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With Federal Support Waning, Wind Power Turns To Industry For Investment

Amy Mayer/IPR file photo
Wind turbines have become a common sight on Iowa's landscape.

Even as wind energy production has grown in recent years to be a large part of the country’s energy portfolio, a chill around federal funding for renewable energy has researchers increasingly turning to industry partners to bring the next generation of innovation to the marketplace.


Today, wind makes up 8 percent of the country’s energy grid, but in parts of the Midwest and Great Plains that have led the way in wind energy production the figure is much higher. The state of Iowa now generates nearly 37 percent of its energy from wind, but Kansas, the Dakotas, and Oklahoma have also been wind-generation leaders, each now getting more than 20 percent of its electricity from wind.

As wind power becomes ubiquitous, researchers continue striving for ways to expand its reach, even as the funding for their work becomes less available.

Credit Amy Mayer/IPR
Iowa State University aerospace engineering professor Anupam Sharma takes inspiration from owls to develop quieter wind turbines.

Anupam Sharma, for example, an aerospace engineering professor at Iowa State University who focuses on acoustics, once enjoyed funding from the Department of Energy from a pool of money meant for research on renewable energy technology.

“That program has basically shut down for wind,” Sharma says. “They very clearly state that they are not going to fund anything wind anymore.”

Sharma’s research takes inspiration from the nearly silent flight of owls to engineer quieter wind turbines.

“Wind turbines are very, very quiet,” he says. “They do not produce a lot of noise.”

But, Sharma says, they are usually located in places with almost no noise. Sometimes the noise the turbines do create bothers people, which can lead to challenges for the companies installing them and the communities attracted to the tax revenue they bring.

“So given all that, we realize that noise is a problem,” he says, “and if we can bring the noise down, it will appease all those people who have these issues.”

Credit Amy Mayer/IPR
The comb-like structure on the edge of an owl's wing feather is something scientists say helps reduce the noise it makes in flight. That's one of the traits Sharma hopes to mimic with man-made structures for wind turbines.

With his former funding source gone, Sharma recently received a half-million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation and additional support from the state of Iowa to continue his work.

The change at the Department of Energy, where wind once received the lion’s share of renewable energy dollars, reflects both the maturation of the industry and the changing priorities of the federal government. That shift began under the previous administration, with a Republican-controlled Congress. But President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would make further reductions to all renewable energy programs, including wind.

Even with diminishing federal support, the wind industry continues to grow. Take MidAmerican Energy Company, which has more than 750,000 customers in Iowa, South Dakota and Illinois. As recently as 2003, it did not use wind power to generate any of its electricity.

“We expect to be at about 56 percent in 2017,” says Michael Fehr, vice president for resource development. He says by 2021, the company’s goal is for 95 percent of its generation to come from wind. Fehr says it’s not just Iowa’s natural wind resource that has allowed the state to become a leader.

“There's a lot of factors that play into it,” Fehr says, “one of them definitely is Iowa has always had strong bipartisan support for renewable energy.”

But with a federal tax credit for generating wind power scheduled to sunset in 2019, the American Wind Energy Association’s John Hensley says companies are looking to an independent future.

“We're striving to continue to drive these costs out of the turbines and the energies we produce,” he says, “so that when these tax credits do go away, we are able to stand on our own two feet and move forward as an industry.”

For that to be successful, he says private businesses will increasingly need to fund research and development.

“We're seeing companies pick up internally a lot of the [research and development] efforts that were previously provided by some of these government entities,” Hensley says.

That’s something another Iowa State engineering professor is counting on.

Credit Amy Mayer/IPR
A tower made of these "hexcrete" panels and columns could allow for turbines significantly taller than the current 80-meter standard for steel towers.

Out behind an engineering building on the Ames campus, Sri Sritharan is dwarfed by tall concrete panels connected to six-sided columns, with rusty rebar poking through. The panels and columns can be assembled into a “hexcrete” tower, which offers an alternative to traditional steel towers for turbines. Sritharan’s design uses special high-performing concrete and relies on a hexagonal shape. He says these towers could be a cost-effective way for the next generation of wind towers to stretch taller than the existing standard of 80 meters.

“If you can go up to 120, 140 meters you can actually produce wind in all 50 states,” Sritharan says. “That's a huge benefit because some states don't even have any renewable capacity right now.”

Sritharan recently completed a $1.2 million project funded largely through the Department of Energy. Part of it required him to engage industry partners.

“And several companies said they’re interested,” he says, “and they said they will be interested in working with us to continue.”

Sritharan will need that support as he takes his project through certification and prototyping, most likely without any additional federal dollars.

Credit Amy Mayer/IPR
Sri Sritharan, in Iowa State's department of civil, construction and environmental engineering, hopes to commercialize his hexcrete design with industry partners.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the percent of the country’s energy generated from wind. It is 8 percent, not 40 percent. An earlier version of this story cited an incorrect figure. HPM regrets the error.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames