The global energy landscape is continually shifting and evolving, but most experts agree that an ever-increasing percentage of the world’s energy demand will be met via renewable sources, such as solar and wind. And while the renewable energy industry continues to face a variety of challenges, Iowa-focused ventures are ideally positioned to help meet those […]
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The global energy landscape is continually shifting and evolving, but most experts agree that an ever-increasing percentage of the world’s energy demand will be met via renewable sources, such as solar and wind. And while the renewable energy industry continues to face a variety of challenges, Iowa-focused ventures are ideally positioned to help meet those demands, participants in a renewable energy trends panel Aug. 10 hosted by the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance agreed. In fact, with a variety of renewable energy ventures already in place in the Corridor, from solar installations to a biodigester in the Amana Colonies and wind turbines across the area, the panel’s moderator, Economic Alliance vice president of economic development Ron Corbett, went so far as to suggest that Eastern Iowa could become known as the sustainability capital of Iowa, or even the United States. And while Mr. Corbett suggested the concept might be considered a “moon shot,” Joel Schmidt, vice president of business development for Alliant Energy, indicated the possibility isn’t as far-fetched as it might initially seem. “We need to tell our sustainability story,” Mr. Schmidt said. “Social responsibility isn’t just a buzzword. It’s something that’s happening. I’m a strong believer in telling our story more strongly. Sometimes we’ve been a little modest in how we talk about ourselves. We feel like we’ve got something to sell, and I believe we’ve got to do more of it. I think it’s definitely a goal we should be shooting for.” As with many other industries, the last year was challenging for the renewable energy sector. The industry employed a total of 28,953 Iowans at the end of 2020, a 9.7% drop from 2019 and the first year-to-year decline since Clean Jobs Midwest began tracking Iowa clean energy jobs in 2017. But the state’s clean energy sector grew by 8% in the second half of the year, exceeding the growth rate for jobs in the overall economy. And Iowa’s renewable energy infrastructure continues to grow. Mr. Schmidt noted, for example, that by 2050, Alliant projects a 50% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions as compared to 2005. “We’re currently 42% of the way there,” he said, “so I don’t call that a moon shot.” Also, Alliant plans to eliminate all coal-powered energy from its portfolio by 2040 and to reach “net zero” in CO2 emissions from electrical generation by 2050. Existing renewable energy generation systems are also becoming more efficient. Kimberly Dickey, project director for Next Era Energy, noted that Next Era recently repowered a wind farm installation in Iowa in 2020 after a 20-year shutdown. And while the original installation was 45 turbines, the repowered installation comprised just 16 turbines to generate comparable electrical power. “Yes, we see taller turbines, but it’s also a smaller footprint,” she said. “That just shows you over 20 years, advanced technology really allows us to harness the same amount of energy within that smaller footprint.” Another significant development in renewable energy debuted earlier this year when the Amana Society brought its 2.8-megawatt anaerobic digester online. The digester, one of just three of its kind in Iowa, turns manure and other industrial waste into electricity to power the entire Amana Colonies, save the Whirlpool refrigeration plant. Panelist Greg Luerkens, CEO of the Amana Society, said he believes the digester concept could be expanded more widely across the state. “From a scalability standpoint, digesters are definitely feasible,” he said. “The state of Iowa is trying now to create more opportunity for more digesters. There was a House bill passed in June that will make it easier from an environmental standpoint.” The digester also, as a byproduct, produces an environmentally friendly fertilizer that’s readily spreadable on area cropland, Mr. Luerkens noted. “That keeps us from using a lot of other commercial fertilizers,” he said. “And it is a good fertilizer. If we look at our crop yields versus the average in the rest of Iowa County, we’re about 10 bushels per acre better on average. So it’s a win-win situation from all standpoints.” Advancements in solar panel technology have also led to improved efficiencies with a lower overall environmental impact, said panelist James Hoeger, regional sales director for Eagle Point Solar. “Five years ago, an average (solar) panel was about 170 watts, and the cost was approximately $4 per watt,” Mr. Hoeger said. “Today, the panels on average can run from 315 watts and getting close to 500. So the production has increased on each panel per location. For the technology going forward, that has allowed us to produce more per panel, and we feel that will continue to move forward. As for the investment going forward, we feel very strongly that storage is going to be a big part of it as well. So what we’re producing now, let’s store it in a timely manner, and businesses can do that to mitigate or reduce some of the main charges that are appearing.” Mr. Hoeger also noted that in Germany, solar energy is being converted into hydrogen. “A number of factories are piloting this,” he said. “The efficiency is at 30%. Once it is 50%, they’re going to go high with it and use it in their fleet. That’s a real twist that’s going on, and I think there’s tremendous opportunities in solar going forward.” Renewable energy in Iowa could also serve as an important recruiting tool for a younger workforce, Mr. Luerkens said. “The younger generation is very conscious of what’s happening out there in the world, and they want to work for socially responsible organizations,” he said. “They seek those types of positions with companies, so you have to be very aware of that when you’re going out and recruiting. We think of one of the great aspects of what we do is our farming operation. But farming has changed a lot over the years. And it’s become extremely important to be aware of everything that’s going in the ground, everything that’s going in the air. “2020 was an interesting year, as everyone here was impacted by the derecho,” he added. “What we found was our sustainable energy was a great diversification for our business. It’s provided a profit stream that really takes a lot of the pressure off normal businesses of raising the crop and raising the cattle. It has a financial impact, and it has a huge impact in terms of recruiting younger people. And the qualifications to bring people on and to grow within the company are changing as well, because you need people that can handle and drive those types of things forward.” As Iowa’s renewable industry continues to develop and grow, Ms. Dickey said, it will be incumbent on the state’s leaders to continue carrying the flag for the industry. “It’s important to the entire industry that Iowa stays ahead of the curve, as we have, due to the work of Senator Grassley and other great leaders,” she said. “Iowa is a leader. Let’s keep that trend going and build on that national identity. We’re here to help customers achieve those goals.”