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News roundup: MidAmerican bets big on renewables, the Iowa wind boom, Austin Energy leads the way

News roundup: MidAmerican bets big on renewables, the Iowa wind boom, Austin Energy leads the way
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This Monday’s news roundup highlights MidAmerican Energy’s investment in renewable energy, Iowa’s economic windfall a “good opportunity,” and Austin Energy is ahead of the curve on its renewable plan.

Berkshire Hathaway’s MidAmerican Energy is no stranger to renewable energy sources like wind power, but its total investment in these technologies is nonetheless impressive:

  • MidAmerican Energy will have spent $15 billion on renewable energy investments by the time a handful of wind and solar projects are completed in the next few years. Warren Buffett, head of Berkshire Hathaway, disclosed the renewable investment figure in his annual letter to shareholders released on Saturday.
  • "From a standing start nine years ago, MidAmerican now accounts for 7% of the country's wind generation capacity, with more on the way," Buffett said. "Our share in solar — most of which is still in construction — is even larger." The costs of many recent MidAmerican deals, especially in solar energy, haven't been disclosed. MidAmerican's $15 billion investment, however, indicates that renewable energy is one of Berkshire Hathaway's biggest investment priorities.
  • The utility is poised to be among the world's top generators of renewable energy by 2015. Already, Berkshire's energy subsidiary is the top generator of wind energy in the U.S. and has renewable assets of 1,830 megawatts, according to company projections. Such acquisitions as NV Energy and Berkshire's stated plan for $100 billion in capital expenditure at MidAmerican Energy over the next 10 to 15 years also indicate Berkshire will be an aggressor in the utilities sector in coming years.

Iowa loves wind power, with multiple projects setting up the state to become an even larger player in this clean, mainstream sector:

  • Lately, the vast wind resource has turned the rural northwest Iowa county into a hotbed of economic activity. A bevy of companies are moving ahead with large-scale projects that would harness and export the renewable energy to more populated regions. The undertakings are projected to spur hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and create thousands of temporary construction jobs and hundreds of permanent jobs, as well as fill local tax coffers and grow communities that have seen an exodus in population in recent decades.
  • MidAmerican Energy Co. broke ground in November on a 500-megawatt wind farm, the largest single site in Iowa history. It calls for 218 wind turbines spread out over 70,000 acres near the O'Brien County seat of Primghar. Dubbed the Highland Wind Energy project, it’s part of a $1.9 billion expansion of Iowa's wind generating capacity that the Des Moines utility announced last year. The foundation work for the Highland turbines started last fall and should be done by the end of the year, with the turbines and the more than 650 blades set to go up by the end of 2015, MidAmerican spokeswoman Tina Potthoff said.
  • More than a decade ago, wind energy developers started scouting potential sites in O'Brien, which lies on the southern tip of the Buffalo Ridge, an ancient glacial formation stretching into southwest Minnesota that's known for its consistent strong winds. But the early initiatives stalled because of the bottleneck in the region's electric grid, Johnson said. "That was the holdup all these years," she said. "There was nowhere to go if they did build it." Under the current schedules, construction on the Rock Island Clean Line and the MidAmerican line and wind farm would overlap beginning in 2015. At the peak, hundreds, if not thousands, of construction workers could be on site.

Texas utility Austin Energy appears to be ahead of its own renewable energy goal, with wind power leading the charge:

  • The Austin City Council has given Austin Energy its approval to enter a new wind power purchase agreement (PPA) for up to 300 MW, positioning the utility to achieve its goal of delivering 35% of its electricity from renewable sources four years ahead of its goal.
  • The contract with Lincoln Renewable Energy calls for Austin Energy to buy the wind power for 18 years for $31 million per year. The price range is between $26/MWh and $36/MWh, which Austin Energy says makes it the least expensive wind purchase the utility has ever had.
  • When the three new projects are all online, Austin Energy says it will have about 1.35 GW of wind power in its portfolio, helping the company achieve its 35% renewable energy goal in 2016 – four years ahead of schedule. Austin Energy notes it also currently has about 50 MW of solar power and 112 MW of biomass.

Sources:

Antoine Gara, “Berkshire's Renewable Energy Investment to Hit $15 Billion.” The Morning Journal. 1 March 2014.

Dave Dreeszen, “Wind energy boom blows into northwest Iowa county.” Quad-City Times. 2 March 2014.

Staff. “Wind Deal Puts Austin Energy On Track To Meet Renewables Goal Four Years Early.” North American Windpower. 28 February 2014.

 

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