By Kevin Borgia
As Iowans head to caucus sites Monday night, many Americans will look with envy upon the state’s “first in nation” status in the presidential campaign.
But if Illinois is looking for an excuse to be jealous of the Hawkeye state, there is a far better reason: Iowa’s “first in nation” status in wind energy.
According to data from the American Wind Energy Association, Iowa generates nearly 30% of its power from wind turbines, a higher percentage than any other state. Conversely, Illinois generates around 5% of its power from wind.
Iowa just keeps growing too, and the state now has more than 6,200 megawatts of installed wind, having leap-frogged wind energy pioneer California to become the nation’s #2 state for installed megawatts. Only Texas outpaces Iowa, with more than 17,000 MW, generating just over 10% of its power from wind.
Here in Illinois, we have perhaps more reason than most to look at Iowa and ask: “why them and not us?” To put it more bluntly: “When it comes to wind energy, why is our next door neighbor blowing us away?”
— Illinois Clean Jobs (@ILCleanJobs) January 31, 2016
Much of the answer lies in a flaw in Illinois’ flawed energy policy: a broken Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). Until this policy is fixed, there isn’t much reason to expect that Iowa won’t keep making further gains — at our expense.
First, let’s take a closer look at how Iowa ascended to its lofty perch, as that tells us just how urgent it is for Illinois to act — and act quickly.
AWEA data show Iowa’s growth was propelled by 524 MW of new wind that came on line in 2015. Illinois built just half that amount (274 MW) last year. These new Illinois projects include a new 98 MW project in Vermillion County that will supply energy to the IKEA chain; and the 175 MW Pilot Hill project in Kankakee County that will supply power to Microsoft.
The value of these new projects to the state’s wind industry is even greater considering that they follow a dry spell during which no new wind was installed in Illinois in 2013–14. While Iowa is celebrating its new #2 ranking, Illinois is still licking its wounds, having been overtaken by Oklahoma last year for fourth place.
Even Illinois’ current foothold at #5 appears tenuous, as our nearest competitor, Kansas, added almost 800 MW of wind last year and has more than 350MW under construction today, according to AWEA data. Once those projects are complete, the Jayhawk state will knock Illinois from the top five.
Illinois’ broken RPS is a key roadblock. As currently written, the RPS essentially blocks utilities from buying wind power credits for periods of longer than 1–3 years. This creates near-impossible hurdles for developers hoping to access capital, as banks are less likely to fund wind projects (which might require $100 to $200 million in capital) without a long-term buyer for the project’s electricity.
This means fewer jobs, less economic activity and even fewer revenues for cash-strapped communities and schools. Consider what wind means to just one district in Central Illinois:
The Tri-Point school district in Ford County estimates that it could expect new property tax revenues of up to $1.6 million per year if a proposed 94-turbine project becomes a reality. Those funds represent a lifeline for a district that, according to its superintendent, could “run out of money in the K-12 budget in April or May” because of the state’s dwindling funds. This same story is repeated across Illinois in communities and school districts that depend on wind energy in (quite literally) their backyards.
Fortunately, there is a solution at Illinois’ fingertips: the Illinois Clean Jobs Bill (SB1485/HB2607).
This bipartisan legislation would fix and expand the RPS, boosting the share of energy from renewables to 35% by 2030 — up from the current goal of 25% by 2025 — helping create jobs not only in wind, but also solar energy. The bill would also double energy efficiency standards, reducing overall demand and cutting consumers’ electric bills by more than $1.6 billion. By the time it ramps up, the bill would create 32,000 jobs, all over the state.
More wind development in Illinois would also be a windfall for companies right here that manufacture turbines and build wind farms. The Chicago area is home to more major wind energy companies than any other metropolitan area in the U.S. These local companies would invest more in local projects if the Illinois Clean Jobs Bill becomes law.
Without this important bill, we’ll just continue to watch jobs be created on the other side of the Mississippi River in Iowa. But with legislative action we can create these jobs in Illinois, and reduce our electric bills.
It is worth noting that Iowa’s Republican Governor Terry Branstad has been a strong advocate for his state’s wind energy economy. By contrast, we are still waiting to hear Gov. Rauner’s strategy for building a clean energy economy.
There will be big headlines tomorrow about the presidential race; about who won and lost in Iowa; whose jobs are on the line and who can’t raise money. Some pundits won’t mince words: they will say that somebody “blew it” in Iowa.
In the race for clean energy, the results are already in. Iowa has surged ahead. Illinois is losing. Thousands of Illinois jobs are on the line, and Illinois is losing money — millions for schools, billions in private capital that won’t be invested here.
Let’s not mince words: when it comes to wind, Iowa is blowing us away.
Kevin Borgia is public policy public policy manager with Wind on the Wires, which promotes wind energy across the Midwest. Wind on the Wires is also a member of the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, which consists of more than 160 businesses and 60 organizations promoting steps to improve Illinois’ environment, help consumers, improve public health, and create tens of thousands of new jobs across the state.