USDA announces funds for biomass research and production


Switchgrass is an example of a biomass source grown and harvested in Iowa. (Noble Foundation/Flickr)
Switchgrass is an example of a biomass material grown and harvested in Iowa. (Noble Foundation/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | February 27, 2015

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Thursday that up to $8.7 million in funding will be available for bioenergy research and education efforts. The announcement was made during the Growth Energy Executive Leadership Conference in Phoenix, Ariz.

Additionally, funding will go toward publishing the final rule for the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) which aims to provide incentives for farmers and forest landowners interested in growing and harvesting biomass to be used as renewable energy. The final rule is expected to be published in today’s edition of the Federal Register. BCAP provides up to $25 million annually in financial assistance for owners and operators of agricultural and non-industrial private forest land.

“USDA’s support for innovative bioenergy research and education supports rural economic development, reduces carbon pollution and helps decrease our dependence on foreign energy,” Vilsack said in a press release. “These investments will keep America moving toward a clean energy economy and offer new jobs and opportunities in rural communities.”

Those interested in grants for research and education can apply through the USDA’s Biomass Research and Development Initiative. Past organizations and agencies to receive funding through this grant include Quad County Corn Cooperative in Galva, Iowa; Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. in Findlay, Ohio; and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Materials that can be used as biomass include wood chips, corn, corn stalks, soybeans, switchgrass, straw, animal waste and food-processing by-products. Research examining the potential of biomass in Iowa and abroad dates back to the mid-1990s.

Hydro power system generates energy using underground pipes


The LucidPipe Power System uses similar a similar model to hydroelectric dams without the environmental concerns. (Lucid Energy)
The LucidPipe Power System generates energy similarly to hydroelectric dams without affecting fish migration patterns or causing other environmental concerns. (Lucid Energy)

Nick Fetty | February 26, 2015

While wind turbines dot the landscape in Iowa and other places around the world, an innovative new system of underground turbines could be the next big thing in energy technology.

Parts of Portland, Oregon recently installed the LucidPipe Power System which uses hydroeletric turbines to generate energy through the city’s network of water pipes. This system allows energy to be generated every time someone turns on a faucet or flushes a toilet, however it only works “in places where water is naturally flowing downward with gravity (if water is being pumped, the system would waste energy).” The system is expected to generate 1,100 megawatt hours of energy each year which is enough to power roughly 150 homes. This is expected to translate to $2 million worth of renewable energy capacity over a 20-year span.

“Different from traditional renewable energy systems, like solar and wind, it’s really not dependent on the weather. It’s not dependent upon the sun shining or the wind blowing to produce electricity,” Lucid Energy President and CEO Gregg Semler said in an interview. “What LucidPipe is doing is we’re taking the best of hydro – low cost, base load – and we’re doing it with no environmental impact.”

A similar system has existed in Riverside, California since 2011 and another project has been planned for Texas. Officials with Lucid Energy hope the network will eventually expand and become worldwide.

Water polluters spent millions on lobbying efforts in 2014, report finds


The United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C. (Stacy / Flickr)
The United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C. (Stacy / Flickr)
KC McGinnis | February 25, 2015

As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers look to restore Clean Water Act  protections to smaller waterways around the country, industries and trade groups are putting millions of dollars into lobbying efforts to prevent such a move.

Using publicly available data, environmental advocacy group Environment Iowa found that some of the biggest industrial water polluters also contributed large monetary amounts to lobbying efforts in 2014. The ten companies that dumped the most toxic chemicals into the nation’s waterways in 2012 – a combined 95 million pounds of material – spent more than $53 million on lobbying last year, as well as nearly $10 million in campaign contributions.

At stake is a broader definition of terms like “navigable waters” which are offered protection under the Clean Water Act (CWA). This would include more than two million miles of streams and 20 million acres wetlands which feed into much of America’s drinking water supply. The EPA is currently limited in its enforcement of CWA offenses over the thousands of miles of pipelines stretched over wetlands and waste dumped into smaller streams because of the provisions of current definitions.

The millions spent by companies like Tyson Foods and Kock Industries were used to fund campaign contributions, corporate lobbying and the formation of influential industry groups. Through the hiring of full-time lobbying staff who are able to secure multiple meetings with lawmakers, these companies have an unbalanced level of influence compared to everyday citizens. In 2014, one of these groups, The Waters Advocacy Coalition, sent a letter urging members of the House of Representatives to block the Clean Water Act rule affecting smaller waterways.

Environment Iowa is urging federal officials to “restore Clean Water Act protections to America’s streams and wetlands.” Click here for the full report.

Bill aims to give excess solar energy to low income families


Rep. Mary Mascher (D-Iowa City) is serving her 11th term in the Iowa House of Representatives. (Iowa House Democrats)
Rep. Mary Mascher (D-Iowa City) is serving her 11th term in the Iowa House of Representatives. (Iowa House Democrats)

Nick Fetty | February 24, 2015

A bill introduced by Iowa State Representative Mary Mascher (D-Iowa City) aims to give excess power generated by solar panels to those struggling to afford electricity.

House File 149 – which was introduced earlier this month – would require utility companies that regularly submit efficiency plans to add to their plans a “solar energy bank program” which would assist low-income families and individuals who fall behind on energy payments. This “solar energy bank” would be the excess energy generated by solar panels. Typically excess energy produced is sold back to the utility company. The bill would serve as an extension of the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

“Our LIHEAP monies run out every year before the end of the winter season,” Mascher said in an interview with Midwest Energy News. “We have more need than money to go around. This is another way to generate more energy money – in terms of providing a safety net for those folks. For me, it’s a win-win because the energy company doesn’t have to turn off someone’s power. And the people who need it the most are able to continue to get the power they need.”

Mascher is currently serving her 11th term in the Iowa House of Representatives. The Iowa City native also serves on the Education, Local Government, State Government and Appropriations committees.

On the Radio: Bakken pipeline presents environmental risks


An oil pad near the Little Missouri River near Billings, North Dakota (NPCA / Flickr).
An oil pad near the Little Missouri River near Billings, North Dakota (NPCA / Flickr).

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at environmental concerns raised by farmers and climate experts related to the Bakken oil pipeline. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Bakken pipeline environmental concerns

A proposed crude oil pipeline spanning the state is causing environmental concerns among Iowans.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Texas-based Dakota Access has officially sought permission from the state Utilities Board to build a pipeline across 18 Iowa counties. The pipeline would carry oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to central Illinois.

Similar projects have led to serious spills, like one that leaked 50,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River in Montana in January, contaminating the water supply of nearby cities.

Farmers and landowners at informational meetings in December spoke out against the pipeline’s construction, arguing that the project would interfere with drainage systems built to address Iowa’s growing runoff problem. Others noted that such a project may further Americans’ dependence on fossil fuels, at a time when climate experts are urging a shift to clean, renewable energy.

For continuous updates on the Bakken pipeline, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Jerry Schnoor.

Trust aims to preserve Iowa farmland


The Sustainable Iowa Land Trust aims to promote sustainable farming techniques and prevent soil erosion. (Paw Paw/Flickr)
The Sustainable Iowa Land Trust aims to promote sustainable farming techniques and prevent soil erosion as seen on this soybean field in Wisconsin. (Paw Paw/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | February 20, 2015

A recently introduced Iowa program aims to help out first-time farmers as well as those managing organic and sustainable operations.

The Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT) is a private nonprofit land trust dedicated to preserving Iowa’s farmland. Lawmakers have supported this bi-partisan effort with its advisory board including Sen. Joe Bolkcom (D-Iowa City) and Rep. Bobby Kaufmann (R-Wilton). The “working group” will consist of public and private stakeholders with 71-year old Corydon-resident Mary Ellen Miller being the first to donate 40 acres of land to the cause. In November the trust got a $20,000 interest-free loan from the Slow Money National Gathering.

The trust aims to put more emphasis on locally-grown products as Iowa currently imports 90 percent of its edible food. Additionally, the trust aims to promote sustainable agricultural practices to preserve soil as Iowa ranked second in the nation for amount of soil lost due to erosion in 2010, according to the Farmland Information Center. The trust also aims to assist novice farmers who may struggle acquiring land.

“It’s my dream to own an organic, diversified farm. Right now it’s really hard to find land. There’s lots of competition from developers, and some farmers sell land to larger farms. I am hoping I can find something through SILT,” aspiring farmer Kate Mendenhall said in an interview with Iowa Public Radio.

The Farmland Information Center also reports that Iowa is one of 28 states that have programs to protect land.

Edit: This post originally misstated that SILT was introduced by lawmakers.

Hundreds gather for Environmental Lobby Day 2015


Environmental Lobby Day/REAP Day 2015 took place at the capitol in Des Moines on Tuesday, February 16. (Katie Haugland/Flickr)
Environmental Lobby Day/REAP Day 2015 took place at the capitol building in Des Moines on Tuesday, February 16. (Katie Haugland/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | February 19, 2015

More than 250 people attended the annual Environmental Lobby Day/REAP Day at the state capitol in Des Moines on Tuesday.

Thirty-three different conservation groups set up station’s in the statehouse’s rotunda to appeal to legislators and other attendees. Groups in attendance included Iowa Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Iowa Conservation Education Coalition, the State Hygienic Lab, and others.

The event also included speeches from state senators Bob Dvorsky (D-Coralville) and David Johnson (R-Ocheyedan), Iowa Natural Resources Commission chair Margo Underwood, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation president emeritus Mark Ackelson, and Iowa Environmental Council executive director Ralph Rosenberg.

REAP (Resource Enhancement and Protection) funding was one issue discussed at Tuesday’s event. Sixteen million dollars was appropriated to REAP for the current fiscal year with an additional $500,000 coming from natural resources license plate sales and gaming revenues. The money will be distributed to several state departments including Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Cultural Affairs, Natural Resources, Transportation and the State Historical Society. This funding will cover a variety of projects from city and state parks to soil and water enhancement.

While environmental issues were the main focus of the event, public health matters were also addressed. Chris Squires – a University of Iowa professor representing the American Cancer Society – advocated for legislation to prevent anyone under the age of 17 from using tanning beds while Eileen Fisher from Rural Cedar Township pushed for a smoking ban in Iowa casinos.

VIDEO: KCAU-TV/ABC9 – 35 Conservation Groups Gather at Iowa Statehouse