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Iowa wind energy jobs could double or triple over the next decade

Oct 7, 2020 at 8:00 am
    A wind turbines, part of MidAmerican Energy's Laurel Project, turn in the wind in a field along Lafayette Avenue near Laurel on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017. (file/The Gazette)

    As many industries simply look for a path to survive the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic, one industry has its eyes on exponential growth in the next decade.

    The amount of wind energy jobs — already at 9,000 to 10,000, according to American Wind Energy Association data — could double or triple over 10 years, with the right conditions, experts say.

    “You can really see a pathway where wind comes back stronger than ever before in the state,” said J.R. Tolbert, managing director of Advanced Energy Economy, a national association of renewable energy companies.

    “I wouldn’t put it in stone that there will be that many jobs, but the future is bright for wind energy if we can move policy at the state and federal level to make that happen.”

    Tolbert isn’t the only one eyeing that level of growth. The Iowa Environmental Council is seeking to double wind energy output from the state in the next 10 years, with optimism to go beyond that.

    “We think there’s a need — and the capacity — to actually do more than that,” said Kerri Johannsen, energy program director for the Iowa Environmental Council. “Iowa has great wind potential.”

    She “absolutely” sees that translating to jobs, whether that be in manufacturing or maintenance of wind turbines. The lease payments for wind farms also could indirectly create more jobs in rural Iowa, Johannsen said.

    There’s a big “if” attached with those job projections, though.

    “Policy will matter in the way wind comes out of the pandemic,” Tolbert said. “If Congress can come up with a plan that leans into domestic manufacturing, that’s going to help the entire clean energy industry.”

    Philip Jordan, vice president and principal for BW Research and a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, has done research on wind energy for organizations such as the American Wind Energy Association or Tolbert’s Advanced Energy Economy. He said what Congress is doing is “generally helping the economy” but not necessarily giving wind energy a boost.

    The Payroll Protection Program has kept “people employed, but it’s not really stimulative,” Jordan said.

    “It’s not exactly creating new project demand.”

    An infrastructure and energy-based stimulus “would much more so” help create wind energy jobs, Jordan said.

    In policy, Iowa already has a head start over other states, many experts believe.

    “In the early stages, policy really matters,” Jordan said. “Iowa pulled a lot of the right levers at the right time, which has allowed it to grow.”

    Major wind turbine manufacturers, such as Siemens Games and TPI Composites, have footprints in Iowa. Jordan attributed that to a “first mover’s advantage.” Because Iowa jumped on wind energy early, manufacturers set up shop here.

    “We build every component of a wind turbine here in the state of Iowa,” Johannsen said.

    Iowa has seen $19 billion in capital spending on wind energy through 2019, according to American Wind Energy Association data.

    No neighboring state has more than $10.9 billion.

    Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority and the Iowa Finance Authority, said expanding energy storage is key for the wind energy industry to expand in Iowa.

    “Obviously, the wind doesn’t blow every day and the shine doesn’t shine, even though I think it’s always sunny in the great state of Iowa,” Durham said.

    Wind energy, as with almost any other industry, has seen hiccups during the pandemic.

    New projects have taken the brunt of the economic fallout.

    “It’s more difficult to get capital into the market than it should be or has previously been,” Tolbert said.

    But it’s not as bad as other parts of the renewable energy sector, the Advanced Energy Economy’s Tolbert said.

    “Unlike rooftop solar, you don’t have to go into a home to do (the installation),” Tolbert said.

    It’s unclear how quickly the wind energy sector will regain its momentum.

    “In the short term, it really has a lot to do with the course of the virus and the continued or renewed need for economic closures,” Jordan said.

    He thinks that will be months — between six and 24 — not years.

    Johannsen, with the Iowa Environmental Council, wished she “had a crystal ball” to predict how quickly the jobs come back.

    “It’s very hard to say how long this lull is going to last when no one really has a good idea what the overall economic impact is going to be from COVID-19,” Johannsen said.

    There’s no lack of optimism, though.

    “I am pretty bullish in the long term,” Jordan said.

    “Wind is a job creator in the state. It’s a winner.”

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