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Winds of Change Blowing Through the Heartland and Beyond

Clint Wilder's picture

If you need to make a little extra cash in this down economy, try this bar bet: What state passed California last year as the nation's second-largest producer of wind power? I expect your betting victims will wrongly guess at least a half dozen states before they get it right, or give up. The answer is the 26th largest state in the U.S., best known for its presidential caucus, corn ethanol, and its Field of Dreams: Iowa. Iowa more than doubled its wind power capacity last year, adding 1,600 new megawatts, and had 2,883 MW of wind capacity by April 1, according to American Wind Energy Association data. Iowa surged past California (2,653 MW), where the large-scale wind industry began in the U.S. some 30 years ago. This means that approximately 15 percent of Iowa's electricity mix now comes from wind power, putting the U.S. Department of Energy's much-cited national goal of 20 percent wind by 2030 already within reach in the Hawkeye State. Although Texas remains the U.S. wind king by far with close to 8,000 MW, and continues to add capacity at a healthy clip, the Midwest and Great Plains are a big focus of the wind power industry right now. At AWEA's Windpower 2009 mega-convention (23,000 attendees) in Chicago last month, the governors of no less than five Midwestern states - Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin - talked up the economic benefits of wind in their states. Brand-new Kansas Gov. Mark Parkinson is also a big wind power advocate. Within a month of moving up from lieutenant governor to succeed new Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Parkinson signed Kansas's first-ever renewable energy standard and net-metering legislation into law on May 22. Kansas had been one of just six states without net metering, which requires utilities to credit distributed power producers (like rooftop solar or small wind) for the energy they generate at prevailing electric rates. The RES is a phased mandate requiring 10% renewable power by 2011, 15% by 2016, and 20% by 2020. Even without an RES, Kansas ranked fourth in the U.S. last year in wind capacity added (450 new MW), and it now ranks ninth among all states in total capacity with 1,014 MW, just behind neighboring Colorado. Such growth helped Kansas land a plum manufacturing deal last month, a 300,000 square foot Siemens nacelle factory initially employing 400 people in the town of Hutchinson. And of course, that is the clean-tech word of the year in 2009: jobs. "If this wasn't about jobs, you wouldn't be here," AWEA CEO Denise Bode aptly told the four-governor roundtable that she moderated in Chicago. The wind power industry now employs more people in the U.S. (some 85,000 at the end of 2008) than coal mining, with a debate underway on whether it's more than the entire coal industry. That debate alone is a tremendously positive sign for the growth and maturity of wind power, one of clean tech's most important pillars. All that good news aside, there's no question that the wind industry has felt the current financial squeeze. Newly installed wind capacity in the U.S. plunged from 4,112 MW in the record fourth quarter of last year to 2,836 MW in the first three months of 2009. Tight credit has seriously slowed the project finance spigot that's so critical to wind farm development. Wind-friendly policy at the federal and state level is great, but it doesn't always produce the necessary dollars on the ground. "There's a gap between what the government would like to see in place, and what commercial lenders are willing to put in place," says Blake Nixon, president of utility scale wind farm developer Geronimo Wind Energy in Edina, Minnesota. And lack of long-haul transmission capacity continues to pose a serious challenge for wind development just about everywhere. Even with significant federal stimulus money aimed at new power lines and grid improvement, transmission remains a regulatory morass desperately in need of overhaul. Yet the promise of clean energy, and especially of quality employment, will continue to be a growth spur for wind, even during economic retrenchment. Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm says her state has identified 700 (mostly hard-hit) auto component suppliers that can be retooled to supply components for wind turbines. "Whenever you hear climate change or global warming, think jobs," she says. Like Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, Granholm is also eyeing the Great Lakes for offshore wind development. The experience of states like Iowa, Minnesota, and now Kansas has shown that wind power installations can help lure turbine and component manufacturers (often non-U.S. suppliers like Siemens, Vestas, Suzlon, and Gamesa) to set up shop, and hire local citizens, nearby. Twenty years after Field of Dreams brought one of cinema's most famous lines to the American consciousness and eventually to cliché status, political and business leaders from the Iowa cornfields and beyond are quoting a new variation. Wind farms: if you build them, jobs will come. ------------ Wilder is Clean Edge's contributing editor, co-author of The Clean Tech Revolution, and a blogger about clean-tech issues for the Green section of The Huffington Post. E-mail him at wilder[at]cleanedge[dot]com.