After Iowa caucuses, a busy week in energy policy

(DonkeyHotey / Creative Commons)
(DonkeyHotey / Creative Commons)
KC McGinnis | February 2, 2016

After Texas Sen. Ted Cruz took the most delegates in the Iowa caucuses despite his lack of support from Governor Terry Branstad over his opposition to the Renewable Fuel Standard, energy policy will continue to be a hot topic of debate in Iowa and on Capitol Hill.

According to Bloomberg, more than 100 amendments to end or rework the ethanol mandate have been filed and could go to the Senate floor as early as this week. These would be the first written modifications to energy policy since 2007.

Ethanol became a major point of debate nationwide as Presidential candidates clashed on the issue. Among Republicans, Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul were alone in their opposition to the ethanol mandate while both former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders expressed a need to improve upon the law, which requires fuels like gasoline to contain a minimum volume of renewable fuels, without scrapping it altogether.

This week policy makers in Washington will also discuss the effects of fracking on drinking water, hydroelectric power, energy security and the COP21 climate summit that took place last December. The first hearing related to Flint water crisis will also take place before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

2014 Iowa emissions report: Agriculture top emitter for second year, soil management nearly tops transportation

Smokestacks from a coal plant near Council Bluffs, Iowa. (Rich/Flickr)
Smokestacks from a coal plant near Council Bluffs, Iowa. (Rich/Flickr)
KC McGinnis | January 26, 2016

A 2015 summary of the previous year’s emissions record shows that Iowa’s greenhouse gas emissions rose in 2014.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory Report shows that Iowa’s emissions grew by 2.44% from 2013, increasing in every category but industrial processes, waste and transportation. A sector-by-sector breakdown shows that agriculture accounted for the most emissions, outpacing electric power generation from fossil fuels for the second straight year. 2014 also saw another steep rise in emissions from residential, commercial, and industrial fossil fuel use, a 6.18% increase that tied the sector with electric power at 33.44 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emitted. Emissions from waste saw the biggest decrease, down 1.47% to 1.65 millions metric tons emitted.

Agriculture emissions are attributed to livestock, crop production, manure management, agricultural soils and burning of crop waste. Enteric fermentation – largely methane emissions from the digestive systems of animals – dropped in 2014 while agriculture’s biggest emitter, soil management, increased by 6.7% to 20.92 million metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent released – that’s almost as much as the emissions from all highway and non-highway vehicles in Iowa (21.61). The DNR attributes these increased emissions to higher crop production and fertilizer application. Too much fertilizer can lead to high nitrous oxide emissions, a greenhouse gas 300 times as powerful as carbon dioxide.

While the Iowa DNR projects a decrease in 2015, emissions are expected to increase up to 2030. For a link to the full report click here.

Iowa State researcher explores promising battery innovation for wind power


KC McGinnis | January 19, 2016

An Iowa State University researcher may be one step closer to producing a safer and more efficient method of storing energy from wind turbines.

Engineer Steve Martin is developing battery technology that could replace the existing lithium-ion batteries currently used to store wind energy, which are highly flammable and rely on a relatively limited resource, lithium. Instead Martin is looking to improve upon sodium-based battery technology to make it a feasible wind energy solution. Martin wants to develop a battery that both depends on a more abundant resource, sodium, and can run at room temperature.

In 2015 Martin received a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) to further develop his solid-state sodium battery technology. Unlike lithium batteries that use a liquid electrolyte, these batteries will be made of all solid materials, making them less susceptible to fires. These parts are being developed in conjunction with Iowa State researchers at the University of Houston, the University of Colorado Boulder and Washington State University.

Martin and several other Iowa State researchers were recently profiled in a Des Moines Register feature on Iowa researchers driving energy innovations.

Iowa swim alum lands Forbes’ 30 for 30 for solar research

Andrej Lenert, Postdoctoral scholar at the University of Michigan and former UI swim team athlete.
Andrej Lenert, Postdoctoral scholar at the University of Michigan and former UI swim team athlete.
KC McGinnis | December 8, 2016

Iowa Hawkeye swim alum Andrej Lenert has received recognition for his innovative work on solar energy.

29-year-old Lenert, who swam for the Hawkeye swim team from 2004 to 2008 and is now a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Michigan, was recognized by Forbes for helping develop a new approach to harvesting solar energy that could harness additional wavelengths normally lost in the collection process. This could drastically improve solar energy efficiency, far surpassing the theoretical limit on the energy-conversion efficiency known as the Shockley-Queisser limit, which is set at 33.7%, to as much as 80% efficiency.

This hybrid solar power system works by effectively filling in the gaps between wavelengths that are normally not collected in the solar energy process. Lenert and a team at MIT team developed a material that emits these missing wavelengths as it reacts to sunlight before it hits photovoltaic cells in the solar panel.


UI alum and COP21 negotiator marks summit “beginning of the end of the fossil-fuel era”

A COP21 attendee walks along a corridor connecting sections at the COP21 climate summit in Paris in December. (KC McGinnis / CGRER)
A COP21 attendee walks along a corridor connecting sections at the COP21 climate summit in Paris in December. (KC McGinnis / CGRER)
KC McGinnis | December 22, 2015

A University of Iowa alum and member of the UI Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research (CGRER) called the recent COP21 summit at which he was a delegate, “the beginning of the end of the fossil-fuel era.”

That quote, which appeared in a New York Times summary of the climate talks, came from Marcelo Mena-Carrasco, a civil and environmental engineering graduate with masters and doctoral degrees from the University of Iowa. Mena-Carrasco is now serving in a Chilean cabinet post as its Undersecretary of the Environment.

Mena-Carrasco met with CGRER co-director Jerry Schnoor at the climate summit to hear what Latin American countries thought of the agreement as it was in progress.

“Mostly they’re trying to get it to be a bit more ambitious,” he said in a CGRER interview from COP21.

Many Latin American countries are among those most affected by global climate change, made especially vulnerable by rising temperatures, deforestation and expanding deserts. Last year Chile approved the first carbon tax in South America at a modest $5 per metric ton of carbon dioxide emissions. The largest solar plant in Latin America is currently under construction in the Chilean desert.

Contentious public forum discusses Bakken pipeline

A map of the pipeline route proposed by Texas-based Dakota Access, LLC
A map of the pipeline route proposed by Texas-based Dakota Access, LLC
KC McGinnis | December 18, 2015

Iowans were divided Wednesday during a public forum over a proposal that would help establish a pipeline across the state.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources organized the public meeting to gather input from Iowans regarding whether it should grant a permit to Texas-based Dakota Access, LLC to construct an oil pipeline under publicly-owned lands like the Big Sioux River Complex Wildlife Management Area and the Mississippi River. The meeting was contentious and sometimes heated, according to The Gazette.

While some, including union members, argued the pipeline would provide jobs and a safer way to transport oil than by rail, others expressed concern over the pipeline construction’s short-term effects on biodiversity and soil health and long-term effects on water quality and emissions. Science suggests that 80% of known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground in order to keep climate change under 2 degrees Celsius, well below the goal of 1.5 degrees agreed upon by world leaders at COP21 last week.

Debate over the Bakken pipeline is likely to continue well into next year, with the Iowa Utilities Board reaching a decision on eminent domain sometime in February and the DNR sometime this winter.

Des Moines mayor wants to be a voice for local government at COP21

Des Moines mayor Frank Cownie speaks at a World Canvass event highlighting the 25th anniversary of CGRER at FilmScene in Iowa City. (KC McGinnis / CGRER)
KC McGinnis | December 4, 2015

Among thousands of delegates from high-ranking international posts, Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie wants to bring a voice for local government to the COP21 U.N. climate summit currently in progress.

Mayor Cownie, who will be in Paris for the COP21 talks next week, sees climate change as a direct threat to Iowa infrastructure and development, particularly in its links to severe flooding and agricultural runoff.

Cownie will one of several mayors at COP21 representing the U.N. Compact of Mayors, which aims to increase the visibility of local leaders seeking climate solutions.

“I want to bring a local voice – local eyes, local ears,” mayor Cownie said in an address in November at Plymouth United Church of Christ in Des Moines.

Mayor Cownie sees climate change as a local issue in part because of climate-driven immigration, which he believes could force hundreds of millions to relocate due to issues like sea level rise. Local governments will be at the center of these relocation efforts.

Cownie recently recalled that participants from local governments were called “disruptive” at another international climate conference he attended by an international delegate who didn’t want them to participate. But disruption, according to Mayor Cownie, can be a good thing if it helps spur people toward solutions.

“Let’s hope they’ll want to hear from local government that we have issues and we’d like to partner with them,” he said. “We’d like to help find solutions.”