Powering Iowa

Lucas Nelsen is a policy program associate with the Center for Rural Affairs, an organization that has released a report titled “Powering Iowa: Rural Perspectives on Iowa’s Renewable Energy Transformation.”

REGIONAL—The Center for Rural Affairs is strongly supportive of renewable energy.

Those words come from Lucas Nelsen, policy program associate for the Lyons, NE-based nonprofit organization, which earlier this year released, “Powering Iowa: Rural Perspectives on Iowa’s Renewable Energy Transformation,” a research report examining renewable energy development in the Hawkeye State.

Nelsen explained why the center is in favor of renewable energy.

“A big reason why is because of the economic benefits it can bring to rural communities as well as just the broader benefits it has to the environment,” he said. “Being supportive of renewable energy requires that we also move some other items along, and that includes infrastructure.”

Since 2011, Iowa has seen a large growth of infrastructure that has to do with electricity.

“That’s in the form of electric transmission,” Nelsen said. “That’s in the form of these MISO MVP lines. The Midcontinent Independent System Operator is the regional power authority that is primarily in control of transmission planning and operating the grid.”

Seven years ago, MISO came out with a portfolio of electrical transmission line projects called MVPs, which stands for Multi-Value Projects.

“These projects were proposed because they had multiple benefits, thus the name,” Nelsen said. “Those multiple values were: increasing efficiency on the grid, enabling new renewable energy and filling some gaps that might exist on the grid at the moment.”

‘A lot of wind energy’

MVP 3 stretches east from northeast O’Brien County to Kossuth County.

“It actually connects to a combination of them,” Nelsen said. “That’s really how the MVPs operate. It was this larger grid upgrade. I think it’s no secret that Iowa has a lot of wind energy.”

He said it is important to have electrical transmission lines like MVPs in place across the Midwest.

“It’s just like a road, but for electricity,” Nelsen said. “It enables that wind energy to connect to the larger MISO market. That means that it’s not just local communities that can use that wind energy. It means that anyone that needs it when it’s being generated can use that wind energy.

“The MVP projects were a good start, but we have to keep thinking about how we’re going to continue to evolve as electricity evolves, and the way we generate electricity evolves,” he said. “That’s why we wrote this report.”

Nelsen said all of the MISO MVP electrical transmission lines across the Midwest — specifically Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin — are interconnected.

“They sort of form this new highway for renewable energy,” he said. “There are other regional entities that have been doing transmission upgrades as well.”

He explained more about why the center created its “Powering Iowa” report.

“Our transmission system is still old,” Nelsen said. “This is a good start, but we know there will be more holes as we develop more renewable energy, not just in Iowa, but across the Midwest and Great Plains.”

Nelsen described what he meant by the creation of “more holes” with the development of renewable energy.

“They’re just areas where we could develop renewables, but there are no transmission lines,” he said. “Without the infrastructure, there’s no place for the power to go.”

He continued explaining more about the center’s “Powering Iowa” report.

“We wanted to do this report, targeting one of these projects that had been developed to see how we can continue to improve the way that we build transmission and really capture the landowner and county official experience in the development process,” Nelsen said.

‘Gauge their attitudes’

Center staff members mailed surveys to county supervisors and auditors in all 99 Iowa counties as well as to landowners who live near a recently completed electrical transmission line.

Elected officials were asked how renewable energy technologies — such as wind and solar, as well as electrical transmission lines — impact their counties. Landowners were asked for feedback on their experiences negotiating a transmission line easement.

“We sent out a survey to landowners and county officials just to kind of gauge what their attitudes were toward renewable energy,” Nelsen said. “Essentially, we just wanted to figure out what went right, what could’ve been done better.”

The “Powering Iowa” report found that a majority of elected leaders who responded to the survey tend to support wind and/or solar energy development, especially when they see evidence of local economic benefits.

Elected officials also recognized the connection between renewable energy and transmission line development. When assessing whether to support a transmission project, supervisors prioritized fair treatment of landowners, preservation of agricultural land and provision of local economic benefits.

Landowners who responded reported mostly positive experiences with transmission line developers. They provided recommendations on how developers can further improve the siting and construction processes, such as placing poles that do not impede views.

‘Learning process’

“It’s a continual learning process,” Nelsen said. “We always know there’s a way to improve that experience and make it better for landowners.

“We really wanted to figure out what are the best practices, what are things that when the next round comes up, we can make sure that landowners and county officials know that they should pursue, they should ask about,” he said.

He was referring to when the next round of MVPs could be built.

“It’s kind of a rolling examination,” Nelsen said. “There’s no firm deadline on when another round could come, but we know that there’s always more wind power being developed.

“As solar power becomes cheaper, it’s more likely that we’ll have larger projects,” he said. “That means that having more renewables, that’s more places where energy’s being generated, more places where it has to connect to.”