New Hampshire, USA — In most Republican circles, support for wind energy can be heard as little more than a faint echo in the call for energy independence.
But in Iowa this weekend, support resonated with many of the top Republicans — minus Rep. Michele Bachmann, the winner of Saturday’s presidential straw poll.
So why does wind energy get such strong GOP support in Des Moines, while struggling to get top Republican backing in Washington? Well, because wind energy is big business in Iowa, and it has brought a strong manufacturing base to the region.
Wind energy advocates carved out a corner of the straw poll’s spotlight by having GOP candidates and state officials sign a 130-foot long wind turbine blade manufactured in Iowa. Among those signing their names were Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Herman Cain and Tim Pawlenty, who has since dropped out of the race. Bachmann, according to Iowa Wind Energy Association Executive Director Harold Prior, has signaled support for wind energy in Iowa during recent campaigning, but did not stop by to sign the blade.
Gingrich, who said wind energy was indeed part of his energy plan (though he didn’t say to what extent), said the business community needs the Production Tax Credit to be extended well past its December 2012 expiration.
“If you’re going to have tax credits that are designed to create investment, they have to have a long enough time horizon that people who invest believe that they’ll be there,” said Gingrich, who favors a 10-year extension.
The credit allows for 2 cents per kilowatt hour to be returned to developers of new wind farms. Critics have lamented that such credits amount to the federal government picking winners in the race for energy independence. Prior, however, answers that the support the wind industry receives is more transparent than support received by industries such as coal, natural gas and nuclear power.
“Unlike other established industries, our subsidies are not incorporated into the tax code. The industry would benefit from longer-term commitment,” said Prior, who would like to see an extension in the 5- to 10-year range since most projects take 3 to 5 years to build.
The Word from the People
Wind projects have come under fierce debate in many parts of the U.S. and Europe, often times from neighbors who fear that the development will infringe on their quality of life. Supporters in those communities often say that wind projects have wide support — but it’s usually a quiet majority. In Iowa, the support for wind energy has been striking, and it’s measured across party lines. Among those signing the blade were Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, GOP Reps. Steve King and Tom Latham, and Gov. Terry Branstad, also a Republican.
Their support is backed by voters in their state, according to a Newhouse poll released this summer. A poll of 400 likely 2012 voters found that 85 percent had a favorable image of wind energy companies, higher than companies in solar (76 percent), natural gas (68 percent), nuclear power (51 percent), coal (48 percent) and oil (30 percent). The margin of error is plus or minus four percentage points.
When voters were asked, “Which one of the following types of energy would you prefer the state rely on most?” over half of voters (51 percent) chose wind energy, well ahead of natural gas (15 percent), nuclear power (13 percent), solar (8 percent), coal (5 percent) and oil (2 percent).
Support and the Future
In Iowa, wind has a long history of support. It all started during the first term of current Gov. Branstad, way back in 1983 when the state adopted a Renewable Energy Standard. That legislation called for Iowa to produced 105 megawatts (MW) of clean energy by no specific date. Iowa now has 3,675 MW of installed wind capacity, with another 1,000 MW under construction and set to come online by the end of 2012. The IWEA is proposing state commitments to reach 10,000 MW by 2020 and 20,000 by 2030.
Currently, Iowa gets 20 percent of its energy from wind, making it the first state in the country to reach the 20-percent threshold. The state is second to Texas in installed capacity, and it’s goal is to become a wind exporter.
But the biggest reason that wind has become so popular in Iowa is jobs — the issue that promises to define the 2012 presidential election.
According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), wind power has been a growing contributor to Iowa’s economy for the last 30 years, helping the state to become a national leader in wind energy installations and manufacturing. The industry has brought more than $5 billion in investment into Iowa, making it one of the state’s fastest-growing sources of manufacturing jobs.
Latham credited wind energy for creating 700 manufacturing jobs at the TPI Composites wind blade plant in Newton, Iowa. The site was formerly headquarters for Maytag before those jobs moved overseas. TPI manufactured the blade that was signed at the straw poll.
“Wind energy and manufacturing have been one of the clear bright spots,” said Prior. “The support we’ve received is because our leaders all have a clear understanding to what wind contributes to Iowa — energy, manufacturing, a growing tax base.”
That’s perhaps why GOP candidates all indicated their support. On Monday, Prior recounted an interesting exchange at the blade signing involving candidate Herman Cain and a member of the audience who yelled, “Don’t sign it. It’s a subsidy.”
Cain signed it, turned around and said, “It’s free enterprise.”