Francis Thicke on Renewable Energy Resources
In the first part of our conversation with Francis Thicke, Ph.D., candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture in the 2010 election, we discussed the use of perennial crops as biofuels, using a process called pyrolysis. In this part of our discussion, Thicke talks about increasing biodiversity and farm-based power generation.
Thicke (pronounced TICK-ee) and his wife are organic dairy farmers who live near Fairfield, Iowa. Thicke is a respected agricultural scientist, who has testified twice before the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee in Washington, D.C.
Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) has officially endorsed Dr. Thicke’s candidacy. In this series of conversations, we present his views not only for Iowans, but also for others to consider wherever you live; in our view, Thicke’s vision for sustainable agriculture and renewable energy transcends borders. — Publisher
BPGL: One of the growing “crops” in Iowa, if you want to call it that, is the wind turbines that are popping up on a lot of farms. It’s great to see the use of renewable energy for all of us. We certainly need to reduce our carbon footprint wherever possible. Is this also good for Iowa farmers as part of their business model?
THICKE: I would like to see wind energy development become more targeted toward systems that profit farmers, landowners, and rural communities. Currently, we have quite a few large wind farms in Iowa. One study shows we now have the capacity to produce about 15% of our electrical energy needs with wind in Iowa. It is very good that we have developed so much wind power capacity, but we should look at how ownership of wind energy production is structured, and who profits from it.
A lot of Iowa’s large wind farms are owned by out-of-state companies, and much of the energy they produce goes out of the state as well. So if you stand back and look at it from a broader perspective, what we’re doing is allowing Iowa’s wind resources — and profits from them — to be extracted from Iowa. Farmers and local communities are not profiting as much as they could be. Wind is a resource, much like oil wells and mineral mines, except that it does not become exhausted over time. We should look to how Iowa’s wind resources can be used to better benefit Iowa farmers, landowners, and communities.
BPGL: How are farmers and landowners compensated for the wind turbines on their land?
THICKE: A large wind turbine might produce $300,000 worth of electricity in a year. And when it’s put on a farmer’s land, the rent that the farmer gets is about 1 percent of that. I’m not saying that the rental rates are not reasonable. What I am saying is that we should look for ways to increase local ownership of wind power generation so more of the income remains local.
What if we were to provide incentives for farmers and landowners to put up mid-sized wind turbines all across Iowa? That would allow farmers, landowners, and rural communities to reap greater economic benefits from wind energy.
BPGL: What would such incentives look like? Are there existing models?
THICKE: There are innovative ways to incentivize new wind power installations. In Europe — and some U.S. states are also adopting this model — it is done through a system called feed-in tariffs. There are various ways to structure them, but feed-in tariffs turn out to be a win-win situation for landowners and electric power companies.
The way feed-in tariffs work is that power companies are initially required to pay a high rate of return for power from new, privately owned wind turbines. For example, rates may be as high as 20 cents per kWh for the first five years. That allows a farmer or landowner to pay for the capital investment in the wind turbine through a higher initial rate of return on investment.
After that initial period, after the wind turbine is capitalized, the price that is paid drops down to the wholesale level, for example, 3.5 cents per kWh. Then the power company gets green energy for a low price for the life of the wind generator. So, it is a win-win situation for farmers and power companies.
If we had wind turbines on farms all across Iowa, farmers would not only be able to power their farms without high electrical bills, but they would also be able to sell the excess electricity produced, adding to farm profitability and rural economic development.
There are other advantages to distributed wind power generation. If wind turbines are spread across the state, as weather fronts move across the state, energy production is more constant than when wind turbines are concentrated in one area. Also, with distributed production, locally produced electricity is used locally, because demand is also distributed across the state. That reduces the need for constructing large distribution power lines, and reduces the loss of energy through long-distance transmission.
BPGL: What would it take to get more funding for farmers to have their own wind turbines? There are a lot of designs for small wind turbines and solar voltaic collectors that generate smaller amounts of kilowatts, but how can farmers and inventors get funding to get started?
THICKE: We could do it through a combination of tax credits and feed-in tariffs. Feed-in tariffs do not require direct state or taxpayer investments. However, they do require some up-front investments by power companies, which will be reflected in electrical rates. But up-front capital investments are required for any new generating capacity, such as coal or nuclear power plants. The feed-in tariff model could help wind turbines proliferate rapidly.
Solar power investments could also be funded through feed-in tariffs and tax incentives. Solar electricity generation is more expensive than wind, but solar voltaic technology is improving rapidly and may have a bright future here in Iowa. Solar hot water heating is one type of solar energy system that provides a fast payback of required capital investments, and is something we should be widely utilizing here in Iowa.
Of course, one big advantage of wind and solar power applications is that they utilize energy sources that are truly renewable, inexhaustible, and nonpolluting. It makes good sense for Iowa to invest in these kinds of energy systems.
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Part 2: Francis Thicke on Renewable Energy (Top of Page)