Rox Laird

DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa is known for its rich topsoil ideal for growing corn and soybeans with regular rain that make irrigation virtually unheard of there. But that state has another natural resource that has only recently been tapped on an industrial scale: wind.

Farmers and ranchers have long pumped water from the ground with windmills, but since the 1980s, when the Iowa Legislature created incentives, industrial wind generation has grown dramatically. The story of Iowa’s expansion of wind power is a test of how quickly and reliably utility companies are able replace fossil fuels with renewables to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Des Moines-based MidAmerican Energy, a state regulated utility owned by Omaha investment guru Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy, which serves 800,000 electric and natural gas customers in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, and South Dakota, has its sights set on generating the annual equivalent of 100% of its electric power from renewable sources.

Wind will be the major source of that growth, along with some new solar collectors.

The massive modern windmills — some as tall as the Statue of Liberty with blades that can sweep the length of a football field — are not universally popular. Critics consider them noisy nuisances that kill eagles and migrating birds. But wind power has grown dramatically in recent decades, and that growth is likely to continue.

Midwest wind power has its roots along the Buffalo Ridge, a prominent topographical feature stretching from South Dakota through Minnesota and into Iowa known for steady winds ideal for powering utility-grade windmills to generate electricity. Windmills can now be found in every corner of Iowa, which is second state only to Texas in total wind generating capacity as of the end of 2020.

The state’s utility regulator in June verified that MidAmerican in 2021 generated the annual equivalent of 88.5% of its in-state electric demand from renewable sources. That is up from 6.1% as recently as a decade ago.

“At 88.5%, the 2021 figure is five percentage points higher than it was in 2020, due to MidAmerican’s continued investment in wind and solar energy,” the company said in a statement in July.

That puts MidAmerican well on its way toward its goal, first announced in 2016, of having the capacity to generate all of its Iowa customers’ electric needs from renewable sources with a nearly $4 billion investment in wind and solar — which it calls the “Wind PRIME” project — over the next three years. It's also aiming for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

“If the Iowa Utilities Board approves the company’s proposed Wind PRIME project to add more than 2,000 megawatts of wind generation and 50 megawatts of solar energy, MidAmerican will be able to provide renewable energy equal to its Iowa customers’ annual usage upon completion in 2025,” the company said in the statement.

The IUB has scheduled a hearing on the project for Oct. 31 through Nov. 4.

“We are proud to provide our customers with 88.5% renewable energy today, but we aren’t stopping there,” Kelcey Brown, MidAmerican Energy president and CEO, said. “We are always planning for the future — and the Wind PRIME project is the next step. That’s a major part of our long-term goal to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions.”

Whether its 88.5% or 100%, those figures may be somewhat misleading. Yes, they mean that the utility has the capacity to generate most if not all of its Iowa customers’ power demand with wind and solar, but environmental groups critical of the utility’s plan point out that MidAmerican will still be burning coal — one of the dirtiest sources of power — for decades to come.

As of 2021, 58% of MidAmerican’s energy mix came from wind, 28% from coal, and the remainder came from natural gas-fired and nuclear power plants. MidAmerican owns part or all of six coal-fired power plants in Iowa. While its reliance on those plants has been reduced by wind power, coal and gas are still essential for reliability, Tina Hoffman, MidAmerican’s vice president for corporate communications, told Courthouse News Service. “The wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine,” she said.

MidAmerican says its current wind energy fleet — windmill farms sprawling across huge expanses of rural Iowa, which are capable of generating 7,300 megawatts — is the largest of any regulated utility in the nation, representing an investment of roughly $14 billion in wind energy.

MidAmerican’s plan to invest $3.9 billion in renewable energy to reduce or eliminate carbon emissions, includes research into carbon capture and sequestration, energy storage, and small modular nuclear reactors. The addition of more than 2,000 megawatts of renewable energy generation would be the rough equivalent of three coal-powered plants.

That does not satisfy Iowa environmental groups that want the utility to move faster on shutting down its coal plants, in particular by investing more in solar, battery storage, and energy efficiency programs. They point out that MidAmerican sells some of its excess coal-fired capacity to other states.

Those environmental groups — including the Iowa Environmental Council, Environmental Law and Policy Center, and Sierra Club — argue that maintaining coal plants is more costly to the utility’s customers. And they want MidAmerican to invest in new technologies that would allow excess electric power generated by windmills when demand is low to be stored for use when demand increases.

While MidAmerican plans to invest in battery storage research, the environmental groups argue that storage technology is not new or unexplored but is already widely used. That technology, they argue, could help replace coal.

“I applaud MidAmerican’s desire and effort to build clean energy generation that takes advantage of cost-reducing incentives,” Devi Glick, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, consultant hired by the three Iowa environmental groups said in testimony to the Iowa Utilities Board in August. “But adding a massive quantity of wind to a system that relies on aging fossil resources for nearly all its firm capacity does not ensure a transition to a sustainable future. MidAmerican should match its resource additions to facilitate this transition.”