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Powering the Future: where the wind energy industry has been and what lies ahead

ESTHERVILLE, Iowa (KTIV) – Twenty years ago, they were still a pretty novel sight, but today, they are a common part of our landscape in Siouxland. Wind farms continue to grow in size and number across the U.S. Not everyone is a fan of them, but all indications are that it’s a trend that will continue.

They dot the countryside, steel giants harnessing a never-ending source of power. And more are going up every day. Wind energy is the fastest-growing source of electricity in the United States.

“For sure it’s going to become a bigger percentage of our power grid, our power production nationwide, because really, this is a continental solution. It’s not a local solution,” said Dan Lutat, head of Sustainable Energy Resources & Technologies at Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville. “The biggest thing is because we use an inexhaustible resource so we’re not actually burning to create the electricity we produce.”

Siouxland is naturally-suited for wind farms, and Iowa is one of the biggest players in the industry. 42-hundred-plus turbines; 3rd in the nation in wind power capacity installed, number 1 in percentage of electricity generated by wind. Almost 40 percent of Iowa’s electricity comes from wind turbines.

O’Brien County has 318 wind turbines, more than any other Iowa county

Nebraska’s numbers are about one-fourth those of Iowa, but the Husker State is on track to double its installed wind capacity. In 2018, no other state added new wind capacity at a faster rate than Nebraska. That’s due in large part to the Rattlesnake Creek Wind Project in Dixon County.

With 101 turbines spread over 32,000 acres, the Rattlesnake Creek wind project near Allen is Nebraska’s 2nd-biggest wind farm

With 101 turbines spread out over 32-thousand acres, it became Nebraska’s 2nd biggest wind farm when it went online late last year. A new Facebook data center in Papillion is receiving power from these turbines and has committed to getting all of its power from Rattlesnake Creek in 10 years.

Next up for Nebraska is the Plum Creek Wind Project near Winside. A Chicago company hopes to start construction this summer and have 70-to-90 turbines running by next year.

After years of lagging behind its neighboring states, South Dakota is poised for big growth in wind energy production, if counties and landowners go along.

“There’s tremendous upside to it, because we have so much of it,” said South Dakota Republican Senator John Thune. “The technology continues to improve and advance to where wind energy is more efficient, the cost keeps coming down, and if you have the infrastructure to the transmission to move it, you can really benefit in a state like South Dakota. And that means more jobs, more investment in our region of the country.”

Iowa and Siouxland have been leaders in wind energy development. In 2004, Iowa Lakes Community College here in Estherville became the first school in the country to offer an associate degree in applied sciences in wind energy and turbine technology.

“We really need technicians in this industry right now,” said Dan Lutat, who heads up Sustainable Energy Resources & Technologies at ILCC. It’s a busy department because wind technology is a lucrative career.

“Our students make 50-to-$90,000 right out the door with a two-year degree,” Lutat said. “So the return on investment is pretty phenomenal. And on most of their internships that occur between the first and second year, it’s not uncommon for students to pay for their education in one internship.”

Dan Lutat is head of Sustainable Energy Resources & Technologies at Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville

“Really, I was looking to make money, you know?” said Jessie Moffitt, an ILCC Student From Indiana. “I’m interested in renewable energy, cleaner earth, problem solving, working with my hands, lots of things went into my decision to come here.”

Michael Asbury said, “I saw this opportunity in the wind industry field and made a run for it.”

At 50 years old, Asbury is a non-traditional student. After 20 years in law enforcement, he’s making a career change.

“Maintaining our mindset on trying to minimize our impact on our planet and trying to work with it instead of making it work with us is probably the best way to go,” he said.

After 20 years in law enforcement, 50-year-old Michael Asbury is making a career change to be a wind energy technician. He and his wife will move from their home in Florida to Greenfield, Iowa

For landowners, wind turbines can provide a good paycheck. Power companies pay up to $18,000 lease per year, per turbine.

But not everyone is on board. There is resistance to wind farms, too. Several Siouxland counties have said they don’t want them, including Stanton County, Nebraska and Lincoln County, South Dakota. Common complaints from opponents: the turbines are unsightly, they’re noisy, they cast bothersome shadows, can kill birds and take ag land out of production. A year-and-a-half ago, Palo Alto County Supervisors approved a 170-turbine wind farm over the objection of several landowners. The landowners sued, but earlier this month, the Iowa Supreme Court rejected their case and said the wind farm project can proceed.

“Sometimes, there are folks who oppose those for different reasons,” said Sen. Thune. “And so you want to make sure that you’re listening to local leaders and communities to ensure that these wind farms are being put in to areas that can maximize the potential and minimize the impact they have.”

Lutat said, “The American landowner has a big piece to play in there. Without those participating landowners getting into that wind game where they can have turbines and power lines running through their property to connect these wind parks to the power grid, that’s only a good thing, because without the American landowner, you really don’t have an industry.”

Lutat sees wind energy not as the final answer to the world’s power needs, but as a part of the puzzle.

“So if you look at all the different energy systems in the United States, wind energy represents that bridge technology that helps get us to the next best idea.”

Lutat believes that next big energy idea could be one or two hundred years away. So sights like this are likely to be here for a while.

Al Joens

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