Driving toward Ames on Highway 30, as you approach Colo and look to the north, you will see something that wasn't there three years ago.
In fact, you will see lots of things that weren't there three years ago - wind turbines. Story County is home to a 300-megawatt wind energy farm, half of which went online in November 2008 and the other half went online in December 2009.
Though some cheer the farm as a new way of getting energy and a new way of doing business, others say the farm may be a good way to get clean energy, but lacks something from an economic development perspective.
T-R PHOTO BY KEN BLACK
Wind turbines, such as these on Consumers Energy property, may one day fuel a significant portion of energy in Central Iowa. However, their usefulness as an economic development tool is up for some debate.
"It can be one piece of a comprehensive strategy," said Marshalltown Chamber of Commerce President Ken Anderson. "We are tending to place all of our economic development strategy into one aspect. It's an important piece, but it's not the whole strategy."
Local leaders understand the importance of diversification when it comes to an economic development strategy. It was only a year ago that Alliant Energy scuttled its plans to build a $1.6 billion power plant fired by coal on the east side of Marshalltown.
Still, wind has a place, especially in a state as windy as Iowa.
"We would consider wind as a part of the solution to meet the energy needs of homes and businesses we service," said Brian Heithoff, CEO of Consumers Energy, a Marshalltown-based rural electric cooperative.
However, it should not be thought of as an economic development end in and of itself.
"It probably has a role," he said. "I don't consider the development of wind energy for economic development as being the primary motive. I think first you have to look at the energy needs and how those can best be applied."
Heithoff predicted that coal will play an increasingly smaller role in terms of an overall energy plan. Other forms of energy will need to be considered.
"Nuclear, for example, could be an option," he said. "We are looking at a world where there is likely a carbon-restricted future."
But nuclear doesn't really help Iowa, as such plants could be constructed nearly anywhere. Iowa, rather, has just what it takes to be successful in wind production, according to Steve Stengel, a spokesperson NextEra Energy Resources, which owns and operates the Story County wind farm.
NextEra is a Florida-based company associated with the utility giant Florida Power & Light and based in Juno Beach, Fla.
"You need to have fairly consistent wind. You need to have willing landowners, access and availability to high-voltage power lines, and you need the customers," Stengel said. "We've had very good experiences at the local and state level in terms of cooperation. You have a very pro-wind state."
Still, while Iowa's "fairly consistent" wind makes it a prime candidate for wind farms over many other areas, there are times when the wind does not blow. There may also be times when it blows too much.
Finding a way to deliver a consistent supply of wind energy is one of the more difficult challenges and is a limiting factor with wind energy at this time, Heithoff said. At some point, a storage technology may develop that allows for more consistent flow onto the electrical grid, but it has not happened yet.
"Are we a few years away from that, 10, 15 or more?" he said. "We don't know."
At the very least, the wind industry has helped the local economy. The Story County wind farm employs 21 people on a full-time basis.
Further, a manufacturer of wind turbines moved into part of the old Maytag facility in Newton.
And then there's always the tax issue to consider. John Kunc, the Marshall County's Zoning Administrator, said that can be of benefit to local governments as well.
He noted there could be some wind farm projects in Marshall County soon.
"On balance, it would be a net positive for our county," Kunc said.
Contact Ken Black at 641-753-6611 or firstname.lastname@example.org