January 17, 2021
Business Energy

Iowa Wind Expansion Derailed By The Bridges Of Madison County

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Madison County, Iowa, known for its picturesque bridges, doesn't want more wind projects.

MidAmerican Energy’s plans to install 52 wind turbines in Madison County, Iowa are likely to be … [+] derailed by an ordinance passed on December 22 by the county’s Board of Supervisors that requires 1.5 mile setbacks from non-participating landowners. It also sets strict noise limits and eliminates tax breaks for wind projects.

Photo illustration by Mary Bryce. Photo of Roseman Covered Bridge, Madison County, Iowa by Teddi Yaeger via Wikimedia Commons.

Back in 2014, Warren Buffett, the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway BRK.B , famously said “We get a tax credit if we build a lot of wind farms. That’s the only reason to build them.”

Since then, MidAmerican Energy, a Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary, has aggressively built lots of wind farms and now expects to collect $10 billion in federal tax credits on the $12.9 billion it has spent erecting wind turbines. But Buffett’s company’s push to add even more turbines in Iowa is being derailed by the bridges of Madison County. 

On December 22, the province that has become renowned for its picturesque wood-covered bridges became the second Iowa county to ban wind projects. By a 2-1 margin, the Madison County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance that prohibits installation of wind projects within 1.5 miles of non-participating landowners, limits the height of turbines to less than 500 feet, imposes strict noise limits, and eliminates property-tax breaks. 

While the new ordinance doesn’t explicitly ban wind projects, the combination of provisions, will “stop them cold,” says Diane Fitch, a member of Madison County’s Board of Supervisors. In an email, Geoff Greenwood, a spokesman for MidAmerican, told me that the ordinance “could potentially stall” part of the company’s proposed Arbor Hill project, which aims to put 52 turbines in the county

In 2019, Adair County became the first Iowa county to halt wind energy development when it passed a measure limiting the number of turbines to no more than 535. When the measure passed, the county already had 532 wind turbines. Page County, Iowa, is also embroiled in controversy over the spread of wind projects.

The significance of Madison County’s rejection of Big Wind goes beyond Buffet, Berkshire Hathaway, and Iowa. Since 2015, by my count, 291 government entities from California to Maine have rejected or restricted wind-energy projects. 

It’s nearly impossible to build wind projects in California. Between 2013 and 2019, the state added less than 200 megawatts of new wind capacity, and over the past 14 months, proposed wind projects were rejected by both Humboldt and Santa Barbara counties. In Shasta County, local residents are actively opposing the proposed Fountain Wind project.

In New York, wind energy has met such fierce resistance in upstate towns and counties that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration wants to strip them of their zoning authority and effectively force communities to accept large solar and wind projects. Several European countries are seeing similar friction. In Norway, local opposition to wind energy is so strong that the government has given up trying to permit new onshore wind projects. In Germany, the wind energy sector has been stymied by widespread opposition, and according to a December 28 article in Recharge News, “permits for new onshore wind energy projects are and will remain the bottleneck.”

These conflicts show that wind energy’s paltry power density is resulting in land-use conflicts that will continue to impede its long-term growth. Indeed, land-use conflicts are increasing at the same time that the incoming Biden Administration, climate activists, academics, and powerful Washington lobby groups are pushing for massive increases in the deployment of renewables. Last summer, the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force released called for installing half a billion solar panels and “60,000 made-in-America wind turbines” and doing so “within five years.” 

In addition, over the past few years, numerous academic studies – all of them based on complex computer models — from places like Stanford, Cal-Berkeley, Princeton, and MIT, have claimed that the US can deploy massive amounts of renewable capacity. But those computer models don’t account for rural politics or the growing resistance to the encroachment of large-scale renewables and high-voltage transmission projects. The new Madison County ordinance shows that policymakers in rural counties are increasingly concerned about the effect that renewable-energy projects have on property values, viewsheds, and human health. Furthermore, it’s significant that the opposition is surging in Iowa, which gets more of its electricity from wind than any other state: 42 percent in 2019. In fact, the opposition has been growing for years.

In 2017, Iowa enacted a law that prohibits the use of eminent domain for high-voltage transmission lines. The move doomed the Rock Island Clean Line, a 500-mile, $2 billion, high-voltage direct-current transmission line that was going to carry electricity from Iowa to Illinois. 

In 2018, after myriad complaints about the noise that was being produced by three wind turbines, residents of the town of Fairbank, Iowa won a legal battle that forced the owner of the turbines to take them down. According to the Des Moines Register, local residents “complained about nausea and sleep deprivation from the turbines.”

The fight over wind energy in Madison County — which gets significant revenue from tourists wanting to see the bridges that have been featured in a novel, movie, and musical — has been raging for more than two years. In 2018, a group of residents sued the county after it granted a permit for the Arbor Hill project. In 2019, the county became the first in the state to impose a moratorium on wind-energy development. That same year, the Madison County Board of Public Health approved a resolution which said there is “potential for negative health effects associated with commercial wind turbines” and that the existing setbacks between turbines and residences were “inadequate to protect the public health.” The board recommended that all future wind turbines in the county be located 1.5 miles from homes

It’s not clear if the portion of the Arbor Hill wind project that is proposed for Madison County will be built. MidAmerican’s Greenwood said “we are reviewing our options” on the project and added that a “district court previously upheld the validity of the project permits approved by Madison County, and an Iowa Court of Appeals decision is pending.”

Mike and Tanya Lamb are among the Iowans who oppose more wind development. In 2019, MidAmerican, which has about 30 wind projects in Iowa, began operating several turbines near the Lamb’s residence in Adair County, which lies west of Madison County. “This was our paradise and it’s not anymore,” Mike Lamb told me in an October 2019 interview. The closest turbine is less than 2,000 feet from their home and the noise from the turbines is disturbing their sleep. People think “green energy is great,” he said. “But if you have to live by wind turbines, it’s not so great. It’s pure hell is what it is.” 

Over the past decade, I have interviewed about two dozen people like the Lambs — rural residents who are suffering from the noise generated by large wind projects. But stories like theirs are rarely covered by major media outlets.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that land-use battles over renewables will get more heated as the wind and solar industries expand. The latest proof of that came last week when county commissioners in Posey County, Indiana passed a measure that prohibits the construction of wind turbines within 10 miles of a Doppler radar site in the town of Owensville. A local news outlet called the move “one more nail in the windmill coffin in Posey County.”

The restriction on wind energy in Posey County was the first one to be recorded in 2021. More are coming.