Shifting Winds

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Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 14/04/2022 - 6:00pm in

It was one of Iowa’s longest droughts in recent years, and it arrived just as the 2020 pandemic was surging across the American Midwest. 

Gerald Leng, a stocky corn and soy grower in his eighties, watched as friends and acquaintances around his town of Primghar succumbed to the virus. Then June — usually the wettest month — came and went with barely a drop of rain. The drought continued into the fall, wilting crops and cracking the ground. Like others, Leng upped his federal crop insurance from 70 to 85 percent. Lake Big Spirit, one of his getaway spots up north, dropped a resounding two feet.

But Leng, a generally positive man with a grandfatherly wit, did not flinch. Like hundreds of other farmers around O’Brien County, his land contains not just corn and soybeans, but an array of massive wind turbines, which, besides delivering power to homes as far south as Houston, provides Leng and his brother Arnie with tens or sometimes hundreds of thousands of leasing dollars per year.

Credit: Mark Oprea

These turbine leases are the lynchpins in a multipronged, mutually beneficial arrangement that makes Iowa one of America’s most prolific producers of renewable energy. The system brings together farmers, energy companies and the federal government to capitalize on two of Iowa’s most prominent resources: strong winds and vast expanses of land. The result is thousands of megawatts of green energy, reliable income streams to offset bad harvests, and substantial private sector profits aided by generous federal tax credits. 

“It’s just like another crop,” Leng says of his turbines from behind his desk at the Primghar Savings Bank, which he’s owned since 1994. “It’s diversification. If the weather doesn’t cooperate and we don’t have enough corn and soybeans, we might have enough wind.”

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2021 Wind Energy report, some 57 percent of the power generated in Iowa last year came from wind — the highest share in the nation. And Iowa is second only to Texas – which produces more wind power than most countries — in the total amount of wind power it is capable of producing. A politically conservative state that voted for Donald Trump twice over, Iowa is a trailblazer in the clean energy sector. And the bulk of all this wind power was captured in what Iowa is known best for: corn fields.  

Since 2005, when federal tax breaks incentivized energy companies to invest heavily in wind, agents from these companies have fanned out across the Hawkeye State, visiting Iowa’s rural farms and ranches to convince the owners to install turbines, many of which soar well over 200 feet in height, among the rows of their crops. 

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