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Wind energy is getting a big boost from the Inflation Reduction Act but local opposition, too

Dozens of wind turbines are seen along Interstate 80 in Adair County, Iowa.
Clay Masters
Madison County already restricts wind energy production in the county. Woodbury County is considering such a move.

Iowa is a leader in wind energy production. The large wind turbines we’ve seen expanding in the state over the last decade have started showing up more and more in middle America – from Texas up through the Dakotas. But wind power only accounts for under 10 percent of the nation’s electricity generation. Now, the Inflation Reduction Act that awaits President Biden’s signature extends a tax credit for wind energy production through 2025.

There were hardly any empty chairs at the Woodbury County Board of Supervisors meeting last week in the county courthouse in Sioux City. The supervisors were there to consider an amendment to an ordinance that would severely limit where wind farms can be built within the county. Most of the landowners who showed up want the distance between wind turbines to go from 1,250 feet to 2,500 feet. Farmer Daniel Hair from Hornick showed up with signatures he’d collected at the county fair.

“I have right here in my hand over 720 signatures from residents of Woodbury County,” Hair told the supervisors.

Landowners complained they didn’t want the towers on their landscape, that the flashing lights would be bothersome at night and that the money the local county would bring in… wasn’t worth it. MidAmerican Energy says 60 landowners have already signed up for its Siouxland Wind Farm and they’ve invested $1.4 million dollars in the project. Adam Jablonski with MidAmerican said the 2,500 setback would wipeout any buildable land.

"If you look at the setback maps a 2,500 foot setback would effectively allow somebody half mile away to decide what you can and can't do with your property," Jablonski said.

Hornick Farmer Daniel Hair talks to the Woodbury County Board of Supervisors on August 9, 2022 about his support for increasing the distance between wind turbines in the county.
Clay Masters
Hornick Farmer Daniel Hair talks to the Woodbury County Board of Supervisors about his support for increasing the distance between wind turbines in the county.

Farmer Daniel Hair told me after the meeting Woodbury County is just too populated.

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

Other counties in Iowa have moved to restrict wind production in the state. In Madison County, the board of supervisors put an effective ban on wind energy production. Supervisor Diane Fitch says part of her concern comes from not trusting the large energy companies.

“Let’s say they start losing money and they say you know what we can’t really afford to pay you this year," Fitch said. "What are you going to do about it? They’re so big, they keep you in court until your great grandchildren are dead.”

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

“Wind is a free resource," Zichal said. "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 nearly 60 percent of the state’s electricity comes from wind power and it garners bipartisan support. While some landowners here 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 near Riceville, Iowa.

“Oh my gosh, you cannot believe the positive cash flows that that creates and minimal impact,” Johnson said.

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. 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 non-profit 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," Johannsen said. "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.

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter.