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Iowa's green energy policy struggle

By Scott Simon
BBC News, Iowa

The presence of prairie winds and rich soil makes Iowa literally fertile ground for developing alternative energy sources from wind turbines and biofuels.

Iowa wind turbines (File picture)
Iowa invested $6m in wind turbine manufacturing

But the landscape is also a reminder that achieving energy independence is a formidable challenge and making an agricultural economy green is not easy.

Farm workers cannot take subways to work, farmers have to drive long distances into the fields to sow and harvest their crops and to deliver them to markets.

Farm animals themselves, not to put too fine a point on it, produce methane - a powerful greenhouse gas - that is trapped in the atmosphere.

Those challenges have not stopped the state setting itself ambitious goals.

Energy pioneers

The Iowa Climate Change Advisory Panel recently wrote a report for Governor Chet Culver setting out how the state can reduce carbon emissions by 90% by 2030.

The state has set up an Office of Energy Independence - surely the perfect place, I thought, to test how easy it will be for President Obama to achieve energy independence for the whole of America.

There are plenty of energy pioneers to be found in Iowa.

I feel like I'm doing something more than just building a washing machine, I'm building something for everyone to capitalise on
Crugar Tuttle
Wind turbine factory worker

Roger Neuberger, a farmer, lives near Clear Lake in the north-west part of the State - where the wind blows hardest.

He gets money from an energy company each year for making room for two wind turbines on his land.

Mr Neuberger has promised the energy company that he will not publicly reveal how much he is being paid, but other farmers have let it be known that, depending on when their contracts were signed, they can receive somewhere between $2,000 (1,400) and $4,000 per turbine every year for the next 30 years.

Mr Neuberger is very happy, if rather modest about his role at the new frontier.

Asked if he felt like a pioneer, he replied: "Yeah, I suppose so."

"There were a number of farmers who didn't want to do this because they didn't understand - they were concerned how they were going to be treated. We've been treated wonderful. I couldn't ask for anything better."

Foreign oil

Iowa hopes that wind energy will deliver more than just electricity - and that investment in wind technology will help to transform towns depressed by unemployment.

Towns like Newton, which is just to the east of the capital, Des Moines.

Nearly 2,000 people lost their jobs in Newton when the town's biggest employer, Whirlpool, shut its doors in 2007.

Ethanol processing plant
Is ethanol really a clean alternative to fossil fuels?
Hundreds of those same workers, who once made washing machine parts, now make blades for wind turbines at the TPI factory.

But the jobs did not come cheap.

The state gave the manufacturer $6m in subsidies and tax breaks - in return the company promised to hire 500 people.

Larry Crady worked at Whirlpool for 23 years, making coin-operated laundry machines.

"It just wows you when you see a blade open and close," Larry says. "When you pull that blade out of the mould it's exciting, I feel like I'm doing something more than just building a washing machine, I'm building something for everyone to capitalise on."

Mr Crady's sense of wonder is understandable - the plant certainly has the "wow" factor.

The turbine blades are as long as a 747 jet and the factory is longer than an aircraft carrier.

It is fitting, then, that - according to the plant's manager - so many of those that work there feel that making the blades is as much about national security as it is about electricity.

"A lot of us in this company and in wind energy have a sense of calling to this," Crugar Tuttle says. "I think in the interview process it comes out with a lot of our veterans that this is about weaning us off foreign oil."

But wind energy is a long way from delivering independence for Iowa any time soon.

It provides just 8% of Iowa's energy needs.

If it is to go any way towards making the rest of the country energy independent, a distribution grid would be needed.

Controversial

President Obama has promised to invest $150bn in renewable energy over the next 10 years.

He hopes to increase dramatically the contribution that wind, solar and other renewable sources can make to the country's energy supply.

According to current projections, renewables will still be providing only 8% of the country's energy supply 20 years from now.

Certainly, energy independence will not be possible without replacing the foreign petrol used in cars.

We need sources of power that are constant and don't rely on things like whether the wind's blowing or the sun's shining
Phil Wyse
Iowa state representative

Many Iowans think the solution is biofuels (as do most presidential candidates - albeit only while they are campaigning in the crucial Iowa caucuses).

Refineries across the state produce 1.5 billion gallons of ethanol a year - enough to replace 10% of the petrol in America's cars.

But biofuels are controversial.

A UN report says they drive up the price of food.

And is ethanol really clean?

We visited POET's ethanol plant in Hanlontown in the northern part of Iowa.

The plant, like most in the state, is powered by fossil fuels.

I spoke to POET's Vice President for Project Development, Larry Ward.

He insists that despite the use of natural gas in the production of ethanol, it is a good bargain.

"There's a tremendous net gain from an energy standpoint. Using natural gas to produce ethanol you have a gain - for every unit of energy you put into the plant you get two units of energy out."

The trouble is, many of Iowa's ethanol refineries use coal - the dirtiest fuel of all.

It is one of the reasons why Iowa will soon be building another coal-fired power plant.

More than half of all the electricity produced by the new plant is expected to be used to fuel the state's ethanol refineries.

King coal

Another problem is that Iowa gets very cold in winter.

How many Americans would risk living in a place where January temperatures hover around -18F, if they had to rely on sun or wind power for heat?

What happens when the sun goes down and the wind dies?

That is why, despite the push for ethanol and wind power, coal is still king when it comes to powering Iowa.

It currently provides 85% of the state's energy needs.

Phil Wyse, a state representative for 22 years, believes Iowa and America need nuclear power.

"We need sources of power that are constant and don't rely on things like whether the wind's blowing or the sun's shining," he says.

"Alternative to coal? Nuclear more in the mix."

Despite all the wind energy and ethanol Iowa strives to produce, carbon emissions are still growing here - and they are 1% higher than the average for the whole of the US.

Iowa may have much to show the rest of America about green energy - including how hard it will be to make America energy independent.



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