This piece provides the historical context of renewable energy at Indian Creek Nature Center, which began in the 1980s. Emeritus Director Rich Patterson wrote this from memory in 2017. It has been lightly edited.
A brief article written by President Jimmy Carter, The Power of a Good Example, appears in the September/October 2017 issue of SIERRA Magazine. Mr. Carter had 3,500 solar panels installed on his farm in Georgia that produce electricity for 200 of the 210 homes in Plains. In the article he relates how, in 1979, he had 32 solar panels installed on the roof of the White House. In his speech at the dedication ceremony Carter emphasized the importance of “harnessing the power of the sun to enrich our lives….”
Enter the Indian Creek Nature Center. In the early 1980s I met by chance Howard Shanks, an electrical engineer working at Iowa State University to develop amorphous cell photovoltaics under a United Nations grant. He was seeking a site to test them where the public could see them and learn about renewable energy. We had just built the Maple Sugar House with a south-facing 45-degree roof, and I offered it as a site. He accepted, and soon we had a stand-alone (not grid connected) solar energy system in place. The panels charged a series of batteries in a cabinet we built. It was a modest system that generated enough electricity to run the building’s lights, but no more.
I had read about net metering and wanted to introduce the concept to Eastern Iowa. In 1986 Ronald Reagan, who succeeded Jimmy Carter in the White House, had those 32 solar panels removed during repairs to the roof of the White House. At the time I was active in the Iowa Renewable Energy Association (IRENEW), and we were curious about where the panels were. Congressman Jim Leach went to bat for us and found the panels gathering dust in a warehouse. He got the government to release them to IRENEW/Indian Creek Nature Center. The Nature Center ended up with a dozen panels that had once been on the White House roof.
There was no legal provision for net metering at the time. Fortunately, Lee Liu, CEO of Iowa Electric, was a Nature Center member and I had gotten to know him. I asked if we could net meter the panels, and received tentative permission. I believe Mr. Liu could see this coming and wanted a test location. We hired Dennis Pottratz, the only solar expert we could find, to install the panels as part of a workshop teaching how to install them. We got a grant to buy an inverter and other parts. About a dozen students signed up and we had a date set for installation.
The day before the class and installation were to take place, both the City of Cedar Rapids and Iowa Electric put a kink in our plans. The City said we were required to have a licensed electrician and a city building inspector on site during installation. Fortunately, good luck entered. A neighbor was both a journeyman electrician and city inspector. He was interested in photovoltaics and wanted to take the class anyway, and he agreed to be present. The City okayed this plan.
Iowa Electric called to tell me they were sending out a technical expert to make sure the photovoltaics would create electricity compatible with the grid. If not, we could not connect. This was the day before the workshop, when we’d spent a bunch of money on parts. The expert arrived, began reading the specs of the system, and became enthusiastic. He said, “This is great stuff and it will not harm the grid in any way.” At the 11th hour, Alliant Energy blessed the project. The next day we had it installed and generating electricity. On some days it sent power into the grid.
One of the workshop students lived nearby on an acreage and loved the concept of solar energy. She bought a system and had an installer connect it to the grid. At the time, there was no legal way to do this, so it was a bootlegged system. She produced so much power that the Alliant Energy meter reader thought she had tampered with the meter. Enter Nature Center board member Ed Greiner, who worked for Alliant (Click here to read more about ICNC’s longterm partnership with Alliant Energy). Ed asked if I’d arrange a meeting with the landowner, which I did. Emerging from that meeting of the three of us was the wording that allowed homeowners to connect with the Iowa Electric/IES/Alliant Energy grid. (Prior to that, Alliant had no legal or procedural way to allow a customer to net meter.)
The Indian Creek Nature Center was the first place in Iowa to have net-metered renewable energy. Today this is common and has propelled renewable generation. (As of 2022, Iowa was fourth in the nation in renewable energy production, per U.S. News & World Report.)
Jimmy Carter’s panels replaced those created at Iowa State University. Later, The Hall-Perrine Foundation provided a grant to replace the aging White House panels. The new ones were installed on the Penningroth Barn, specifically on the sunroom roof.