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Sustainable Energy for Iowa

SustainableEnergy Projects Slow Global Warming & Invigorate Local Iowa Economies

BY lawrence gamble

Lonnie and Valerie Gamble
Lonnie and Valerie Gamble use these solar panels, combined with a wind generator,to provide all the energy they need for their home.

“We are charged with designing the future, notbeing victims of it.”
—R. Buckminster Fuller

I was listening to a public radio show about energy recently,and one of the guests (Vijay Vaitheeswaran, energy editor for TheEconomist magazine) said that it is a mistake for the environmental community to usethe disaster surrounding hurricane Katrina to tut-tut the American publicinto guilt about energy use. His message was that this will surely fail.It would be much better instead to present a bold new vision for an energypolicy based on renewables.

This is my attempt to sketch out a bold new energy plan for Iowa’s citiesand towns. As Cedar Falls city counselor, UNI professor, and local foods activist/guruKamyar Enshayan pointed out at the 2005 Iowa Renewable Energy Association annualconference, there is much that can be done at the city level, both in the designof cities and in public policy, that complements the efforts of individualsto use energy wisely and convert to renewables.

The local-vs.-global economy ideas outlined here could be applied to food,water, transportation, building materials, design, and our livelihoods. Implementingthese ideas makes a city more self-reliant and locally dependent, and givesa big boost to the local economy. Taken together, they represent a wholenew economic base for rural America.

Spend Energy Dollars Locally

Iowans spend about $6 billion a year to heat and cool their homes, heathot water, buy electricity, and fuel their cars. At least this much isalso spent to fuel commerce and industry. Most of this money leaves thestate soon after it is spent (97 percent of the electricity we use inIowa comes from out-of-state coal, oil, and nuclear fuels). Here are somethings we could do at the city level to keep more of these dollars circulatingin our local economies.

The Cogeneration Concept

When fuel is burned to make electricity, only one-third of the energyin the fuel is turned into electricity and two-thirds is wasted as low-temperatureheat. This waste heat can be used to heat and cool homes, commerce, andindustry, or to heat greenhouses to grow warm-season crops in the winter.Generating electricity and capturing the waste heat is called cogenerationor CHP (combined heat and power).

A cogeneration plant located in Sakskobing, Denmark, burns baled straw(with more money directed to local farmers) to provide electricity,heat, and hot water for 12,500 homes and businesses.

In Iowa, switchgrass is a native perennial prairie plant that has beenburned to supplement coal at Alliant Energy’s Ottumwa Coal Plant.A 10-megawatt switchgrass plant (the Ottumwa coal plant is 700 megawatts)could supply all the residential electrical energy needs of JeffersonCounty (population about 10,000) and would have these characteristics:

• 75 million kilowatt-hours (kwh) of energy produced annually
• Produce heat equivalent to 5 million gallons of oil
• Cost $15-20 million to build
• Pay $2.5-3 million to local farmers for fuel
• Require 5200 acres for the crop (Jefferson County has 261,000 acres)

Wise Use of Energy

Cities could also assist residents in using energy more wisely. The averagehome uses 1000 kwh of electricity per month. Most of this energy is wastedand could be profitably saved without a decrease in the level of comfortthe energy provides. With wise use of energy, you still get hot showersand cold beer, often with a 70 to 90 percent reduction in use of electricity.

As an example, the Isbell family in Vinton, Iowa, after implementingcommon-sense off-the-shelf efficiency measures like compact fluorescentlight bulbs, reduced usage to less than 100 kwh a month, down from 1200kwh. The payback on these energy-saving improvements ranged from immediateto several years, with returns on the money invested as high as 75 percent.It was then easy for them to switch to solar and wind energy to supplytheir modest needs.

Wes Birdsall, the general manager of the Osage, Iowa, municipal electriccompany, realized one day that each dollar saved by residents was nodifferent than a dollar brought into the community by a new business.He began looking on saving energy as an economic development strategyfor his community of 3,600. For a one-time investment of $250,000, Osageresidents and businesses save more than $1,200,000 every year on energybills. Every ten years that’s $12 million added to the local economy.

If you cut your energy consumption, then the energy that you saved canbe made available to someone else. The cost of making energy availablethrough efficiency improvements is much less that the cost of making electricityavailable by building new power plants. Building a new factory to makeenergy-efficient light bulbs is on the order of 1/10th to 1/100th thecost of building a new coal power plant to make the same amount of energyavailable. The overall cost of making energy available through efficiency,using a wide variety of off-the-shelf technologies, is often less thanone cent per kwh, equivalent to $5 or $10 per barrel oil (the currentprice of oil is around $60 per barrel). This is far cheaper than coalat 4 to 5 cents or even wind power at 3 to 5 cents. If we use the savingsgenerated by using energy wisely to build power plants that run on renewables,then we would never have to build another fossil-fuel power plant.

Wind Power

The best sites surrounding the city could be identified and fitted withwind turbines. In many cities it is difficult to site small wind machineson individual homes, but large wind machines could be placed at the edgesof cities, and the energy used to power the city or sold for profit.

In many villages in Denmark, a few large wind turbines provide the bulkof the electrical energy used by the residents, and the turbines areowned by the retirees of the village and provide retirement income.

The state of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany is similar in many ways toIowa—rural, flat, with lots of row-crop farming. The populationis 2.7 million people, similar to Iowa’s 2.9 million. One differenceis that Schleswig-Holstein currently gets 18 percent of its yearly electricalneeds from wind power (Iowa gets less than 2 percent of its electricityfrom wind).

Iowa has one of the best wind resources in the world, and I wouldn’tbe surprised if Iowa has more potential for wind power than Schleswig-Holstein.There are 60,000 people employed in the wind power industry in Europe,and the world leaders are in Germany and Denmark.

Wind power is currently the fastest growing source of electricity—andin most cases, the cheapest—on the planet. (Wind farms in northeastIowa sell power for 3 cents per kwh; in Fairfield, we pay about 12 centsper kwh.) The Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities is putting togethera group of cities to build large-scale energy storage so that wind-generatedenergy could be available even if the wind isn’t blowing. Excesswind energy will be stored as compressed air underground and convertedback to electricity as needed.

The wind potential in Fairfield, while not the best in Iowa (for example,turbines in Fairfield would get about 20 percent less annual energythan Cerro Gordo County in north central Iowa, which has one of thebest wind energy resources in the U.S.), is greater than much of therest of the country. Jefferson County would need 19 turbines at a costof $25 million ($4800 per household) to supply all of the annual residentialelectrical energy needs at the current average usage of 1000 kwh permonth. However, most of this energy is wasted. If we implemented off-the-shelfcost-effective energy saving measures like the Isbell family did (ata cost of $9 million, or $1500 per household), then we could slash thenumber of turbines required to three, at a cost of $4,500,000 (a one-timecost of $712 per household—theamount many families spend per year on cell phone service).

Eight Iowa public schools have installed large-scale wind machines,some costing as much as $800,000. They have been financed by a combinationof local bank loans and the Iowa Energy Bank. There are also severalmunicipal electric utilities in Iowa that have installed large-scalewind. Some of these projects are financed by voluntary extra 1- to 2-cent-per-kwhpayments by utility customers.

More local economic benefit could be gained by getting wind turbinemanufacturers to set up shop in Iowa. Cities could use the incentiveof an order of wind machines to entice turbine manufacturers to locatein their cities. Recently, Clipper Wind Power has announced that itwill begin production of a new wind turbine in Cedar Rapids.

Solar Hot Water

Getting hot water from the sun is often the most cost-effective way touse solar energy. Solar hot-water systems have proven themselves in Fairfieldfor more than 15 years. In contrast to solar electric panels, which arehigh-tech devices, solar hot-water panels are low tech and could be (andhave been) built in shops all over Iowa. I’ve participated in workshopswhere unskilled people built themselves a solar hot-water system in aweekend.

We could have a program to fit homes, schools, swimming pools, laundries,car washes, restaurants—anywhere there is a demand for hot water—withsolar hot-water panels. The cost for fitting homes, schools, and municipalfacilities in Fairfield would be approximately $14 million ($2,000 perhousehold) and at current interest rates would pay for itself in lessthan 10 years out of savings, and then continue to provide essentiallyfree hot water for an additional 10 to 20 years more.

This $14 million investment would create lots of work installing andmaintaining these systems. Even more benefit could be gained from establishinga manufacturing facility for these systems, which could be as simpleas training some of the existing metal fabrication shops in buildingthese systems. The Iowa Energy Bank, funded by a tiny tax on utilitybills, has money available to loan to projects like this at a discountedinterest rate, or the city could issue low-interest municipal bonds.

There are many examples of U.S. cities that have successful municipalsolar programs. San Francisco recently issued more than $100 million ofmunicipal bonds to finance solar electric systems in the city. Other cities(Sacramento, California, for example) have even established municipalsolar utilities to implement solar electric and hot-water projects likethis. The city of Santa Clara, California, has had a solar utility programsince 1975. The town of Soldier’s Grove, Wisconsin, faced with severeflooding several times in this century, moved the town out of the floodplain and rebuilt the whole town to utilize solar energy to heat buildings.

Energy-efficient Construction

There are many examples of low-cost, high-performance buildings in Iowathat use little or no energy for heating and cooling, yet cost littlemore to build than conventional buildings. Earle Mason of Habitat forHumanity in Mason City has designed and built a 1700-square-foot residencethat heats for $175 per year and doesn’t require air conditioning.Production builder Perry Bigelow of Chicago has built thousands of homeswith guaranteed less than $100 per year heating bills. In Fairfield, thehomes of John and Judy Salerno and Ken Walton in the Abundance Ecovillagehave achieved this kind of performance.

The cost for this kind of efficiency, if integrated into the design upfront, is often less than $5,000. We could encourage this kind of buildingwith “fee-bates,” where high-performance homes get a rebatepaid for by fees charged to high-energy use homes. Eighty percent of thelifetime energy required to heat and cool a building is fixed by designdecisions made in the first few hours of design. Cities could help withcritical early design assistance.


Redesigning our cities on the scale of people rather than cars wouldhave a huge impact on the amount of energy used in transportation, andan even greater impact on quality of life. Even without redesign, townslike Fairfield are perfectly set up to use current-technology electricvehicles. Current electric vehicle range is 50-100 miles per charge, and50 miles could drive you around Fairfield all day long. Range can be greatlyextended if you can recharge everywhere you park. If cities in Iowa bandedtogether and bought Iowa-manufactured electric vehicles for municipaluse, it would create a modest electric vehicle industry in Iowa. Electricvehicles would then be readily available for use by residents as “aroundtown” cars. Innovative vehicle purchases could be encouraged bya “fee-bate” system, where buyers of gas-guzzling vehiclespay a fee, which pays for a rebate given to those who purchase innovativevehicles.

We could also develop locally grown biofuels like biodiesel and ethanol(seeFriendlyFuels). In Brazil, millions of GM, Ford, and VW vehicles runon 100 percent ethanol. Ethanol can be made from a wide range of crops.In Iowa, billions of gallons of gasoline are sold that contain ethanol.Any car can use the 10 percent ethanol blend found at most gas stations,and many cars come equipped with a special computer chip that allows useof up to 85 percent ethanol (e-85). Check to see if your car is a flex-fuelvehicle. The state of Iowa has $25,000 grants available for gas stationsthat install e-85 pumps.

The Biofuels Controversy

There is some controversy about whether biofuels require more energy toproduce than they contain. Few in this debate mention that regular gasolinetakes more energy to produce that it contains. The simple answer isthat biofuel production can be a net energy gainer. According to theU.S. Department of Energy and the Rocky Mountain Institute, for everyone unit of energy available at the gas pump, 1.23 units of fossil energyare used to produce gasoline, 0.74 units of fossil energy are used toproduce corn-based ethanol, and only 0.2 units of fossil energy areused to make cellulosic ethanol.

The enzymatic reduction hydrolysis method for ethanol production canproduce ethanol at $1.30 per gallon. The use of 100 percent “neat” alcohol(alcohol that still contains a small amount of water) would greatly reducecost and net energy. Engines run well on “neat” 180 proofalcohol, but “neat” alcohol cannot be mixed with gasoline.

Cities can provide biofuel of electric public transportation solutionsand run their fleets of school buses, municipal vehicles, an constructionequipment on locally produced ethanol and biodiesel.

A Return to Walking & Biking

We could also redesign our cities on the scale of walking and biking.Fairfield, for example, has a great system of rural recreational trails.What if we had a similarly well-designed system of trails within the city,making transport by bike more convenient than by car?

In some cities in Europe, bikes account for 40 percent of all trips withinthe city, even in cold, rainy northern countries like Denmark, Germany,and Sweden. The mayor of Paris recently announced a goal of eliminatingcars from the center of Paris, and the city rents bikes for in-town tripsat very low rates.

What do Madison, Wisconsin, and Grinnell College have in common? Theyboth have free-bike programs. How about free bikes for use in your town?They could be obtained from the large number of bikes that the policedepartment accumulates every year.


We could integrate more trees into our public urban spaces, and capturethe run-off from urban areas. What if the town square and the roads surroundingit were always 20 degrees cooler in the summer? Designers like Wayne Petersenwith Soil and Water Conservation Service and organizations like Iowa basedTrees Forever could help make this happen.

What Next?

This article gives you a flavor of what could be done at the city levelto save energy, reduce our dependence on oil, increase our dependenceon the sun, and make our communities more interesting places to live.The statistics and analysis presented here are rough and back-of-the-envelope.The next step for any interested town would be to fund detailed feasibilitystudies of some of these ideas—$10,000 spent on feasibility andpreliminary design work could yield millions of dollars in benefits.

Over the next decade, hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent inevery Iowa county on energy. Why not spend these dollars on energy thatis renewable, creates local jobs, and keeps money in the community?

I believe that this vision of a more locally dependent and self-reliantcity has great appeal to both liberals and conservatives. I continue tobe surprised that some enterprising politician has not brought forth abold new vision for rural America based on these ideas.

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