Robert Bryce: MidAmerican Energy abandons plan to add 30 wind turbines, Madison County residents: ‘How awesome’

In Madison County, Iowa, the power of the people has prevailed over the money and political influence of Big Wind.

On Saturday, landowners in the county who had leased their property for a wind project being pushed by MidAmerican Energy Company, received letters informing them that the company was abandoning plans to add 30 wind turbines to the controversial Arbor Hill wind project. The cancellation appears to end a multi-year battle between the company, a subsidiary of conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway (market capitalization: $633 billion), and angry county residents who united to oppose the landscape-blighting project.

The battle included a court fight in which the company sued the county as part of an effort to force it to accept more wind turbines. Had MidAmerican chosen to build those 30 turbines, it may have been entitled to tax credits worth about $81 million.

MidAmerican’s cancellation of Arbor Hill is the first large wind project to be scuttled since Sen. Joe Manchin pulled his support earlier this month for a bill that contained $300 billion in energy-related subsidies, including multi-year extensions of the tax credits for wind and solar energy, as well as billions more for EVs.

Big Wind has long relied on the production tax credit (PTC) to fuel its expansion. But the PTC, which is the second-most-expensive energy-related provision in the federal tax code, and has been extended 13 times, expired at the beginning of this year. That expiration, along with Manchin’s refusal to extend it, has put the entire wind sector into a tailspin. (The investment tax credit for solar energy is the most expensive energy-related provision in the federal tax code.) Iowa has played a central role in MidAmerican’s subsidy-mining strategy. In 2018, the Des Moines Register reported that the company had spent about $12.3 billion on wind projects in the state and that it “will receive about $10 billion in federal production tax credits for the investment, covering the capital costs needed to build the wind farms.”

MidAmerican’s withdrawal from Madison County is the latest example of the rural backlash against the encroachment of large-scale renewable projects. It also shows how difficult it has become for developers to site wind (and solar) projects in areas where residents are united in their opposition. That was the case in Madison County, a province renowned for its picturesque wooden bridges.

Mary Jobst, a resident of Earlham, and an ardent opponent of the Arbor Hill project, was exultant about MidAmerican’s cancellation. “I am celebrating. How awesome,” she told me on Saturday afternoon. “It’s a day I will remember for a long time: July 23, 2022. It’s a very important day. A lot of work went into this. What made the difference in Madison County is that we are a community that has integrity and we support each other and we just weren’t going to stand for this.”

Jobst and numerous other residents of Madison County have been fighting MidAmerican’s project for more than three years. I first interviewed Jobst on September 30, 2019. She and her husband, Roy, signed a lease in 2017 that allowed the company to put turbines on their property. The couple farm on land that has been in Roy’s family since 1909. But after learning more about the project, the Jobsts, who have been operating Roy’s Auto Repair in Earlham since 1976, became ardent opponents and asked the company to release them from the deal.

On Saturday, they got their wish.

In the cancellation letter, dated July 21, MidAmerican says that the company “has been evaluating this site since 2017 but has been unable to proceed with construction due to a number of challenges that the project has faced in Madison County…Unfortunately, after a thorough review, due to a number of outstanding issues — including some committed landowners wishing to be released from their casement [sic] agreements — MidAmerican has determined that we are unable to continue the construction of Arbor Hill.”

The battle between the company and the county began in 2019 after the Madison County Board of Public Health approved a resolution that said there is “potential for negative health effects associated with commercial wind turbines” due to the noise produced by the giant machines. The board also said that the existing setbacks between turbines and residences were “inadequate to protect the public health” and it recommended that all future wind turbines in the county be located 1.5 miles from homes. (As I explained in my “Not In Our Backyard” report, numerous studies by health professionals from all over the world have recognized the deleterious health effects, including sleep disruption, that can occur when nearby residents are exposed to noise pollution from wind turbines.)

In late 2020, by a 2-1 margin, the Madison County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance that prohibited the installation of wind projects within 1.5 miles of non-participating landowners, limited the height of turbines to less than 500 feet, imposed strict noise limits, and eliminated property-tax breaks for wind projects. The deciding votes were cast by supervisors who were elected on anti-wind platforms: Diane Fitch and Heather Stancil. (Both Fitch and Stancil, have appeared on the Power Hungry Podcast.) In passing the measure, Madison County became the second Iowa county to ban wind projects. (Adair County was the first.)

In response to the new ordinance, MidAmerican sued the county as part of an effort to force the county to accept wind turbines it did not want. The county later agreed to settle the lawsuit after Fitch switched her position. Thus, even though MidAmerican intimidated the county into agreeing to a deal that allowed more turbines, the company is throwing in the towel.

The cancellation comes at the same time that MidAmerican is promoting a massive expansion of its wind and solar operations in Iowa. Furthermore, the cancellation of Arbor Hill is happening at the same time the wind sector is shuttering manufacturing plants in Iowa and other states. Two months ago, wind-turbine producer Siemens Gamesa announced it would shutter manufacturing plants in Hutchinson, Kansas, and Fort Madison, Iowa. The Iowa plant had 171 employees. The Kansas plant, slated to close this month, has 92 workers. In addition, TPI Composites closed its turbine-blade manufacturing plant in Newton, Iowa last year.

In an email statement on Saturday night, MidAmerican’s vice president of corporate communications, Tina Hoffman, told me “After evaluating the changing parameters in Madison County, including the reduction in the number of turbines we could construct as part of the agreement, MidAmerican has determined that we are unable to move forward with the project.”

While MidAmerican can blame the cancellation on “changing parameters,” the hard reality is that the company’s scorched-earth legal campaign against Madison County was a public-relations disaster, both for the company and the wind industry as a whole. The suit proved, yet again, that land-use conflicts are the binding constraint on the expansion of the wind industry. In addition, by suing the county, MidAmerican proved just how unpopular wind energy has become in rural America. After all, if wind energy is “green” why would the company need to sue?

For now, the last word on this story goes to Jobst, who told me she is “thrilled” that MidAmerican is leaving Madison County. “Every one of the turbines they wanted to build was right next to a landowner who hadn’t consented. That’s not right. You can’t just build a 500-foot-high turbine without permission.” She then repeated what she had told me a few minutes earlier: “We weren’t going to stand for it…Our property rights are not going to be violated here.”

This piece was written by Robert Bryce, and it appeared in Forbes.