Jefferson Fuels Its Own Future
Story by Jennifer Blair Tuite, photography by Shuva Rahim
“I guess I’ve just always loved the wind.” Tom Wind (yes, that’s his real name) makes this simple declaration as the turbine above him marks time with outstretched arms. “It’s like an old friend here.”
“Here” is a pocket of Greene County, where the wind sweeps through 300,000 plus acres of corn and soybeans, and its admiring friend is a national expert on wind energy and part of a local group of landowners who established Iowa’s first locally owned wind farm just outside his hometown of Jefferson. “It’s always been about benefiting the community,” Wind (right) asserts. In the five years since the blades first turned, benefitting the community seems to be exactly what this group of intrepid entrepreneurs has done.
Iowa has long been a pioneer in the wind industry, enacting legislation in the 1980s and 1990s to encourage renewable energy production and entice turbine manufacturing and maintenance operations to locate in the state.
Today Iowa ranks second in the nation for wind production (behind Texas) and first in the nation for share of energy derived from wind (20 percent). The industry employs around 6,500 people in Iowa, again topping national charts. The potential for growth is vast. With current turbines, the state has the capacity to generate around 4,500 megawatts (MW) of electricity per year — an amount that can power around a million homes.
The Iowa Wind Energy Association estimates that Iowa’s total annual capacity is 570,000 MW — enough to power the state 25 times over.
The majority of wind farm development in Iowa has been driven by large corporations such as MidAmerican and Florida-based NextEra, which have the expertise and resources to develop large-scale wind farms. These energy producers have been responsible for erecting hundreds of turbines at dozens of Iowa wind farms and will likely continue to be the strongest drivers in the industry’s growth here.
Compared with these major players, small-scale, locally owned projects are minor contributors to overall wind energy generation in the state. Local projects, however, offer benefits that can’t be measured in wattage alone. To get to know the rewards of local wind, you have to get to know the locals.
Keeping watch over the town of Jefferson, seven 265-foot-tall turbines stand like sentinels on a bluff just north on Highway 4. The mile-long stretch of turbines at Hardin Hilltop Wind Farm began as the vision of local farmer Bill Sutton (right), who in 2003 enlisted the guidance of Tom Wind and the partnership of five other owners of adjacent land. Through Sutton’s dogged determination and Wind’s industry expertise, the partnership sourced funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Iowa Energy Center, and a California-based equity partner, who agreed to shoulder most of the construction costs in return for majority ownership for a set period of time. (At the end of that time — around 10 years — the ownership will largely flip to the seven owners permanently.)
The energy produced by the turbines is sold to Alliant Energy, which distributes it primarily to its customers in Greene County. “Over the course of a year,” explains Wind, “the power produced almost exactly matches the demand in Jefferson.” That amount of wind-based energy also eliminates enough coal to fill a train three miles long every year. The impact is audible as the air-conditioners of Jefferson hum on a sunny June afternoon.
Beyond the direct benefit of providing a local source of clean energy, Hardin Hilltop’s revolving arms have reached far into the community, first with their construction in 2007.
David Ausberger (with his family at right), the owner of Turbine 7, remembers with a smile the excitement, bustle, and anxiety as his turbine was erected in the December rain.
“People from across the county lined the roads to watch the turbines go up. Hotels were booked from here to Ames with people involved in the construction. Restaurants were full. It was a real boom time.”
After the construction crews left, the longer-lasting effects of the project began to emerge. “I think of it as small ripples in the community,” he says.
One of those ripples sits in a quiet corner of the buzzing Uptown Cafe and with pride describes the growth in his business since Hardin Hilltop’s construction. Shane Kozal, a longtime friend of Ausberger’s, was hired to clean the turbine parts at Hardin Hilltop before they were assembled. Shane and his wife, Wendy, co-owned and operated a part-time power washing business that supplemented wages Shane earned through his job at the local co-op.
“We’ve now become the go-to people for turbine cleaning in the area,” says Shane (right) of Kozal Power Washing. “We got the jobs at Junction Hilltop, Emmetsburg, Ruthven. We really have carved out a niche market.”
The extra income from turbine washing enabled the Kozals to hire two more full-time workers, purchase new equipment, open a Tropical Sno stand in town, and start a snow removal business. “Hardin Hilltop helped us realize other ways to branch out and gave us capital to do it,” says Wendy. “That first job really allowed everything else to happen.”
More ripples: This past year Renew Energy Maintenance, a regional heavyweight in turbine maintenance, established its Iowa office in Jefferson, employing three full-time skilled technicians and hosting over a dozen other employees who are in the state temporarily for various turbine projects.
Jim Mikel, president and founder, is proud of the company’s ability to give meaningful employment to ambitious locals who may otherwise leave the state. “Some of our best employees are local farm kids with that famous Midwestern work ethic.” (Employee Ben Holmes, below right)
Some of those workers have received training in turbine maintenance at local community colleges, such as Iowa Lakes and Iowa Central. Many are trained in-house. Either way, Mikel says demand for this skilled labor is on the rise: “We hope to expand employment in Jefferson to up to 10 full-time employees by the end of the year.”
Greene County Chamber and Development’s Executive Director Ken Paxton attributes Renew’s location not only to Hardin Hilltop and further wind development in the area but also to the strong sense of community in Greene County. “Everyone is pulling on the same side of the rope here,” he says. “We’ve got great community support for the wind turbines and a progressive City Council and Board of Supervisors. As the wind industry grows, it just gets better for us.”
Banking on the Community
In Greene County that industry growth can be traced directly back to Tom Wind and Bill Sutton. After the completion of Hardin Hilltop in 2007, they looked to a newly built ethanol plant in town and saw an opportunity to provide clean, local power to the facility.
Junction Hilltop Wind Farm became fully operational in March 2012. Benefitting from a temporary grant program under the federal stimulus legislation, the nine local partners of Junction Hilltop were able to fund the five-turbine project themselves through a local bank instead of enlisting the backing of a large equity partner.
Benjamin Yoder (right), executive vice president of Home State Bank in Jefferson and president of Greene County Chamber, was at the vortex of an 18-month frenzy of paperwork and negotiation that resulted in the financing for the project. It wasn’t easy, he admits, but the result was powerful: a truly locally funded wind project supplying clean energy to a local business. “We saw it as a good loan for the bank and the community,” says Yoder. “As a local bank, it’s important for us to play a key role in community development. It’s a quality of life issue.”
The anecdotal evidence found in Jefferson is backed by research on models of wind farms. A 2005 report from the Iowa Policy Project cites three studies, all concluding that small-scale, locally owned wind projects create greater local economic benefits than large, out-of-area investors. In one model created by the U.S. General Accountability Office, a locally owned Iowa wind farm created twice as many local jobs and generated six times more local spending related to the turbines.
Tom Wind carried out a similar analysis himself and found that local projects could keep approximately five times more money in the community and up to 10 times more money in the state (compared to a large owner based out of state), possibly amounting to $150,000 per wind turbine annually.
Wind and Sutton are pushing that potential for benefit one step further with Junction Hilltop. From the outset, the business partners committed to giving 10 percent of the wind farm’s profits to charitable purposes in the county. “We’re still deciding how the donation will be distributed,” explains Wind, “but it was always the plan that Junction Hilltop would give back to the community.”
Fueling the Future
The potential for continued growth of locally owned wind farms is intimately linked to the federal and state incentives that encourage it. In the case of Hardin Hilltop, a production tax credit at the federal level made the project attractive to its equity partner, and a production tax credit at the state level specifically designed for small wind projects provided necessary extra revenue to the partnership.
In the case of Junction Hilltop, the temporary federal grant program was crucial in enabling the partners to fund the project locally.
Wind accepts the possibility that the temporary grant program will not be renewed. He, Sutton, and other partners are actively lobbying for an extension of both the production tax credit and, in particular, an investment tax credit, which is more directly helpful to small wind farm owners. All federal tax credits are set to expire at the end of 2012. Although some voices from Washington are confident of the renewal of at least the production tax credit, there is currently no scheduled time frame for passing legislation.
Taking a break from wind farm advocacy and full-time farming, Bill Sutton reflects on the wind projects in Greene County and the potential for further local projects in the state.
Since Hardin Hilltop, a number of local projects have emerged, including wind farms in Greenfield, Ruthven, Story City, and Traer. “People are starting to realize the benefits of community wind, and there are different models emerging,” he says, describing Greenfield’s approach in which a large number of community members each contribute a share of the construction costs and then share the benefits. “That’s truly community wind.”
Whatever form local wind takes in the future, Jefferson’s seven sentinels will always have pride of place in Iowa’s history as the first. As the graceful white arms of Hardin Hilltop spin in the late July air and his three young children run knee-deep in the bliss of summer vacation, David Ausberger puts this honor into very human terms: “I want my grandchildren to say one day that their grandpa was part of the first locally owned wind farm in Iowa. I want that to be my mark on the community.”
by the numbers
(since Hardin Hilltop’s origins in 2007)
Number of turbine blade revolutions: 245 million
Number of kilowatt hours generated: 240 million
Number of equivalent miles traveled by each revolving blade: 3.54 million
Number of 100-watt lightbulbs powered at full wind capacity: 147,000
Each turbine’s three blades rotate an average of 15.6 revolutions per minute. About a third of the wind energy is captured by the blades’ sweep, converted at the top of the tower from mechanical to electrical energy by a generator, converted again by a transformer at the tower’s base to a high voltage power configuration, and finally sent along underground cables to a substation, where it enters Alliant Energy’s transmission grid.