TRAER, Iowa (AP) — A single wind turbine was already turning in the breeze several miles away when MidAmerican Energy began work on the Vienna Project, the utility company's 14th wind farm, in 2012.
That one turbine, built in 2011 just southeast of Traer, may not get much attention compared to the Vienna Project's 45 turbines — one of the smaller wind farms MidAmerican owns.
But that one turbine, on average, powers 40 percent of Traer Municipal Utilities' energy usage. And it'll likely be the only one the town of 1,700 ever requires.
"This pretty much meets the needs," Pat Stief, general manager of TMU, told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (http://bit.ly/2cmVMBt).
TMU will have paid off the turbine at the end of next year, Stief said, and in addition to buying the energy until then, it will have invested $1.2 million in wind energy.
With that turbine, plus nearly 200 solar panels on a farm south of town that are customer-owned, TMU was producing more renewable energy as a percentage of its energy needs when its turbine went online than the much-larger MidAmerican was at that time.
Stief notes the goal was never to compete with MidAmerican or Alliant Energy, both of which are making large wind investments in Iowa.
MidAmerican said it hopes to one day get to 100 percent renewable energy. TMU is happy where it's at, said Stief.
"The biggest cause of (buying a turbine) was the spike in wholesale prices caused by deregulation of the wholesale markets" in 2006, Stief said, noting Traer is one of 25 municipal utilities buying energy through a consortium.
Another big driver was community buy-in — figuratively, but also literally — as customers could choose to buy solar panels for an extra discount on their bills each month.
"(Customers) said, 'OK, what are you gonna do for us? We want to own renewables,'" Stief said. "It is customer-driven."
Unlike the big players, small, city-owned utilities aren't able to set a goal of 100 percent renewable energy unless they got major financial help, or technological advances in infrastructure or storage became an economic reality. TMU, which serves 1,100 customers, has nowhere to send wind energy produced at 2 a.m., for example.
But TMU's case shows municipal utilities can be more nimble, embracing new technologies and reacting more quickly to customer demands than the big players in the market.
Cedar Falls Utilities, for example, doesn't own a wind turbine but buys around 24 percent of its energy from wind on the regional energy market — and it expects that number to increase this year, according to Jim Krieg, general manager of CFU.
Wind is CFU's primary renewable energy source. Coal was still the biggest slice of the fuel pie, at 55 percent, in 2015. But CFU's been making big investments in solar after hearing customer requests.
Prairie Lakes Solar, on eight acres of undeveloped city of Cedar Falls land, opened in April with just over 6,500 solar panels.
CFU expected 400 customers would be interested. Instead, more than 1,200 residential and 43 commercial customers signed on right away, maxing out the site.
"We're keeping a waiting list right now," said Steve Bernard, director of customer service at CFU.
Just like at TMU, CFU bought into renewable energy because of a mixture of customer demand and financial sense.
"(Solar) came down in the last 10 years to probably half of what it was on the market, and the technology advanced," Krieg said. "All of a sudden, solar energy was becoming what we think of as a viable and competitive investment for our customers."
Alan Junkers and the board of Sumner Municipal Light Plant were already thinking about a solar investment of their own when CFU's solar farm got started.
The board's renewable energy portfolio was scant — just 5 percent of the energy Sumner Municipal bought was wind — and they saw solar seemed to be working for CFU.
Just like at the other utilities, customer demand was higher than the board expected.
"We had an information meeting and had it set up for maybe 50 people. We had well over 75," Junkers said.
Thirty-two panels out of 54 have been installed on North Pheasant Street, providing about 1 percent of Sumner's total energy. But Junkers sees a future in solar.
He noted on peak energy days — think 90 degrees in a blazing sun — wind turbines don't work. But those conditions are perfect for a solar panel.
"We're summer peaking, so when the sun shines, solar produces," Junkers said. "And it's almost instantaneous — when the sun comes out, I can sit there (on the computer) and see the generation on the panels."
Just like Traer's 2 a.m. problem, Junkers said, improvements in the electrical infrastructure and technology would go a long way toward helping city-owned utilities bring more renewables online.
"That's where it needs to be — you can produce all you want, but you can't push it out," he said. "In Texas, they're giving it away at night."
And while other alternatives, like biomass or switchgrass, haven't panned out in CFU's trials, Bernard said he knows there will be improvements in the future.
"I think we're optimistic," Bernard said. "Twenty or 30 years ago, who would have thought we would be getting 20 percent of our energy from wind? It's just become very competitive with the fossil fuels."
Information from: Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, http://www.wcfcourier.com