PRIMGHAR, Iowa | During the summer, O'Brien County farmer Daryl Haack routinely sprays his ditches for weeds. It's often a challenge to find days calm enough to keep the herbicide from drifting into neighboring fields.
"It seems like the wind always blows around here," Haack said.
Lately, the vast wind resource has turned the rural Northwest Iowa county into a hotbed of economic activity. A bevy of companies are moving ahead with large-scale projects that would harness and export the renewable energy to more populated regions.
The undertakings are projected to spur hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and create thousands of temporary construction jobs and hundreds of permanent jobs, as well as fill local tax coffers and grow communities that have seen an exodus in population in recent decades.
"It's an economic boom for the county the likes of which we've never seen before," said Rodd Holtkamp, a Primghar banker and member of the county economic development board. "It should eventually put more people in our grocery stores, more people in our churches, more people in our schools."
500 MEGAWATTS OF WIND POWER
There currently are no commercial wind turbines in O'Brien County, but that's about to change in a big way.
MidAmerican Energy Co. broke ground in November on a 500 megawatt wind farm, the largest single site in Iowa history. It calls for 218 wind turbines spread out over 70,000 acres near the O'Brien County seat of Primghar.
Dubbed the Highland Wind Energy project, it’s part of a $1.9 billion expansion of Iowa's wind generating capacity that the Des Moines utility announced last year.
The foundation work for the Highland turbines started last fall and should be done by the end of the year, with the turbines and the more than 650 blades set to go up by the end of 2015, MidAmerican spokeswoman Tina Potthoff said.
MidAmerican, owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, also is scheduled to begin work late this year on a high-voltage overhead transmission line that will start in northern O'Brien County, near Sanborn, and head east along the Highway 18 corridor into neighboring Clay County. The line is among several so-called “multi-value projects,” or MVPs, designed to alleviate congestion on the region's electric grid and provide a better route for sending Iowa and Minnesota wind power to the east.
Potthoff said the MVP 3 line will serve as a secondary line for the O'Brien County wind farm, which initially will connect to an existing line running diagonally through the county. Construction of a substation for the MVP line is scheduled to begin this year.
Another major high-voltage transmission line, called the Rock Island Clean Line, also is slated to start in O'Brien, just southeast of Sanborn. The 500-mile line will export 3,500 megawatts of wind-generated electricity -- three times more energy than the Hoover Dam -- from Northwest Iowa and bordering states to power-hungry customers in metro Chicago and other large cities to the east.
The developer, Houston-based Clean Line Energy, is awaiting approval from regulators in Iowa and Illinois before going ahead with the direct current line. The company estimates the line to be in service in 2017 following about two years of construction that would begin as early as next year in O'Brien.
Clean Line projects the $2 billion project will create 2,000 construction jobs and 500 permanent jobs, as well as spur development of 1,000 to 2,000 wind turbines within a 100-mile radius of the county.
At least three other companies are looking to develop wind-related projects in O'Brien but are not as far along in the process as Clean Line and MidAmerican, County Economic Development Director Kiana Johnson said.
California-based Eurus Energy has secured easements from landowners between Highways 60 and 59 for a wind farm called Hawkeye Point. The development is still in the planning stages, said Rich Crawford, a consultant working on the project.
Chicago-based Invenergy LLC, which developed the Highland Wind project and then sold it to MidAmerican last year, is working on a second project at a yet-to-be announced site in O'Brien County, Johnson said.
Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke Energy, the nation's largest electric power utility, in a joint venture with American Transmission Co., is developing transmission lines to move wind-generated power more easily. One route is slated to run through far eastern O'Brien, with construction starting as early as 2016, Johnson said.
THOUSANDS OF WORKERS MAY BE NEEDED
More than a decade ago, wind energy developers started scouting potential sites in O'Brien, which lies on the southern tip of the Buffalo Ridge, an ancient glacial formation stretching into southwest Minnesota that's known for its consistent strong winds. But the early initiatives stalled because of the bottleneck in the region's electric grid, Johnson said.
"That was the holdup all these years. There was nowhere to go if they did build it," she said.
Under the current schedules, construction on the Rock Island Clean Line and the MidAmerican line and wind farm would overlap beginning in 2015. At the peak, hundreds, if not thousands, of construction workers could be on site.
Skilled laborers from around the country are expected to flock to the rural county of around 14,000 to fill the temporary jobs.
"We are trying to prepare, but we really don't know what all to expect," Johnson said. "Housing will definitely be an issue for everybody. It will greatly impact all of Northwest Iowa, not just O'Brien County."
With the Highland project underway, the few hotels in the county already are starting to fill up. Some local residents are renting rooms in their homes to out-of-town workers. Others laborers are commuting daily to O'Brien County from larger cities such as Sioux City and Sioux Falls.
The workers are expected to spend money on everything from lodging and meals to fuel and clothing, giving local merchants a healthy boost in sales.
"The trickle-down of those dollars going through the community time and time again is just going to be amazing," said Holtkamp, executive vice president at Primghar Savings Bank.
The economic benefits would extend well beyond O'Brien. Clean Lean, for example, recently agreed to buy $200 million worth of utility poles from Sabre Industries, contributing to job growth at Sabre's factory in Sioux City.
When up and running, the wind farms and transmission lines are projected to create hundreds of permanent jobs in the region, mostly in sectors that would support and service the new wind farms, such as makers of towers, blades and other turbine components.
Clean Line anticipates hiring a handful of full-time workers to maintain a station that would convert the wind power from AC to DC before sending it on the transmission line. The convertor station would be built at a cost of $250 million to $300 million, said Beth Conley, manager of the Rock Island Clean Line.
SOME OPPOSE PLANS
The slew of wind-related infrastructure also would generate millions of dollars in additional property taxes for local governments, as well as produce a new cash crop for local farmers like Haack, who has granted MidAmerican easements for two wind turbines on one of his farms.
Haack said he would collect annual payments of around $9,000 for each turbine and a service road.
The Rock Island Clean Line is offering to compensate owners for the value of their land, plus an additional structure payment, based on the number and type of poles or towers. Owners have a choice of a one-time payment or an annual upfront payment. For two poles and a half-mile-long, 145-foot-wide right of way, an owner would collect a one-time payment of about $100,000, Conley said.
Farmers retain ownership and the right to till the land under both the lines and turbines.
Haack heads a newly formed landowners association that backs all the wind projects and offers legal assistance to guide dues-paying members through the negotiations with developers looking to build in the county.
A smaller vocal group of landowners is opposed to the Rock Island Clean Line. Critics fear Iowa's eminent domain law for utilities would allow Clean Line to force a sale and easement even if the landowners aren’t willing to sell.
But fifth-generation O'Brien County farmer Jay Hofland said he strongly supports the transmission line, which would pass less than a half-mile from his rural home. Hofland said the lofty job prospects helped convince him to option farmland for the Clean Line convertor station near Sanborn.
"We do not do a very good job of keeping our young people around here, Hofland said. "I'm hoping that through this economic development my sons or some other young people in the community can stick around and gain from these jobs."
Hofland said the county has the potential to generate far more wind power than its own residents would ever use.
"As a farmer, I sell hogs, cattle and corn and soybeans," he said. "We export all of those things. I'm strongly behind exporting some wind energy out of this area. It's another energy stream and it's a good opportunity."