but all of them are the solution.
We know in the state of Iowa, there’s research projects that are looking into using prairie grass or cellulosic biomass plants which use much more of the biomass material, in a sense, the plant and, therefore, the economics of it are better and they can be grown on land, which is not best for corn anyway. So that is an argument, that is a story, that we’re going to track, we’re going to investigate further.
JM: It’s interesting, isn’t it, Stuart? We’ve spoken with Pat Higby and Kevin Nordmeyer and some of these minds that are wrapping themselves around this science project of figuring out another way to do energy. Looking at all those things makes a difference than looking just at some of them.
ST: I think that’s very true and the research aspect of it is very important that it obviously needs to proceed at a pace. Why? Because that really ties into what policy is going to be. Policy is going to respond to the fact that if you stay with just making ethanol from corn and you stay with subsidies to oil companies, then, politically, that can become and is a controversial and a problem.
Whereas if you can make the economics of it work better–you can improve the research, you can make the, you know, use land that maybe wouldn’t be great for corn, anyway–if you can bring all those into the equation, then, obviously, that’s going to tie into policy. Now policy is an area that we will be looking at later on in the series in some depth, because this whole issue of subsidies is clearly very important for relatively new industries such as renewable energy, and wind also enjoys a subsidy. In the current environment, all subsidies will be coming under scrutiny.
And I thought it was a very interesting point that Tom Wind made about the fact that, really, what you need to calculate in when you’re looking at subsidies is the true costs of other forms of energy. For instance, if you have a coal-fired station, what are the cleanup costs because of certain toxic elements to get out the environment and, obviously, there’s the CO2. Those things need to be factored in as well.
Some people might resist that. It is a political battleground. One must recognize that fact. Politics–there’s a certain amount of ideology. There’re special interest groups. All these things come in to play, as well as the research, as well as the industries that are currently operating.
JM: It’s amazing to be doing this series–the Dream Green series–which you can always check out our discoveries across the state of Iowa at greeniowa.org. But just really amazing to realize the role that Iowa has played and is playing in this, just because of where it lays.
Very interesting, Stuart. 20% Tom Wind saying, of energy supplied this year from the wind here in Iowa. That’s an amazing thing that Iowa is one of the first, or the first state, to have passed legislation in this direction and to couple policy moving this way. Some real challenges too when Tom pointed out that the design is not being done here, even though that’s being driven by, well, a windy place like Holland and Europe, and now looking at China, but also that the whole thing, the whole industry really started from California and the U.S., bringing some wind to the sails of this whole renewable and sustainable approach.
So I feel both encouraged and delighted to just be doing this. Great to be working with you, and also, we’re going to be going up to Iowa State University in Ames, and the Leopold Center and talking with some amazing people about some more amazing projects. That’s what’s on tap for next week.
ST: It is. And, of course, one of the purposes of our series is to really look and see all the things that are going on. And I’d say, even so far, we could give a hurrah for Iowa in being a leader in a number of different areas. But all of these things we’ll be investigating further and, indeed, we are off to Ames tomorrow. We’re very much looking forward to going to Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
JM: And maybe a little BECON.
ST: And some research facility for biomass as well, BioCentury Farm and BECON. It’s going to be a really interesting journey.
JM: Stay tuned. Put your green hat on and we’ll get our little model wind generators that Tom Wind graciously laid on us, and when the sun comes up in the morning, those little – just like the solar cars that Pat Higby had, here we have little windmills right in our studio now. Thanks so much for tuning in. Greeniowa.org is the website, kruufm.com, solar-powered. This is the Dream Green series. We’ll be back next week, same time, same station. All that and much more. Next week, we’re going to Ames.
Voiceover: Produced by Stuart Tanner and James Moore at solar–powered KRUU 100.1 FM in Fairfield, Iowa. Online at kruufm.com. This series is funded in part by a grant from the Iowa Office of Energy Independence and nearly 70 individuals, companies and organizations. For a list of sponsors, visit our website at greeniowa.org. Archives available for download under Creative Commons License. Music from Zila and Binghimon.