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Renewable Energy as a Path to Job Creation

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by Chet Culver

 
Former Governor of Iowa, Chet Culver

​Former Governor of Iowa (2007 - 2011), Chet Culver

I am proud to be a part of the Biden Institute's mission of answering the question: "How can we create high quality jobs in a transforming economy?"

The question itself is simple. And how we choose to answer it can have an enormous, positive, impact on the future of all Americans and of our country.

When I became Governor of Iowa in 2007, this question was front and center. Working with state and national leaders – policymakers and private sector actors – we chose to take advantage of the opportunities in renewable energy as the path to job creation, economic growth, and energy independence. 

My state of Iowa has been called the "epicenter of the upper Midwestern wind-belt." This made Iowa a natural fit for using that unique opportunity to re-shape our energy production economy. So, we did. Three decades ago, Iowa helped open the market for wind energy, by requiring that investor-owned utilities purchase a small amount of their power from wind sources. This renewable portfolio standard – "RPS" – gave some certainty to the growing wind energy industry, and it showed that we in Iowa were serious about exploring the opportunities in wind production. 

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It took us 15 years to get there, but by 1999, we had met that initial standard of 105 megawatts – truly laying the groundwork for the 21st Century energy economy in Iowa. What came next was simply amazing. In the roughly 15 years that followed, Iowa's economy was transformed by wind energy. By 2016, the amount of energy we produce grew to almost 7000 megawatts of installed capacity, representing 36% of all the electricity we produce in Iowa. That's 6000% of our first RPS! 

This happened because of a choice we made. It happened because public policy leaders and private industry recognized that renewable energy could be a winner for customers, for utilities, and for the environment.

The explosive growth in renewable energy alone is a remarkable story of innovation, and it stands on its own as something to be proud of. But in Iowa, that's just the beginning. We knew that Iowa could lead the country in renewable energy production. We also believed that Iowans could play a significant role in literally building the industry. What if wind could not only transform energy production in Iowa, but also open doors for people to work in high-tech 'green collar' jobs of the future all over the state? What if we could take advantage of both sides of wind – production of energy –  but also the manufacturing of the base components?

These were essential questions to ask, and to get right. And, there was some urgency to our process. In Iowa, as in many other states, the changing economy made for real challenges. Some of our major employers had left the state, leaving in their wake job loss and uncertainty. We have all seen this happen – when an 'anchor' employer leaves a town, local economies often simply dry up, and people get hurt. Wages drop, and opportunities go away. In our case, we were looking at the very real potential that thousands of people, who for their careers had been part of our highly skilled workforce, would simply have no place to go. We needed to replace these traditional manufacturing jobs with an advanced manufacturing base that could last for decades. 

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Former Governor, Chet Culver (2011)

Former Governor of Iowa, Chet Culver (2011)

We decided, once more, to look at our economic future through the opportunities created by wind. We knew our workforce was some of the best in the country. We also knew that if we did things right, that not even the sky was the limit to the wind economy in our state.

So, we went to work immediately on recruiting companies to Iowa – creating and supporting a new advanced manufacturing economy and workforce in our state.

Our work paid off. During my last year as Governor, there were nine world-class companies employing Iowans manufacturing component parts. But that was just the tip of the iceberg: at that time, there were more than 200 companies in the supply chain all over the state. That's not all – maintenance of wind towers and facilities is a highly-skilled profession – with very good wages. So, Iowa's wind towers also meant and continue to mean economic growth in rural parts of the state. Every tower that goes up means more jobs for Iowans. And this emphasis is paying off today: In 2016, there were as many as 9000 jobs directly or indirectly supported by wind in Iowa. 

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As a result of our focus, Iowa now leads the country in the share of wind generated electricity, and is second in installed capacity. The 4000 towers in Iowa now produce enough electricity to power 1.85 million homes. 

This low-cost, easily accessible, energy is obviously good for a company's bottom line, and it has led to $13.5 billion in capital investment in Iowa. For example, just this year, MidAmerican Utilities committed to the construction of two more wind farms in Iowa, and earlier this week, announced a major maintenance operation for hundreds of towers in the state. But the impact of our green energy economy goes beyond utilities; only a few weeks ago, Apple chose to build a massive data farm in Iowa – a $1.3 billion effort - joining Google, Microsoft and Facebook in our state. Chief among the reasons they came to Iowa? Clean, affordable energy, and a corporate decision to engage in environmentally sound practices: in short, they want to be green, and we are helping to give them a way to do it.

But our economic growth is not limited to new companies coming into Iowa. Long-standing Iowa employers are staying in our state as a result – and expanding. Companies like John Deere, Hy-Vee, Kemin, and Principal are making huge investments in infrastructure, new plants and buildings. 

This is what a 21st century wind economy looks like!

The opportunities in wind and renewables are clear. It is also now as important as ever, to be vigilant in identifying and meeting the challenges to the industry, too – because challenges do exist. Some are technical – questions about transmission, for example. Some are strictly policy decisions, like the future of the production tax credit. The answers to these questions will not come automatically. But the history of wind and renewable energy has shown, that good public policy can help grow private sector jobs for people all over the country. 

Iowa's story is a remarkable narrative. It is made possible by decades of public-private partnerships, bipartisan policy decisions, and business practices that have shown that job creation, business growth, and sound environmental policies can go hand-in-hand.

But most of all, our story belongs to the men and women who go to work every day to build out the new energy economy in Iowa. Their skills and their commitment are what make possible our future of energy independence and economic growth. I believe the future of wind and renewable energy is truly unlimited – not just in Iowa, but in every state. 

It is my sincere pleasure and honor to come to the Biden Institute to share Iowa's story with you. I want to thank Vice President Biden for his years of friendship to all Iowans, his lifelong efforts to strengthen the middle class in our country, and his relentless optimism for the future. As he says: "We are America – second to none." 

I wholeheartedly agree!

Chet Culver is the Founder of the Chet Culver Group, an energy sector consulting firm. He was the Governor of Iowa from 2007-2011. 

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To cap off a visit to campus, Former Governor of Iowa and energy sector consultant, Chet Culver lends his voice to the Biden Institute Blog.
9/29/2017
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