Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Could wind energy do for Iowa what oil does for Alaska?

Sarah Palin's hockey mom bona fides appears to be in order.

But the checks in the mailboxes for every Alaskan during a time of high oil prices no doubt have something to do with her much-trumpeted popularity there.

As a profile of Alaska in The New Yorker points out, full-time residents of that state get a cut of the oil profits.

Alaska is sometimes described as America’s socialist state, because of its collective ownership of resources—an arrangement that allows permanent residents to collect a dividend on the state’s oil royalties. It has been Palin’s good fortune to govern the state at a time of record oil prices, which means record dividend checks: two thousand dollars for every Alaskan. And because high oil prices also mean staggering heating bills in such a cold place—and because it’s always good politics to give money to voters—Palin got the legislature this year to send an extra twelve hundred dollars to every Alaskan man, woman, and child.

This recalls a fascinating idea about development of a massive state-owned wind farm from a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Iowa, Gregg Connell, who was in the race for a while in 2006 before his candidacy tragically ended after he was involved in a fatal car accident that killed another driver in western Iowa.

It was the big idea of that election -- and because Connell, who has served as Shenandoah mayor, a long-time Vision Iowa board member and executive vice president of the Shenandoah Chamber and Industry Association, only spent enough time in the race to hit some western Iowa media with visits, not too many people heard it. When one reads about how Alaskans benefit from oil controlled by the state, and when I see Mid-American Energy building wind turbines closer to my house in Carroll, Iowa, than Russia is from Sarah Palin's, it makes me wonder about whether Connell was on to something back in 2005 when he launched his candidacy. Could the state pull money from the wind and use the profits to buoy any number of ventures from education to infrastructure to Alaska-style checks to residents?

Specifically, Connell proposed the creation of a State of Iowa wind energy utility with 540 turbines, a $1 billion venture he plans to finance with $50 million a year or 17 percent the state’s cut of casino revenue of about $260 million annually.

The state would develop the wind farms and much of the power generated would be sold as “green energy” to states that have renewable-energy standards, he said.

“I would guess that a significant amount of it would be sold to states that have renewable energy portfolio standards of maybe 5 percent to 10 percent,” Connell said.

He said the massive wind farms likely would be located in northwest Iowa, an area with favorable wind patterns for energy production.

He predicts a return to the state of $100 million annually from the wind utility, and Connell proposes using 25 percent of that to fund a “Manhattan Project” for renewable energy in Iowa in which the research capability of state universities is used to accelerate growth of the biomass, biodiesel and ethanol, solar and hydrogen-cell industries.

There are, of course, solid arguments about government staying out of the way of private business (although this is not the best time to make those in the wake of the calamity on Wall Street), and wind energy is still very much an emerging technology. But it is our loss that Connell was never able to press forward with specifics behind this vision.

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