PRIMGHAR, Iowa | Driving north on U.S. Highway 59 into Primghar, the dozens of wind turbines on the horizon in every direction appear unimposing, their blades lazily turning in the breeze.
Walk up to the base of one of these mammoths, and the view is markedly different.
Looking up from the ground, it's 263 feet to the center of the rotor, which holds the three 175-foot blades that are zipping around with a loud whoosh much faster than you would think.
The rotors will begin to turn when the breeze is as light at 7 mph. They automatically shut down if winds exceed 60 mph. An anemometer at the top of each turbine records the wind speed.
MidAmerican Energy Co. has invested tens of millions of dollars to secure land easements and erect the 214 turbines in this O'Brien County development, but, as project manager Adam Jablonski pointed out, there's no ongoing cost for raw materials when it comes to wind energy.
"The wind is free, and we take full advantage of that," Jablonski said Thursday during a tour MidAmerican gave to media members of the project, which is slated for completion by the end of the year. Four media members, including Journal photographer Justin Wan, were allowed to climb to the top of a tower and take in the view.
The remaining participants got to check out the interior of the base of the tower and see the sheer size of the electrical transformers and other equipment stored inside. Seeing all that gear, it's surprising that it takes only three weeks from excavation until a turbine is operational.
It's also surprising each turbine and the access road to it takes up less than half an acre of farm land, property for which local farmers are compensated and receive an annual lease payment. Jablonski said the amount of those leases on more than 300 easements needed for the project is confidential between MidAmerican and the landowners, but "it's more than they'll get off their crops."
The Highland project, which will have the capacity to generate 502 megawatts of power, is MidAmerican's largest and also the largest in the United States currently under construction, Jablonski said. When completed, it will be one of the 10 largest in the country.
"The more wind power we produce, the less we have to use our coal and natural gas resources," Jablonski said.
That wind power is also producing a windfall for local businesses that have served hundreds of workers who have been in the area since construction began in 2013. Once they leave, the county will continue to benefit. Jablonski said MidAmerican will pay an estimated $42.5 million in property taxes in O'Brien County in the first 10 years after the project is done.
Tom Farnsworth, a member of the O'Brien County Board of Supervisors, said it's estimated that each turbine will generate $18,000 in property taxes per year.
"It's going to benefit roads, bridges, the school system. There will be more for townships for their fire departments," Farnsworth said. "When you put this all together, it's going to help O'Brien County."
MidAmerican isn't finished in O'Brien County. In August, the company announced plans for another 104 turbines with 250 megawatts of generation capacity in northern O'Brien County. The $900 million project also includes construction of 134 turbines with 301 megawatts of generation capacity in Ida County. Both projects are expected to be completed by the end of 2016, at which point MidAmerican will have more than 2,000 turbines in 23 Iowa counties with a generating capacity of 4,048 megawatts.