Tensions flared at the end of a town hall meeting in Osceola, IA. Two representatives from RPM Access, a Midwest regional wind power generation provider, were in the rural town of 5,500 to field questions from Osceola representatives and residents about a proposed plan to build a commercial wind farm in the area.
After outlining the nitty-gritty economic and megawatt power generation bona fides of the project, Aaron Theisen, the project development coordinator, opened the discussion up to the audience. A local farmer named Mark Johnson took the opportunity to vent his frustration at the whole process.
“Whenever I ask a question about one of these proposed deals,” said Johnson, “there’s a hell of a lot of secrecy going on and no one steps up to the plate to give a real answer. It seems to me like there’s a lot of people with big plans for me and my farm.” Johnson then stormed out of the meeting. While Johnson’s comments conjured a dramatic shift in tone at the town hall, they were also emblematic of an ongoing conflict throughout Iowa over the costs and benefits of green energy.
In recent decades, Iowa has become a nationwide leader in wind power generation. Sixty-two percent of the state’s electricity comes from wind, the highest percentage in the United States. Aside from their environmental benefits, these wind energy projects also brought $57 million in tax revenue to the state in 2021, while wind companies paid $67 million in lease payments to landowners. Counties use this revenue to help fund essential services like education, infrastructure, and emergency services. The importance of wind power to the state is not lost on its government: the state’s newest license plate features an image of a wind turbine.
Theisen, who has worked at RMP Access for 13 years, witnessed firsthand the cascading impacts that wind energy projects have had on Iowa’s economy.
“Investments in wind power have secondary and tertiary benefits beyond the tax revenue they bring in,” said Theisen. “Wind projects across the state directly or indirectly employ thousands of Iowans. Plus, big tech companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Google have made billion-dollar investments in the state in part because of its reliable, renewable, and affordable energy sources. These investments are helping to reshape Iowa’s economy and create new opportunities for residents.”
Despite the benefits they provide, wind turbines, and the companies that install them, have not always been welcomed with open arms in the Hawkeye state. In a state with the second highest agricultural production capacity in the country, rural Iowan farmers have grown increasingly hostile to the abundance of turbines on or near their land. In 2018, residents in Fairbank in eastern Iowa won a legal battle to have three wind turbines taken down, only the second time a judge ever ordered the dismantling of turbines in the U.S.
Grassroots organizers have typically emphasized aesthetic issues with the turbines, including their noise levels and red flashing lights that line the state’s interstate highways at night. However, wildlife conservation and farmers’ rights are also front and center in debates over wind energy’s future in Iowa.
Scott Kent, director of Clarke County Conservation in Osceola, isn’t surprised by the recent backlash to wind energy projects in the area.
“Private landowners in rural Iowa generally don’t want to be bothered by too many outsiders,” said Kent. “They are often forced to work around the turbines. Ultimately, though, aesthetics are the main issue. The wind companies see opportunities to make money and jump on it without considering how local populations feel. But they’re the ones who have to see and hear the turbines everyday.”
While Iowa GOP voters list environmental issues as a relatively low priority in their political considerations ahead of the 2024 election, the resistance to wind turbines is not generally fueled by anti-green sentiment. In fact, one of the key considerations in resistance efforts is the impact that wind turbines have on migratory bird populations. Wind turbines are known to have killed hundreds of thousands of birds each year, a staggering figure but one that is dwarfed by the tens of millions of birds killed by electric lines each year.
Kent, whose conservation fund seeks to protect Iowa’s natural lands and species, views solar power as a better alternative energy source going forward. “Solar farms don’t see the same levels of condemnation that wind farms do,” he said. “They don’t have the same impact on our bird species, and they don’t infringe on people’s natural landscape views. You can even plant various wildflowers around the panels.”
Even for Iowans working on sustainability issues in the state, the need to respect locals’ land and privacy rights is essential to any successful environmental or green energy policy. Emily Martin, the conservation programs director at the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF), sees the strife in her home state within the context of the broader timeline of human progress.
“The fight between individual rights and societal progress is a tale as old as time,” Martin said. “When the railroads were built, it was great for the country as a whole but also led to the displacement of many people. Green energy is essential in the long term, but land protection needs to be part of the solution.”
Anna Gray, INHF’s Public Policy Director, hopes to see a future where broader land and conservation considerations are taken into account for future green energy projects. “There doesn’t always seem to be a lot of long-term planning when it comes to wind and solar projects in the state,” said Gray. “We’ve been looking at different ways to use public lands for different conservation and recreational purposes. These public spaces have great benefits for surrounding communities.”
Despite the setbacks, most Iowans are in favor of increased investments in sustainable energy, with 80 percent saying that the primary goal of Iowa’s energy policy should be achieving 100 percent clean energy. Given the abundance of natural winds throughout the state, increased investments in wind farms will likely be a massive part of that long-term goal.
“Going forward, there is still a lot of work to be done to increase Iowa’s wind energy consumption even further,” Theisen said, reflecting on RPM Access’ future. “There will be a huge need to renew existing projects and start new ones with more modernized technology. If we can continue providing Iowans with cheap, renewable energy while mitigating the negative perceptions that may arise, that’s our biggest goal.”