Wind energy continues to be a competitive and growing industry


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Wind turbines are an increasingly common site along rural Iowa roads. (Samir Luther/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 12, 2017

The recently released 2016 Wind Technologies Market Report found wind energy to be a competitively priced and growing part of the U.S. energy picture.

According to the annual U.S. Department of Energy report, wind energy is expected to continue being a cheaper option for consumers than other energy sources. Without figuring in federal tax credits and state-run programs, wind energy costs an average of 5 cents per kilowatt hour whereas a highly efficient natural gas power plant charges consumers an average of 5.4 cents per kilowatt hour.

The authors also found that wind turbines erected in 2016 are taller and more powerful than in years past, allowing them to generate more energy. In the last five years alone, the generating capacity of individual wind turbines has increased by 11 percent.

About 8,203 megawatts of new wind energy was added to the U.S. energy portfolio in 2016, which made up 27 percent of energy infrastructure additions last year. Twelve states now produce more than 10 percent of their energy with wind while Iowa and South Dakota remain the only states that generate upwards of 30 percent of their energy with turbines. Texas, Oklahoma and Iowa have the highest wind-capacity nationwide.

The entire U.S. Department of Energy Wind Technologies Report can be read here.

Gigantic wind turbine to multiply wind energy returns


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The Segmented Ultralight Morphing Rotor 50 (SUMR50) will tower over wind turbines that are commonly used today. (SUMR)
Jenna Ladd | July 6, 2017

Wind energy generation is expected to increase by 404 gigawatts by 2050, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, and gigantic wind turbines may play an important role.

Researchers from six universities are designing the world’s largest wind turbine, which is expected to stand at 500 meters tall. Today, the average wind turbine is about 70 meters tall and generates one to five megawatts of energy. The team predicts their design will generate up to 50 megawatts of energy.

Shooting enormous turbines further up into the atmosphere allows them to capture the stronger and more steady wind flow present at higher altitudes. The giant structures will also feature blades that are 200 meters long, compared to today’s turbine blades which are typically about 50 meters in length. In an interview with Scientific American, Christopher Niezrecki, a professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Center for Wind Energy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, explained that if the blades double in length, they can produce up to four times as much energy.

The turbines will have two blades rather than three to reduce the weight and cost of the structures. They’ll likely be placed far off in the ocean, where they’ll be less of a disturbance to people. Researchers plan to design the turbines to withstand strong winds from hurricanes and other extreme weather events. In part, the structures will take a cue from palm trees, which frequently endure intense storms. Eric Loth is the project lead. He said,”Palm trees are really tall but very lightweight structurally, and if the wind blows hard, the trunk can bend. We’re trying to use the same concept—to design our wind turbines to have some flexibility, to bend and adapt to the flow.”

Within the year, the researchers will test a much smaller version of the design in the mountains of Colorado. They expect to produce a full-sized prototype in the next three years.

The project website reads, “Bringing our project to full fruition will be a major step toward maximizing U.S. offshore wind power.”

President Trump discusses wind energy, Paris agreement in Cedar Rapids


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President Trump and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt after the administration announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. (Associated Press/Andrew Harnik)
Jenna Ladd | June 23, 2017

President Trump hosted a campaign-like rally at the U.S. Cellar Center in Cedar Rapids Wednesday night and made false claims related to renewable energy and climate policy.

With roughly 5,000 of his supporters in the audience, the president used his 70-minute speech to discuss his hatred for the media, the Republicans’ new health care plan, Georgia’s recent special election and more. President Trump is not known for his consistency, but he made two specific false statements related to renewable energy and climate policy which were later set straight by the Washington Post’s Energy 202.

First, the president mocked the use of wind energy in the state of Iowa. He said, “I don’t want to just hope the wind blows to light up your house and your factory as the birds fall to the ground.” This statement aligns with pre-election comments referring to wind turbines as “ugly” and claiming that they kill all the birds.

Energy 202 notes that according to the National Audubon Society, wind turbines are responsible for less than 0.01 percent of all human-related bird deaths. Far more birds are killed each year by vehicles and tall buildings. Second, the Hawkeye state generated 30 percent of its total energy from wind last year. The industry is also expected to provide 7,000 additional jobs and $9 billion in economic activity over the next three years.

Trump also mentioned his administration’s recent decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement. He said, “They all say it’s non-binding. Like hell it’s non-binding.”

The problem here, Energy 202 points out, is that the agreement is non-binding. The accord called on each country to set their own goals for limiting greenhouse gases, which is likely the reason President Obama was able to get nearly all of the Earth’s nations to sign on.

Wind energy continues generating economic growth in Iowa


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Jenna Ladd | April 4, 2017

The state of Iowa is projected to source 40 percent of its energy from wind by the year 2020 according to a recent report.

Navigant Consulting released an analysis last week predicting wind-related economic development in the state. According to the report, wind power is expected to provide 17,000 additional jobs and $9 billion in economic activity over the next three years. The Hawkeye state has already benefited from $11.8 billion in project investment and more than 8,000 wind-related job placements.

Kathy Law is a real estate lawyer for wind developers and comes from a long line of Iowa farmers. In an interview with Yale’s Climate Connections, she said, “I think for the most part it’s helpful just that I’m a farmer that can talk the language with the farmers.” Law pointed out that wind can provide a steady income flow for landowners. She added, “It’s a product just like our corn and soybeans. Why not harness it and benefit from it?”

Wind development in Iowa also generates tax dollars for the state. Over the next four years, wind-related projects are expected to yield $370 million in property, income and sales tax. This money, which flows into counties, helps to pay educators, pave roads and provide rural medical care.

Nationwide, wind energy provides 5.5 percent of all electricity used. In Iowa, wind provides 36 percent of electricity used. In terms of wind-energy employment, Iowa is second only to Texas and is expected to continue leading the way in renewable energy through 2020.

Tom Kiernan is CEO of the American Wind Energy Association. He said, “Wind does not provide just well-paying jobs either, many Iowans also know wind farms are the new ‘drought-resistant cash crop’ in Iowa, paying up to $20 million a year to Iowa farmers.”

Wind turbines may improve growing conditions, study finds


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An Iowa State University study of a 200-turbine wind farm between Radcliffe and Colo found that turbulence from the structures have a positive effect on growing conditions. (jonbgem/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 22, 2016

Recent research from Iowa State University found that wind turbines may improve growing conditions for Iowa crops.

Gene Takle, a climate scientist at the university, and his team measured several factors including temperature, humidity, precipitation, as well as wind speed and direction on a 200 wind turbine farm in central Iowa. The researchers collected data from 2010 through 2013 using research towers.

Overall, the study shows that wind turbines have a positive impact on several factors that affect growing conditions. Turbulence generated by the turbines prevents the formation of dew and dries the crops, which can keep fungi from growing, researchers say. Wind turbines also alter the temperature around them. The turbulence increases nighttime temperatures by a half-degree to a full degree and cools daytime temperatures by a half-degree. Data shows that the wind produced by the turbines rustle up plants situated above cropland as well, allowing the sun to shine through.

Takle said, “That’s beneficial. It allows light to move deeper into the canopy.”

Iowa sources nearly 36 percent of its total energy from wind turbines, more than any other state. In all, energy companies have invested $12 billion in wind production in the Hawkeye state, and landowners earn $20 million each year in lease payments for wind farms.

The study is a part of a $20 million, five year grant from the National Science Foundation. Moving forward, Takle said that he is interested in researching the effects wind turbines might have on regional weather patterns.

He said, “If you had warm, humid air rising and cooling over a wind farm, it could lead to more cloud formations, possibly even enhance or influence … rainfall patterns.”

Takle added, “We’ve been measuring changes on the wind farm, but this would measure effects outside the wind farm.”

State approval of new wind farm echos rising support for wind energy nationwide


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Evening skies over the Century Windfarm in Blairsburg, Iowa. (Brain.Abeling/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 1, 2016

A $3.6 billion dollar wind energy project was approved by the Iowa Utilities Board late last week.

The initiative is a part of MidAmerican Energy’s goal to eventually provide 100% renewable energy for its customers in Iowa. Expected to be completed by late 2019, the Wind XI project will add 1,000 wind turbines to Iowa’s grid. Ashton Hockman, a spokesperson for MidAmerican, said in an email earlier this week that while the exact locations are still being finalized, the farm will be located on multiple sites around the state. She added, “Wind XI will add up to 2,000 megawatts of wind generation in Iowa and is the largest wind project MidAmerican Energy has ever undertaken.”

MidAmerican Energy plans to earn back all $3.6 billion dollars through federal production tax credits over the course of ten years. As such, the company did not seek financial support from the state and will not need to raise rates for customers, according the MidAmerican representatives.

Iowa has long been a top producer of wind energy nationwide. It became the first state in the country to produce more than 30% of its total energy using wind earlier this year, and is second only to Texas in total megawatts produced, a state nearly five times its size.The project, first announced by MidAmerican CEO Bill Fehrman last April, will be the largest wind operation in the country according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).

New findings from AWEA show that support for wind energy production is on the rise, even across party lines. Polling results show that public support for wind energy seems to rise as the industry grows. In Texas, the top wind producing state in the country, over 85% of voters support wind energy. Nationwide 70% of registered voters have a favorable impression of wind energy, including 60% of Republicans and Independent voters. As the election draws nearer, AWEA CEO Tom Kiernan said,

“Candidates running for office on both sides of the aisle in this important election year should take note: The more wind farms we build, the stronger support from U.S. voters grows. As wind power has more than tripled over the last eight years, so have its economic and environmental benefits. Wind technician is the fastest growing job in the U.S., and the billions of dollars of investment in local economies have revitalized many rural communities.”

Reflections on my two years at CGRER


The Iowa Advanced Technologies Laboratory, left, houses the University of Iowa's Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research. (Optical Science and Technology Center/University of Iowa)
The Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories, left, houses the University of Iowa’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research. (Optical Science and Technology Center/University of Iowa)
Nick Fetty | August 5, 2016

It’s hard to believe that it’s been just over two years since I first entered the Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories – which I had previous referred to as the shiny metal building next to the Iowa Memorial Union – to interview for a graduate assistantship with the University of Iowa’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research.

Despite having studied at the UI for my undergrad and the fact that I have had a casual interest in the environment for as long as I can remember, I had never heard of CGRER prior to my interview. I interviewed with CGRER’s Outreach and Community Education Director Joe Bolkcom – whose name I was quite familiar with from constantly reading about his efforts as a state senator – who made it clear from the start that his work with CGRER is separate from his work in the Iowa legislature. Though I had no formal experience covering scientific issues, I was offered the position because of the journalistic skills I had developed as an undergrad and during my time as a reporter with the Iowa City Press-Citizen. My colleague, KC McGinnis, was hired at the same time I was and similar to me he had little formal experience covering environmental or scientific issues. Joe felt that KC and I would compliment each other well as he was more of the multimedia expert while my specialty was writing.

During my two year stint with CGRER I not only learned a tremendous amount about environmental policy in the Hawkeye State specifically and environmental research more broadly but I also informally served as a teacher educating my friends, family, and others about these issues. Whenever possible I avoided the partisan divisiveness often associated with environmental issues and instead focused on the positives. As a lifelong Iowan I’m proud to tell people about how this upper-Midwestern state with just over three million inhabitants is a national leader in wind energy. Or how there is tremendous potential for solar energy in the Hawkeye State despite cold and snowy winters that occupy about a quarter of the year. I’ve even had intelligent and civil conversations with farmers about the benefits of cover crops, no-till, and other conservation practices, even though I know we wouldn’t see eye-to-eye on many political issues.

My time at CGRER was not only a learning experience for me in terms of the environment but I was also able to further develop my journalistic skills, especially in terms of multimedia. I felt that I learned more about video production working with KC during two short years than I did during any of my formal education.

My two years with CGRER has paid off as next week I will begin my new position as a Communications Specialist for the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Iowa State University. (Don’t worry I’ll always be a Hawkeye at heart!) I am confident in the abilities of KC and I’s replacements – a graduate student from the College of Education and an incoming freshman – and am eager to see the direction they take things. There are already talks of revising our On The Radio segments to follow more of a longer-form podcast format, which as an avid podcast listener myself, I think has potential to be awesome.

Perhaps the biggest thing I’ve taken away from my time at CGRER is that many of these environmental issues should not be political. I’m not a scientist myself but I understand that a certain amount of skepticism is important with scientific research but there’s a difference between healthy skepticism and outright denying what is perceived as fact by the majority of the scientific community. I understand that politicians and lobbyists often have business interests which will influence their opinions. While I would still disagree with them on ideological grounds, it would be a step in the right direction if these politicians would come out and say “I’m not going to deny the science but I disagree with this policy because I think it’s detrimental to a particular business or economic interest.”

I’m not one to buy into American exceptionalism but I think higher education is one thing we truly do right in this country. (With that said, I think there are always ways higher education can be improved.) During my time at the University of Iowa, I have met hundreds of students from dozens of different countries, all of whom came to the UI to get a world class education. Not only should we as country be quick to welcome these international students to our colleges and universities but we should do more to support the scientific research taking place as opposed to denying it, especially when that opposition is often based in political ideology as opposed to scientific fact.