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Top stories of the 2010s: Wind energy changing state's energy landscape

Turbines now producing more than one-third of Iowa power

A wind turbine tower stands over other components at Alliant Energy's English Farm wind farm in January near Deep River.
A wind turbine tower stands over other components at Alliant Energy’s English Farm wind farm in January near Deep River. The farm will have 69 wind turbines and produce about 170 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 60,000 houses. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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The eve of a new decade presents a perfect time to reflect on the past 10 years, to look at the changes in our lives and in our state and nation. For Iowa, The Gazette chose 10 storylines of the decade that have changed or will change the state’s trajectory. This is one of those stories. See the full list and read them here.

Wind isn’t quite king in Iowa. But it could be getting there.

And the dramatic growth of wind energy — a renewable resource — could well affect Iowa’s economic growth, cost of living and cost of doing business.

Consider this: In this decade, Iowa became the first state to produce more than 30 percent of its energy needs through wind. Due to the state’s 114 wind farms, that share today is up to 36 percent, with a milestone of 10,000 megawatts expected in 2020.

Meanwhile, other energy sources have seen a decline in Iowa. In 2016, for the first time in decades, coal-fired power plants produced less than half the electricity generated in the state.

Eight years before, coal had accounted for more than three-fourths of Iowa’s generated electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Iowa’s interest in alternative energy resources is key because — even though the state boasts a population of only 3.2 million — it is among the top five energy-consuming states, mainly because of its industry and manufacturing.

It has no crude oil, natural gas or coal of its own to produce power. But it does have wind and open land, especially in the northwest part of the state.

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These cheaper energy sources, such as wind and natural gas, brought about the decision by NextEra Energy to close its 600-megawatt Duane Arnold Energy Center, in operation since 1974 near Palo — the state’s only nuclear power plant — in 2020. Alliant uses 70 percent of the plant’s energy generation.

The closing, according to NextEra officials, will save customers money — as much as $300 million over 21 years, which translates into a 3 percent monthly savings for Alliant’s residential customers.

The development of solar power lags in Iowa, perhaps limited by the focus on wind and figuring out what fees, if any, solar users should pay utility companies.

As of 2019, more than 12,000 Iowa homes were powered by solar energy, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Statewide, less than 100 megawatts of power comes from solar. That promises to double in 2020 when Wapello Solar, an 800-acre project in Louisa County, comes online.

Alliant Energy also has a 5 megawatt solar array near Dubuque and installed 420 solar panels at Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids, which produce the power used by the center.

The next big advancement in renewable energy, which should happen in the coming decade, is the development of better batteries to store power for use when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.

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