MARSHALLTOWN — When wind turbines started popping up in Iowa in the 1990s, they were novelties that added interest to the landscape and put money in farmers' pockets.
Now that Iowa now has more than 3,200 wind turbines and ranks No. 1 in the nation for the share of electricity coming from wind energy, counties are getting tougher about where turbines are built, how much noise they make and how much they disturb nature.
Some people fear the lack of state and federal regulation of wind energy could leave Iowans vulnerable if the industry sours or scientists discover new consequences for the environment or health.
A national group points to the expansion of eagle kill permits as an indicator of the power of the wind industry.
“You have an organization with millions of dollars at stake,” said Robert Johns, spokesman for the American Bird Conservancy. “To have an expectation they will report on findings that will halt those operations — that's ludicrous. Do we ask the coal industry to police itself?”
Siting important for productivity
The benefits of wind energy are clear. It's clean, renewable energy that makes America less dependent on foreign oil.
Iowa generates 27.4 percent of its electricity from wind — more than any other state in the country.
The wind industry in Iowa employs more than 6,000 people, and turbines in place are expected to add $2.6 billion to county tax rolls, the Iowa Wind Energy Association reports.
“I don't have a bad thing to say about them,” said Lynn Handorf, whose Tama County farm has 13 turbines.
“There is some wind noise on certain days. It's a whoosh-whoosh sound,” Handorf said. “I notice it in the morning when I come outside. But when I've been around them all day, I don't notice it.”
For wind energy to be profitable, companies must build turbines where they receive wind at high enough speeds. The strongest winds in Iowa are located north and west of a diagonal line through the state with average speeds of 17 to 19 miles per hour at turbine height, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
County siting restrictions can play a role in where wind farms are built, noted Adam Wright, MidAmerican Energy's vice president of wind generation and development.
“If there's a really strict requirement, it squeezes the land available,” he said. “It gets more difficult to put in a meaningful project.”
Des Moines-based MidAmerican Energy installed its first wind turbines in Iowa in 2004 and will have 1,715 by the end of 2015. The newest project involves 448 turbines sprouting in five central Iowa counties.
The $1.9 billion project will generate 1,050 megawatts of power.
Some of the earliest counties to get wind farms in Iowa have no written restrictions. Adair County, west of Des Moines, has no zoning ordinance, so turbines can be built anywhere in the countryside as long as the owner has a contract with the landowner.
Counties with newer wind farms drafted ordinances that include turbine setbacks, noise restrictions and rules for decommissioning turbines.
Delaware County enacted a wind ordinance in 2010, as De Soto-based RPM Access prepared to develop a 17-turbine wind farm near Greeley. The ordinance requires turbines be built at least as far from roads as the height of the tower and blades — sometimes called the “fall zone.”
Turbines in Delaware County must be 1,000 feet from houses and blade tips must have a 75-foot ground clearance. The county has one of the stricter noise limits of 55 decibels, which is slightly quieter than an air-conditioning unit.
Most counties with ordinances require owners to remove non-functioning turbines or be assessed the cost of removal.
“When they're done working we don't want them left in the field as sculptures,” said Story County Planner Ryan Newstrom.
Delaware County Supervisor Shirley Helmrichs said the wind ordinance, which took several months to craft, standardizes wind developments and ensures residents and the environment are protected.
“There could be (problems) down the road, but it's covered in the ordinance,” she said.
Wind energy is relatively safe. Turbines are monitored 24/7 and have redundant safety systems. There is little evidence of direct health effects of living near a wind farm.
But there are risks.
The Caithness Wind Farm Information Forum, based in England, reports an average 149 accidents or incidents a year from 2009 through 2013. The watchdog group keeps a database of all the accidents found in media reports and other sources, but warns that many others go unreported.
Reported Iowa incidents include: a 2010 turbine fire near Clear Lake, a technician falling to this death from a tower near Spirit Lake in 2011, a bald eagle being killed by a turbine on the Iowa-Minnesota border in 2012, a blade snapping off an Audubon County turbine in 2013 and a “runaway” turbine in Akron caused by apparent brake failure and lack of maintenance in April.
A turbine exploded in the country of Denmark in 2008 after the blades went into overspeed and the brakes failed. A video shows the blades shooting off the turbine, with some parts landing nearly a half-mile away.
One blade struck the tower, causing it to fold in half and collapse.
MidAmerican Energy sprang into action when the blade fell off a turbine at the company's Audubon County Eclipse wind farm in 2013.
“The world stops when something like that happens,” MidAmerican's Wright said.
The company halted every turbine that matched the one with the broken blade and did an investigation with Siemens, the company that produced the turbines and blades. The result was a retrofit for all similar blades in MidAmerican's fleet.
Keeping turbines in good working order is critical to generating electricity, sold into a grid that reaches 15 states, including Iowa, as well as parts of Canada.
Energy companies also want to avoid negative attention.
“People are more aware of wind turbines now,” Wright said. “There's a lot of misinformation we need to combat. We need to educate people.”
Regularly maintained turbines have little downtime — which is good for safety and profit, said David Bennett, program director and instructor for Kirkwood Community College's energy production and distribution program and former lead trainer for Clipper Windpower, based in Cedar Rapids.
Most wind companies inspect turbines every six months, Bennett said. In some parts of the country, blades are checked more frequently because lightning strikes and ice can damage the balsa wood and fiberglass.
“The industry is policing itself,” Bennett said. “It's mostly just best practices at this point.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration governs employee safety at wind farms, although inspections only occur if there's an incident or complaint. There have been no complaints at wind facilities in recent years, Iowa Workforce Development reported.
state versus local review
Some states require companies to seek wind permits at the state level. Iowa isn't among them.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission grants permits for wind projects that generate at least five megawatts of energy. The board requires companies describe their project, environmental impact, cost, schedule and decommissioning plan.
“Permitting at the state level provides developers with a predictable, consistent and uniform process, even if a project covers multiple counties,” said Anne O'Connor, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Commerce.
Oregon's Energy Facility Siting Council, created in 1975, has regulatory and siting responsibility for wind farms that generate at least 105 megawatts. Smaller projects are sited at the county level.
Oregon also has a compliance officer who checks wind developments, said Diana Enright, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Energy.
Energy companies are eager to build wind farms along Oregon's Columbia River Gorge, where strong winds reap big rewards, Enright said. But Oregonians also are concerned about how the turbines will affect the river, animals and scenic views.
“Because we have these site standards already in place, we're able to use them to protect our state's resources,” Enright said.
Some Iowans don't like the one-size-fits-all approach. Tom Drzycimski, zoning administrator with Cerro Gordo County, said Iowa counties have different geography and shouldn't have the same rules for wind farms.
“That's where the control really should be, at the local level,” he said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Iowa Department of Natural Resources have voluntary guidelines for wind farm siting that include scientific study of nearby wildlife areas and at-risk land forms.
Wind farm owners whose turbines kill eagles and migrating birds can face hefty fines under federal law.
The Fish and Wildlife Service wants owners to get permits to avoid prosecution for killing protected birds. The agency recently extended the maximum length of permit for killing eagles from five years to 30 years — a move that angered bird advocates.
“We want to encourage renewable energy, but we don't want to give away the farm,” said Johns, with the American Bird Conservancy.
Johns compared the speed of wind energy expansion with the large number of dams built on American rivers in the 1950s and 1960s. The hydropower created by the dams was good, but research showed the dams hurt salmon migration.
Bob Anderson, director of the Raptor Resource Project in Decorah, said concerns about wind turbines killing bald eagles come down to one factor — “Location, location, location,” he said.
“If you put a wind tower up in prairie grass, CRP (Conservation Reserve Program), you will have more avian interactions,” Anderson said. “If you put it up in the middle of a cornfield, there's little interaction.”
Story, Delaware and Tama counties are among Iowa counties that require developers to identify nearby birds and bats that could be harmed by the projects. Bats who go near turbines can die when their lungs collapse from the air pressure changes.
Boards of Adjustment can consider the effects on animals and the environment as part of the site permit process.
The Iowa Wind Energy Association estimates 75 percent of Iowa is suitable for wind farms, which means the industry is likely to keep growing as long as residents have an appetite.
“We get calls every day from people asking for turbines,” MidAmerican's Wright said. “I don't think we'll reach a saturation point any time soon.”