The Power of the People: Resisting Big Wind in Rural Iowa

January 24, 2023 by Taylor Fisher

Windmills spin over rural Iowan farmland as cattle graze a field below.

By Taylor Fisher, Staff Contributor

Iowa is often seen as a drive-through state, known for its flat interstates, tall cornfields in the summer, and more recently, the seemingly never-ending array of windmills seen through car windows.

At first glance, wind energy seems the perfect renewable energy source for a state like Iowa. Flat farmlands with empty terraces are perfect sites for windmills, which can occupy unused land while serving as a source of clean energy. For a long time, windmills have been Iowa’s claim to fame; the state even changed its license plates to include a windmill in the background.[1]

However, in recent years, a gap has widened between policymakers and environmentalists advocating for expanded wind energy in the state and rural Iowan farmers who face the consequences of having windmills on or near their property. Wind energy in Iowa has become dominated by a single large energy company, Mid-American Energy, with whom many locals, and especially farmers, have an unfavorable relationship.[2]  Specifically, farmers complain that wind turbines are loud, make spraying crops difficult, and often leave fields damaged when maintenance is required.[3]

To resist further windmill construction, many rural Iowans have turned to grassroots tactics such as door knocking, putting up signs, writing letters in newspapers, and talking to local officials.[4] Emphasizing that their resistance isn’t anti-green, organizers have cited concerns about the impact of windmills on migratory birds and farming. Advocates instead describe their goal as one which supports local communities.[5]

These grassroot movements have gained significant support from other Iowans who empathize with farmers, understand the importance of farming to Iowa’s economy, and are let down by Big Wind selling wind energy produced in Iowa[6] to other coastal states like California while local energy costs remain high. In fact, backlash from residents of Madison County, a county southwest of Des Moines, fought off a 30-turbine construction project planned by Mid-American Energy in July 2022.[7]

More recently, Mid-American announced its newest project, the addition of 90 to 140 wind turbines in Southwest Iowa, [8] which is already facing resistance similar to the Madison County project. For example, if you drive through rural Southwest Iowa today, as I did over the holidays, you will see nearly every piece of farmland with a “No Wind Energy” sign posted near the road. While the future of this project remains unknown, it seems like locals will continue to oppose and resist such plans.

Public resistance against wind energy in Iowa is just one example of how the future of renewable energy may be impacted by business profit goals and unfavorable consumer practices. As Iowans have proven, renewable energy business practices that focus on profits over communities may continue to distract from the long-term goal of producing climate-friendly and clean energy.

The question then remains how policymakers and environmental advocates can emphasize the need for clean, renewable energy while encouraging and developing infrastructure that appeals to the average person. Unfortunately, in the meantime, wind energy may not be the future Iowans want.

[1] Mitchell Schmidt, New Iowa License Plates on the Way, Gazette (Mar. 24, 2018, 12:56 PM), https://www.thegazette.com/government-politics/new-iowa-license-plates-on-the-way/.

[2] Robert Bryce, MidAmerican Energy Abandons Plan to Add 30 Wind Turbines, Madison County Residents Celebrate: ‘How Awesome’, Forbes (Jul. 24, 2022, 1:42 PM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertbryce/2022/07/24/midamerican-energy-abandons-plan-to-add-30-wind-turbines-madison-county-residents-celebrate-how-awesome/?sh=2f1b5bda4694.

[3] Janna Swanson, Industrial Wind Farms a Horrible Nuisance, Farm Progress (Oct. 7, 2017), https://www.farmprogress.com/energy/industrial-wind-farms-horrible-nuisance.

[4] Janna Swanson, Industrial Wind Farms a Horrible Nuisance, Farm Progress (Oct. 7, 2017), https://www.farmprogress.com/energy/industrial-wind-farms-horrible-nuisance.

[5] Kendall Crawford, A Proposed Southwest Iowa Wind Farm Faces Opposition from Local Residents, Iowa Pub. Radio (Feb. 15, 2022, 3:52 PM), https://www.iowapublicradio.org/ipr-news/2022-02-15/a-proposed-southwest-iowa-wind-farm-faces-opposition-from-local-residents.

[6] Wind-Powered Electric Generation in Iowa, Iowa Utils. Bd., https://iub.iowa.gov/regulated-industries/wind-powered-electric-generation-iowa (last visited Jan. 11, 2023).

[7] Robert Bryce, MidAmerican Energy Abandons Plan to Add 30 Wind Turbines, Madison County Residents Celebrate: ‘How Awesome’, Forbes (Jul. 24, 2022, 1:42 PM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertbryce/2022/07/24/midamerican-energy-abandons-plan-to-add-30-wind-turbines-madison-county-residents-celebrate-how-awesome/?sh=2f1b5bda4694.

[8] Kendall Crawford, A Proposed Southwest Iowa Wind Farm Faces Opposition from Local Residents, Iowa Pub. Radio (Feb. 15, 2022, 3:52 PM), https://www.iowapublicradio.org/ipr-news/2022-02-15/a-proposed-southwest-iowa-wind-farm-faces-opposition-from-local-residents.