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Making history in Iowa-with wind power

Iowa's MidAmerican Energy is looking to make history, setting its sights on generating renewable energy equivalent to 100 percent of their customers' power use with the help of recently powered-up wind power projects.

By Tony Kryzanowski

Iowa is about to make history.

Iowa's rate-regulated utility, MidAmerican Energy Company, the largest power provider in the state, will soon generate enough renewable energy to reach a level that is equivalent to 100 percent of their customers' annual retail power usage. And most of that will be wind-generated.

No other rate-regulated utility in the United States generates as much wind power as MidAmerican Energy Company. It has the capacity to produce more than 5 gigawatts (GW) of wind power—and continues to develop more.

The fact is that if anyone was going to get to 100 percent green power first, it would probably be in Iowa. That's because MidAmerican was presented with an almost perfect business scenario to make a massive investment in wind power:

  • Iowa has a superior wind resource.
  • A survey conducted by the company indicates that 90 percent of its customers prefer renewable power.
  • There was plenty of landowner support for wind farm development.
  • Over the past 15 years, the cost per kilowatt/hour for generating wind power has dropped substantially. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, the cost of producing wind power has dropped by 25 percent since 2010.

MidAmerican's recently completed 340-megawatt (MW) Beaver Creek wind farm (located in parts of Boone and Greene counties) and previously completed wind projects bring its renewable power generation capacity to 90 percent.

Beaver Creek is an important part of the company's Wind XI initiative—a $3.6 billion investment launched in 2016 to develop 2 GW of wind power in just three years. That goal will be met, and now the target is 100 percent by 2020.

When launched in 2016, the Wind XI initiative was the largest economic development project in Iowa's history. However, over time, MidAmerican has consistently been adding wind power generation to its portfolio. Before this initiative, it already had about 4 GW of wind power capacity for its customers. This was accomplished through a series of initiatives—Wind I to Wind X—approved by the Iowa Utilities Board, starting in 2004.

MidAmerican's Wind XII initiative—for the development of another 591 MW of wind power—has already been approved by the Board, which will take the company close to 100 percent renewable power available to their customers. New wind projects in the planning stages will take the company over the top.

 
  

"Wind XII will help transform our 100 percent renewable energy vision from a bold dream into a reality," says Adam Wright, MidAmerican Energy's president and CEO. "Wind XII is a clear demonstration of our commitment to and investment in the cleaner, more sustainable energy future our customers want and our environment deserves."

The Beaver Creek Phase I and Phase II projects were self-developed by MidAmerican, who in turn hired Minnesota-based M.A. Mortenson Company to build them. The projects are mirror images of each other.

Phase I was completed in 2017 and Phase II in 2018. They each feature 85 Vestas V110-2.0 turbines. Vestas also provided towers, nacelles, hubs, wiring, and inverters for both projects.

Beaver Creek Phase II was the 15th project that Mortenson built for MidAmerican and its 27th wind project in Iowa. Their scope of work on both project phases included construction of access roads, foundations, collection systems, installation, and erection.

Adam Jablonski, MidAmerica's director of Renewable Energy Development - Wind Generation, says that coordinating the company's Wind XI and Wind XII initiatives has been a challenge because it has required juggling construction of several wind projects at the same time. Four projects were on the go in 2018 and five projects in 2019.

Vestas was a significant turbine supplier to many Wind XI projects, with Siemens Gamesa also supplying the turbines for one project. Mid-American worked with multiple developers and self-developed some projects to meet its deadline goal.

"That helps to minimize the risk, when you use multiple contractors, developers, and consultants," says Jablonski, "and it really helps to get things done. One group is not overloaded, and we were able to spread it out and get it done on time."

Mortenson and Blattner Energy (based in Avon, Minnesota) both have a long history of working with MidAmerican, and for working safely and delivering projects on time. They constructed all of the Wind XI projects.

Local businesses benefited from the projects, particularly with concrete and road aggregate supply.

 
 The Beaver Creek Phase I and Phase II projects in Iowa were self-developed by MidAmerican Energy, who in turn hired Minnesota-based M.A. Mortenson to build them. The projects are mirror images of each other. They each feature 85 Vestas V110-2.0 turbines.
  

"All the local communities also benefit [from these projects] because workers are buying their groceries and their gas throughout the project construction," says Jablonski. "Hundreds of workers come in, and they really live in that area for a year or two while the construction is going on." At its peak, the Beaver Creek II project alone employed about 180 workers.

Jablonski adds that MidAmerican's philosophy is power generation while respecting the environment; but at the same time, the renewable option should not impact customer power rates. When MidAmerican initially investigated various rollout options for its Wind XI initiative, it felt that the 2-GW goal was possible without impacting those rates.

What has helped drive the economics of the company's wind power investment has certainly been the Iowa wind resource itself.

When looking at the wind resource map of the United States from Texas to North Dakota, there is a strip that catches the western half of Iowa, which is probably the best wind resource in the U.S. Although the majority of MidAmerican's projects are in western Iowa, the whole state is a prime target. Additionally, the terrain in this midwestern state known for its agriculture is typically flat or rolling farmland. This also helps the economics when building access roads.

"Wind is really the best answer in Iowa when you are looking for renewable resources," Jablonski says, and MidAmerican has made a long-term commitment to its development.

As MidAmerican has shepherded its measured roll-out of wind power capacity in Iowa over the past 15 years, it has also benefited from technological advances along the way.

"The big changes in turbines since 2004 have really been the height of the hub where the nacelle sits and the length of the blade," says Jablonski.

 
  

For example, back in 2004, towers were 65 meters tall. More recent projects are a third higher, in the 95-meter range. Also since 2004, blade length has nearly doubled.

"In terms of the capacity factor percentage, the 2004 projects were in the 20s, and projects we are building now are in the 40s," he says. "The industry has come a long way in terms of production and efficiency per turbine."

MidAmerican's wind capacity development program could not have succeeded without good landowner and community support. Jablonski notes that all of the company's wind tower easements have been obtained voluntarily.

Wind power development began in Iowa 20 years ago, with the first installation in 1998.

"Wind projects in Iowa aren't new," Jablonski says. "This is something that people are used to seeing, and they still sign up for it today when we go out to develop projects." Each project usually involves hundreds of landowners. The major draw for participation is that those landowners want to generate another income from their properties.

Community and county support is also generally strong because of the additional tax revenue that these projects generate, and the easement payments to landowners.

As agriculture is a major industry in Iowa, the reduction in acreage from each wind turbine pedestal is a concern, but it's estimated that each turbine only takes about a half-acre out of crop production. On the positive side, even with the height and blade size of each installation growing significantly since 2004, the actual footprint of access roads and pedestals has stayed about the same. MidAmerican simply looks at that half-acre as a different form of production for the landowner other than growing a crop.

The support received was key to the development of Beaver Creek's phases one and two.

"We had initially planned for only the first phase of the Beaver Creek wind farm. But development went so well because of great landowner participation and support from both Boone and Greene counties, that we decided to expand that project into a second phase," says Jablonski.

Given the amount of renewable development in Iowa, transmission capacity is filling up quickly, and this factored into site selection. The transmission grid is operated by Mid-Continent Independent Service Operator (MISO). MidAmerican is a MISO member. Project site selection is determined based on studies conducted in concert with MISO. Final results can take as long as two years and will establish upgrades required to the system to be able to add a connection. Because those upgrades are becoming more costly, Jablonski says that this is an indication that transmission capacity is filling up.

Given all of MidAmerican's wind generation capacity, they paid $22.6 million to 27 Iowa counties in property taxes in 2018. Over 2,000 landowners also received easement payments, amounting to $21.1 million last year.

The company does not operate exclusively in Iowa, with a small percentage of power also sold in South Dakota and Illinois.

 


Summer 2019