Catching up with former-Hawkeye-turned-solar-advocate Tim Dwight


Tim Dwight (left) with Iowa state Sen. Rob Hogg (D-Cedar Rapids) during a proposal to install solar panels on Kinnick Stadium in 2012. (Tessa Hursh/The Daily Iowan archives)
Tim Dwight (left) with State Sen. Rob Hogg (D-Cedar Rapids) during a proposal to install solar panels on Kinnick Stadium in 2012. (Tessa Hursh/The Daily Iowan archives)

Nick Fetty | March 27, 2015

Tim Dwight made a name for himself on the gridiron as a Hawkeye and during his 10-year NFL career but for the last seven years he has been making a name for himself as a solar energy advocate and businessman.

After his football career he spent a year traveling around the world which included two USO tours in Iraq. This opportunity helped him to realize the danger that the country was putting itself and its citizens in because of its dependence on oil.

“That was definitely game-changing for me with what I wanted to do for my career,” Dwight said of his USO tours as well as his travels in Africa. “The world runs on energy everywhere and energy runs everything so I knew that market was not going to go away.”

Upon returning to the United States Dwight first started working in the solar industry with a company in Nevada. Calif.  After learning about the basics of the industry, the Iowa City native decided to return to his home state to educate Iowans about the benefits of solar energy.

“Bringing that knowledge (of design, engineering, and installation of solar panels) to Iowa dawned on me. It was like a light bulb went off and I was like ‘You know what, I need to come back to Iowa and help this industry grow because it’s growing everywhere in the world and it’s going to grow in the United States.’ ”

Much of the learning process for Dwight didn’t involve attending classes or lectures but instead was simply a matter of him searching for and reading material available on the internet. He has spent the last five years trying to build the solar industry in Iowa, which includes the creation of the Iowa Solar Trade Association as well as lobbying on policy issues at the statehouse. As a former athlete, Dwight’s competitive nature sometimes comes into play with his work in solar.

“When I was in high school and junior high I always wanted to be the fastest guy, I wanted to be the best football player, I wanted to win state championships, I wanted to win a national championship,” he said. “But when I got out of football I was like ‘You know what, energy is the biggest game in the world and solar is going to change everything.’ Being a part of something like that is very exciting and very humbling, understanding what it’s going to do for the world and the people.”

Part of Dwight’s goal is to use to solar energy as a way of bringing affordable and efficient electricity to undeveloped parts of the world, where as many as one billion people do not have access to electricity. On the other side of the spectrum, highly industrialized areas are contributing to carbon emissions and other pollution, so Dwight hopes to use solar as a cleaner, more environmentally-friendly energy source.

“To understand that a mile-long coal train will burn a city of 150,000 people for one day is pretty substantial on how much we’re burning,” he said.

Coal is particularly inefficient, he said, because roughly 70 percent of the energy from burning coal is wasted, not to mention the inefficiency of distributing electricty via the current grid system.

“We’re starting to realize that the way that we procure and the way we burn and the way we power our lives is not the correct way to do it. We’ve got to change. We’ve got to move to another level like we have with communication,” he said.

He compared the evolution of solar energy to that of telecommunications. When cell phones were first released they were inefficient, expensive, and relatively few people owned them. However as the technology evolved, it became cheaper and more accessible to a greater number of people. Solar technology – with the first solar cells developed in the 1830s – has experienced a similar evolution and has become considerably more efficient and affordable in just the last ten years alone.

“You have this technology that’s been laying around for awhile it just hasn’t been put into use because it changes the energy paradigm when you have monopolized markets,” Dwight said.

The current tax incentives are curial for solar to succeed, according to Dwight, and he hopes to see an extension of Solar Investment Tax Credit, which is scheduled to sunset at the end of 2016.

“We really need to have that extended out for another probably five years,” he said. “I think it’s important that people understand that these policies have been working and are putting people to work.”

While Iowa has been a national leader in wind energy, solar energy has also been catching on particularly in the agricultural industry.

“You look at our solar industry right now, it’s all ag. It’s 90 percent ag. A lot of farmers are putting in a lot of solar,” he said.

While he supports the tax incentive now, his goal is the solar industry will eventually be able to sustain without it.

“We don’t want to be incentivized, we just want a level playing field,” he said. “We’re starting to see that climate change is real and it’s happening and it’s affecting everything across the board and one of the main drivers of that is carbon and technologies we’ve build our world around the last fifty, sixty, one hundred years.”

However, despite the challenges, Dwight is optimistic that solar will continue to grow and will be the energy source of the future.

“There’s just a lot of things that go into energy and it’s been pretty eye opening. Sometimes I’m like ‘Wow. What did I get myself into?” he said. “But seeing where it’s going and seeing how it’s going to change the world for the better is incredible.”

UI researchers use satellite data and GPS to examine earthquakes


A satellite radar image of a 2012 earthquake in California. The rainbow patterns indicates areas where the earthquake deformed the earth’s surface (European Space Agency/Iowa Now)

Nick Fetty | March 26, 2015

Researchers at the University of Iowa teamed up with the United States Geological Survey to study ways that satellite data and GPS can be used to better respond to earthquakes within 24 hours of them happening.

William Barnhart – an assistant professor in Earth and Environmental Sciences – along with a team of researchers created a three-dimensional map using GPS and satellite measurements to study how the ground was impacted by a 6.0-magnitude earthquake that occurred in South Napa, California on August 24, 2014. The map did not use typical instruments such as seismometers which often cannot offer the same level of detail as Barnhart’s method.

“By having the 3D knowledge of the earthquake itself, we can make predictions of the ground shaking, without instruments to record that ground shaking, and then can make estimates of what the human and infrastructure impacts will be— in terms of both fatalities and dollars,” Barnhart said in an interview with Iowa Now.

Barnhart and his team’s research can be especially beneficial for improving response times in countries in the developing world, such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that claimed nearly a quarter of a million lives. The use of satellite technology allows researchers to study the aftermath of earthquakes without needing to travel to disaster area.

The study – entitled “Geodetic Constraints on the 2014 M 6.0 South Napa Earthquake” – was published in the March/April edition of Seismological Research Letters.

On the Radio: Iowa stays ahead in wind generation


An Iowa wind farm (Brian Hoffman / Flickr)
An Iowa wind farm (Brian Hoffman / Flickr)
March 23, 2015

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at an assessment of Iowa’s wind energy industry that shows the state still leads the nation in percentage of wind energy production. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Iowa Wind

With over 3,400 turbines, Iowa maintained its third-place ranking in wind energy generation last year.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The American Wind Energy Association recently released fact sheets for each state,
showing that Iowa sits behind only Texas and California in wind projects added as of last year. Iowa still leads the nation in energy percentage from wind, with 27 percent,
resulting in a wind capacity of over 5,000 megawatts. Thatʼs enough to power nearly 1.5
million homes.

Even with those gains, the Association estimates wind power could meet
the stateʼs electricity needs forty times over. Iowa has one of the largest turbine
manufacturers in the country and two of the largest blade manufacturers.

The report shows that thanks to wind, Iowa avoided over 9 million metric tons of CO2
emissions and saved over 3 billion gallons in water usage.

For more information about wind energy, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, Iʼm Jerry
Schnoor.

http://awea.files.cms-plus.com/FileDownloads/pdfs/Iowa.pdf

Proposed bill would fund natural resources through sales tax increase


A shot of the autumn trees at Lake Ahqabi State Park in central Iowa. (TumblingRun/Flickr)
Lake Ahqabi State Park in central Iowa during the fall. (TumblingRun/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | March 19, 2015

Earlier this week state lawmakers proposed a bill that would raise sales tax by three-eighths of a percent to help fund natural resources preservation and outdoor recreation efforts.

Money raised would go to Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund which was approved by 63 percent of Iowa voters in 2010. State Senator David Johnson (R-Ocheyedan) estimates that the bill will generate approximately $150 million each year.

The Senate Natural Resources and Environment subcommittee voted 3-0 to approve Senate File 357 which would go into effect July 1, 2016. The bill has received bipartisan support in Iowa’s democrat-controlled Senate and has also been backed by more than 85 environmental and wildlife groups. The bill will now be advanced to the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

However, the proposal in its current form may meet some resistance in the republican-controlled House, according to Rep. Tom Sands (R-Wappello) who also chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.

“It would be extremely difficult for House Republicans to vote to raise fuel taxes and sales taxes in the same year. Our focus in our campaigns has always been to try to lower taxes for all Iowans,” Sands said in an interview with the Des Moines Register

The Iowa Association of County Conservation Boards outlined several potential projects the bill could fund to improve outdoor recreational activities in Iowa’s 99 counties. Additionally, the group said these projects would create “tens of thousands” of jobs to accommodate the increase in visitors at Iowa parks.

If approved, this bill would be the states first sales tax increase since 1992.

“Why should I care what happens downstream?” Why topsoil preservation matters


An example of healthy soil in Iowa (Natural Resources Conservation Service / Flickr)
An example of healthy soil in Iowa (Natural Resources Conservation Service / Flickr)
KC McGinnis | March 18, 2015

Starting tonight, Iowans will have their say on the proposed relaxing of topsoil preservation rules for newly constructed sites.

In hearings over the last year, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has considered comments from home developers and homebuilders who wish to amend a current rule regarding topsoil conservation. While the current rule requires companies to maintain or replace at least 4 inches of topsoil on new construction sites, the industry is asking to be able to choose for themselves how much soil – if any – is to be replaced on such lots. Homeowners and conservationists have come out in defense of the current rule, which preserves soil health and prevents the headaches of flooding and runoff from land lacking in topsoil, while saving homeowners the added expense of adding the soil themselves.

At one of the initial hearings on the rule, however, a contractor is reported to have asked, “Why should I care what happens downstream?” For some, the benefits of topsoil preservation seem far off, and not worth the added $3,500-$6,000 in replacement costs per lot the industry estimates. However, all Iowans would feel the effects of relaxed soil conservation rules. Here are a few reasons topsoil matters:

  • Healthy topsoil is Iowa’s first and best defense against excessive flooding. When topsoil is removed from a lot, the land can’t hold nearly as much moisture. As a result, water from storms and snow melts simply runs off, causing increased flash flood concerns. During warm seasons, standing water on stripped land can also attract mosquitos and disease-carrying organisms.
  • In addition to moisture, land with healthy topsoil holds fertilizer better than land without it. This means that when storms come, landowners are at less risk for nutrient runoff, preventing them from incurring the added cost of applying additional fertilizers. This is also good for our rivers and streams, which are already inundated with excessive nitrates and phosphorus from nutrient runoff.
  • Healthy topsoil is an absolute necessity for growing grass, trees and gardens. Without it, homeowners will often have to haul in their own topsoil, adding unexpected costs to their home purchase which could have been folded into their mortgage in the first place (and probably at a much lower rate).
  • Topsoil protects Iowa’s water quality and reduces costs for water utilities. The Des Moines Water Works, which is suing three Iowa counties over nutrient runoff disputes, spent over half a million dollars in nutrient replacement this winter.

The Iowa DNR will hear comments regarding the proposed rule change at public hearings starting Wednesday, March 18, at the Cedar Rapids City Services Center. The DNR will also conduct hearings on March 25 in Davenport and March 27 in Des Moines. Iowans can give written comments by mail to Joe Griffin, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, 502 E. Ninth St., Des Moines, IA 50319-0034. They can also send comments by email to joe.griffin@dnr.iowa.gov .

 

UI partners with North Carolina company for biomass project


Miscanthus is a perennial tall grass grown and burned as an eneergu source on the UI campus. (Wikimedia Commons)
Miscanthus is a perennial tall grass grown and burned as an energy source on the UI campus. (Wikimedia Commons)

Nick Fetty | March 17, 2015

Repreve Renewables, LLC has been selected to provide agricultural and business development services for the University of Iowa’s Biomass Fuel Project.

The Greensboro, North Carolina-based company will employ its Accu Yield™ System, “a proprietary, precision agricultural system, to plant and establish giant miscanthus.” This system is able to reduce the cost of establishing the plant while also increasing yields, making it a more economically-feasible renewable energy option.

“The University of Iowa is a leader in sustainability, just as Repreve Renewables is a trailblazer in biomass production and logistics,” Repreve Renewables CEO Jeff Wheeler said in a press release. “The Biomass Fuel Project provides the opportunity to achieve breakthrough renewable energy solutions. Working as a team with the local community, we can create new revenue sources for farmers and landowners, improve the soil, mitigate erosion and runoff, and increase the use of renewable energy to reduce the carbon footprint. We are honored to be a part of the University’s 2020 Vision.”

Miscanthus is a perennial tall grass that the UI Power Plant has used as a biomass fuel source in recent years as part of the 2020 Vision aimed at reducing the campus’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Repreve Renewables will now begin to procure land commitments for approximately 2,500 acres in the Iowa City area. This includes the Eastern Iowa Airport where the plant will not only be harvested as a renewable energy source but also as way of improving soil and water quality by mitigating the effects of erosion in the area.

On the Radio: Bee-harming pesticide may be ineffective


A bee lands on a flower during pollination (Cristian Bernardo Velasco Valdez / Flickr)
A bee lands on a flower during pollination (Cristian Bernardo Velasco Valdez / Flickr)
March 16, 2015

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at a popular pesticide thought to harm bees, which may not be as effective at warding off pests as previously thought. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Bee pesticide

A pesticide thought to harm bee populations may be less effective for pest control than previously thought.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The effectiveness of neonicotinoid, a class of pesticides used on nearly half of soybean crops nationwide, is being called into question by a recent EPA analysis. The study concludes that the treatment provides “little or no overall benefits to soybean production in most situations.”

The pesticide is one of the factors researchers like Mary Harris, of Iowa State University, suspect may be responsible for dramatically falling bee populations over the last ten years. While the pesticide can’t kill bees directly, it can contaminate pollen and contribute to loss of bees over winter. Farmers depend on bees and other insects to pollinate their crops.

For more information about pesticides and other crop treatments, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

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

http://www2.epa.gov/pollinator-protection/benefits-neonicotinoid-seed-treatments-soybean-production

http://netnebraska.org/article/news/955118/ag-industry-odds-over-pesticide-studied-bee-deaths