Analysis - Facebook looks to MidAmerican $1.9bn Iowa project

UNITED STATES: Facebook is in talks with Warren Buffet-owned MidAmerican Energy over using credits from the utility's $1.9 billion Wind VIII project.

Facebook looks to buy wind power for Iowa data centre

When the social media giant announced a $300 million data centre in Altoona, Iowa in April, it said renewable energy was a factor — but it had not been specific about how it would be obtained.

However, in a 10 May regulatory filing, Dean Crist, MidAmerican's vice president of regulation, revealed: "Facebook is interested in utilising a part of Wind VIII's 1.05GW, in order to provide renewable energy credits for its new data centre in central Iowa.

"The arrangement would have MidAmerican assume a Facebook option on a wind farm site and then develop it as part of Wind VIII. In exchange, Facebook would get renewable energy credits in relation to the value of the transferred site."

MidAmerican Energy is asking Iowa state regulators to rule quickly on the proposed Wind VIII so construction can start before the production tax credit (PTC) expires on 31 December. In a 10 May filing with the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB), the utility asked regulators to approve the plan by 1 September.

A decision would usually take about eight months, said Mark Schuling, the state's consumer advocate. MidAmerican must convince the IUB that the vast wind plan — which it expects to finish by the end of 2015 — is the best long-term deal for consumers.

Mid-American, owned by Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway, says building Wind VIII will cost its customers nothing. In a regulatory filing, MidAmerican also describes the wind project as supplying the "lowest-cost energy source". Some 20% of MidAmerican's generating capacity is oil and natural gas; US natural gas prices are close to an all-time low.

Even if only the first 350MW of Wind VIII is built, consumer bills in Iowa will be reduced by $3.3 million a year in 2015 and $10 million a year by 2017 because of the PTC and renewable energy credits, said MidAmerican. The project will provide $720 million in direct economic benefits to Iowa over 30 years, according to the filing.

In 2009, the IUB approved MidAmerican's 1GW Wind VII plan. MidAmerican spokeswoman Abby Bottenfield said that Wind VII did not lead to a hike in Iowa electricity rates despite news reports to the contrary. A rate freeze was in effect at the time, she said. Wind VII was completed in 2012.

MidAmerican said a turbine supplier has not been selected yet. But significantly, the regulatory filing included statements from GE and Siemens on turbine supply. Both have been major suppliers of MidAmerican.

If all of Wind VIII is installed, Bottenfield says about 39% of MidAmerican's electricity will be wind power, up from a current 30%. Des Moines-based MidAmerican owns and operates 2.3GW of wind in Iowa, the US state with the second-largest wind turbine fleet. It is the number one public utility in the US for owning wind generation.