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Sheila Tipton sees a challenge in the wind


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It’s difficult to hang some trophies on the wall, and, anyway, there probably isn’t a tack large enough to support what Sheila Tipton considers her biggest accomplishment.

Tipton, 57, is a lawyer at Belin Lamson McCormick Zumbach Flynn. She specializes in what is now called “essential infrastructure” because the old discipline has outgrown its parochial roots. The passé name was public utilities.

She can talk in detail about power grids, argue land rights and point to the very practical but long-neglected need to improve water and sewer lines, highways, bridges and dams.

Among her clients is MidAmerican Energy Co., not to mention multinational power generating corporations attracted to the wind that blows through Iowa.

And though she has spent the better part of her 27-year career focused on utilities, where they cross our various paths and lurk below ground, she says her greatest achievement is being a survivor in the legal profession.

“I’m not one to put achievements on the wall,” Tipton said recently, speaking in an office noticeable for its pictures of family and friends and performances of Des Moines Metro Opera, where she is a board member.

The achievement or trophy she wouldn’t hang on the wall, even if she could, is summed up this way:

“When I was growing up is when the women’s movement was just starting. I thought the promise of the women’s movement was that a woman should be treated equally with men and just be able to work in what was perceived to be a man’s world, and I’ve been able to do that,” Tipton said.

“I was president of this firm, and I think I’m in what, when I was growing up, was perceived to be a man’s profession. I think I have a good reputation as an attorney, and I’m proud of that. My family’s proud of me for doing that, and my firm is proud of me for doing that.”

It might have taken her parents some time to accept that their daughter, one of five, didn’t follow their preferred career path.

“My parents wanted me to be a medical technologist,” Tipton said. Maybe to humor them, she majored in zoology at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, not more than 90 minutes from where she grew up in the Appalachian foothills in the southeastern part of the state.

Her father, Donald, worked for GTE Corp., which later became Verizon Communications Inc. And though Tipton counts telecommunications as one of her areas of expertise, her parents sought the advice of her husband, attorney Bill Dawe, on how to treat their investment in the company during a stock split.

After the recent death of her mother, Elizabeth, Tipton has helped her father sort through his finances.

“I guess he has come to accept that I’m a lawyer,” she said.

Tipton is a shareholder in the Belin firm. In four years with one of the city’s most recognized practices, she has served on its management committee, including a one-year stint as president.

Belin partner Thomas Flynn said the firm is fortunate to have her.

“She was a fantastic addition for us,” Flynn said.

Tipton helped expand the firm’s representation of investor-owned utility companies.

“She just has a wonderful grasp of the big picture,” Flynn said. “She is exceptionally intelligent, and also has wonderful common sense, which together facilitates resolution of difficult and complex issues.”

Tipton graduated from Drake University Law School in 1980 and almost immediately entered the realm of essential infrastructure.

“With a science background, I liked working with the engineers and accountants, and it seemed like a natural thing to get involved in,” she said.

The broadened scope of what constitutes a utility and issues surrounding utility industries have become too complex for the term public utilities.

And it is an area that requires a big-picture view.

Among the issues she deals with are water supply, competitive agreements – or disagreements – between companies, the difficult process of gaining approval to construct coal-fired power plants and their future role as sources for electricity, especially in the face of global warming.

“What’s going to happen with the coal-fired plants? Will the industry be able to continue to build? Will there be a moratorium?” Tipton said.

Tipton said that one of her greatest disappointments came in early January when LS Power Group affiliate Elk Run Energy Associates LLC announced that it was scrapping plans for a coal-burning power plant in Waterloo.

The plant would have set several environmental firsts, including recycling the city’s water supply to cool its generators and burning switchgrass as an alternative energy source.

“That plant was going to be a pretty innovative plant in some of those areas. I was frustrated with that decision; I thought I could get that plant sited for them,” Tipton said. “I like my work, so that was frustrating to me to have them decide not to build the plant.”

On the other hand, an effort to run electrical power transmission lines from a wind farm through four counties in northern Iowa was rewarding. The effort produced just one objection from a landowner despite the hundreds of easements that had to be negotiated, she said.

Tipton noted that in the early 1980s, she represented all seven of the investor-owned utilities operating in the state. Those companies have been reduced to two, MidAmerican and Interstate Power and Light Co., both of which she represents.

In addition, Tipton finds herself in the middle of water issues through her client Iowa American Water, a subsidiary of American Water Works Co. Inc., which is the country’s largest private operator of water supplies.

Tipton said Iowa must continue to battle issues surrounding the quality of its water supply and the condition of the lines that transmit it.

She also predicts that the state could experience disputes over wind rights, similar to the water-availability controversies that have marked the West.

“Some people think that this is our wind, this is Iowa’s wind, this is North Dakota’s wind or this is South Dakota’s wind. Well, you can only build wind farms in certain areas of the country, in the Midwest, in Texas, where the wind blows,” Tipton said. “If we hope to use wind, the wind farms are going to be in one place and then transmitted to the grid so it can be used elsewhere.

“We can’t claim that it’s our wind. That wind is going to have to be available to other areas of the country. So how do we get the power to places where it isn’t being produced? There is going to be a need to get transmission in the Midwest to other parts of the country. The question is whether local groups are going to be able to stop that transmission from being built.

“You can see what the issue is going to be. You have to build a transmission line from Iowa to New York state and is Ohio going to be able to say, ‘No, we don’t want that line in our state’?”

When her thoughts aren’t caught up in issues surrounding wind, water and zoning regulations, Tipton lets her mind wonder through operas and other music.

“In my dreams, I’m a rock star,” she said. “A few of my partners have a band that we call the Belin Boy Band. I keep telling them that they need a girl singer, but they haven’t taken the hint.”

Her attraction to opera dates to when she was a 9-year-old fiddling with the dials on her dad’s Magnavox radio and coming across a Texaco Metropolitan Opera Radio Network broadcast of “La Boheme.”

“After that, I would tune in whenever I could. I think my folks thought I was nuts,” Tipton said.

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