Cedar Rapids and Surrounding Communities Still in Shambles a Week after Derecho Hits Iowa


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | August 17, 2020

Cedar Rapids residents are still facing extensive property damage and power outages after last week’s derecho tore through Iowa.

A storm system with hurricane-force winds left a path of destruction through Cedar Rapids and surrounding communities on August 10th. A week later, thousands are still without power and the community is dealing with damage to structures, power lines, vehicles and trees. A Cedar Rapids city arborist estimates that Cedar Rapids lost half of its tree canopy in the storm and, while Alliant Energy vowed to restore power to all customers by Tuesday, it could still be a few days before power is returned to 100% of the population.

The storm also had a large agricultural toll. Up to 43 percent of Iowa’s corn and soybean crop were damaged as high winds flattened millions of acres of crops. With agricultural and property damage combined, the derecho could be responsible for a multi-billion-dollar economic cost said Steve Bowen, a meteorologist and head of catastrophe insight for the reinsurer Anon.

Gov. Kim Reynolds mobilized the Iowa National Guard Thursday to assist the recovery effort and committed to applying for a federal disaster declaration this week. President Trump and Vice President Pence are ready to approve, and this would provide financial assistance to homeowners and cover repairs for infrastructure, according to the Washington Post.

Local non-profits and volunteers from surrounding communities continue to help provide food and aid for those affected by the storm and assist in the cleanup process.

Dakota Access Pipeline Is Ordered To Shutdown Pending Environmental Impact Statement


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Thomas Robinson | July 7th, 2020

The Dakota Access Pipeline has been ordered to shutdown for additional environmental review after a Washington D.C. court ruling on Monday.

After more than three years post completion, a judge has ordered the Dakota Access Pipeline be emptied within 30 days to allow for further environmental review.  The judge argued that the U.S. Corps of Engineers had failed to satisfy the provisions required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) before granting an easement required for the pipeline’s construction. 

NEPA is a broad environmental law that requires environmental consideration in project planning as well as community input for federal projects.  The Trump administration has been attempting to enact changes to NEPA which would narrow the scope of the law to better assist business interests. 

The Dakota Access Pipeline crosses diagonally across Iowa and was recently approved to double the amount of oil that flows through the pipeline in Iowa.  Oil pipelines in Iowa have had issues previously, such as the spill that occurred in Worth County back in 2017. That spill is just one of 28 spills that occurred between 2000 and 2017 on pipelines owned by Magellan Midstream Partners in Iowa.

Trump Signs an Executive Order Waiving Environmental Reviews for Key Construction Projects


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Nicole Welle | June 8, 2020

The current economic “emergency” caused by COVID-19 gave President Trump the ability to sign an order on Thursday that allows federal agencies to waive environmental reviews for the approval of major construction projects.

The president used a section of federal law that allows “action with significant environmental impact” without observing the usual requirements set by laws like the Endangered Species Act and the National Environment Policy Act. These laws normally require agencies to analyze how decisions on construction projects could negatively impact the environment, according to a Washington Post article.

The executive order will speed up approval for the construction of highways, pipelines, mines and other federal projects. In the order, the president stated that the normal regulatory processes required by law would keep Americans out of work and hinder economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this decision could lead to increased negative environmental impacts and harm plant and animal life in construction areas.

Many conservation groups are concerned that this could also lead to further dismantling of environmental laws in the future. However, while some companies could benefit from these changes in the near future, they also may be reluctant to rely on the order out of fear of legal backlash from environmental and public interest groups. Some companies may also hesitate to use the order to push projects forward since they would likely need to show proof that they were operating in an emergency.

The Iowa Utilities Board Approves the Cardinal Hickory Creek Transmission Line for Renewable Energy


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Nicole Welle | June 1, 2020

The Iowa Utilities Board issued an order approving the Iowa portion of the Cardinal Hickory Creek transmission line last week.

This line will increase the amount of renewable energy able to access the power grid in the Midwest. The line will stretch approximately 102 miles from Dane County, Wisconsin to Dubuque County, Iowa and cross the Mississippi River. The Iowa side of the line is about 14 miles long, according to an ATC news release.

These improvements to the power grid will increase service reliability, enable the expansion of wind energy in the Midwest and provide economic benefits to the state of Iowa. It will also allow over 5,000 megawatts of renewable energy to enter the grid, and the subsequent expansion of wind energy in the state will increase land lease payments to farmers and revenue to local governments, according to an Iowa Environmental Council news release.

The line’s Mississippi River crossing raised some concerns over impacts on fish and other wildlife. However, the necessary regulatory approvals have been obtained from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and those in charge of the project kept environmental impacts in mind when choosing the location of the crossing.

Construction of the line will begin in the spring of 2021, and it is set to go into service in 2023.

A New Report Reveals a 24% Increase in the Number of Companies Asking Suppliers for Environmental Transparency


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Nicole Welle | May 21, 2020

CDP, an environmental non-profit organization, recently announced a 24% increase in the number of companies asking for environmental data reports from their suppliers this year.

CDP helps investors, companies, cities, states and regions manage their environmental impacts by providing them with a global disclosure system that measures and interprets environmental data, according to the CDP website. 30 new purchasing systems began working with CDP to help manage their supply chains more sustainably, and over 15,000 environmental transparency requests were sent to suppliers this year, according to an Environment + Energy Leader article.

Companies are asking suppliers to disclose information regarding their impacts on deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, water safety and climate change. Organizations that utilize CDP resources can use the information collected to make more sustainable, informed decisions when working with suppliers.

CDP is a global organization, but their biggest spike in participants this year came from North America. Nike, Nordstrom and The Clorox Company were three of the 17 North American companies that joined this year, adding to CPD’s list of members which already includes companies like Walmart, Microsoft and Stanley Black and Decker.

Scientists Discover a New Method to Make Wheat More Climate Resilient


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Thomas Robinson | May 5th, 2020

Researchers have recently been able to develop a more heat resistant bread wheat through amino acid substitution. 

In a recent study, a single amino acid associated with Rubisco, an essential plant enzyme involved in photosynthesis, was substituted and was able to extend the temperature optimum for wheat by 5˚C.  The researchers suggest that their technique could be used to adapt crops to improve their resilience in a changing climate.

Rubisco is an energy producing enzyme plants use to collect carbon from the atmosphere, which is then used to create organic sugars.  It is thought that Rubisco is the most abundant enzyme on earth as it is found in most plants that use photosynthesis.  Previous work has shown that these enzymes are susceptible to climate change and could be negatively influenced as temperatures increase. 

In Iowa, climate change is projected to increase high heat events which will increase heat stress on agricultural crops such as wheat. By exploring methods for reducing heat stress, researchers are able to provide novel solutions for mitigating the adverse effects climate change may have on agriculture.

Solar Jobs Census shows an Increase in American Solar Jobs for 2019


Photo via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | April 21, 2020

Almost 250,000 Americans worked in solar jobs as of 2019, a 2.3% increase since 2018 as reported in the 10th annual National Solar Jobs Census.  The solar industry is seeing an increase in employment after decreasing numbers the past two years.  The results of the census are summarized in an interactive website which provides data for each state down to the county scale.

Iowa employed over 800 people with solar jobs in 2019, ranking 39th in the country.  While not a leader in solar energy, Iowa is the state with the second highest wind energy capacity, with wind energy representing more than a third of the state’s electricity production as of 2016.  Renewable energy represents almost two-fifths of Iowa’s electricity generation, and the proportion is only expected to continue to increase.

Employment in solar nationally has increased by over 167% within the past decade alongside a 70% drop in cost within the same time frame.  To ensure the future of solar energy, an MIT study suggests that government policies are required to incentivize it’s use and to continue the growth caused by the continuing drop in prices.

Iowa lawmakers, advocates reach compromise on controversial solar bill


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The Solar Act would promote the viability of private solar panel ownership in Iowa (via flickr). 

Julia Poska | March 10, 2020

Iowa legislators have reached a compromise on last year’s controversial “Sunshine Tax” bill. The Iowa Capital Dispatch reported Friday that both legislative chambers have unanimously approved bill versions of the“Solar Act,” which are awaiting Gov. Reynolds’ approval.

According to the dispatch, the act would allow owners of home, business or farm solar arrays to continue selling excess energy to utility companies at the retail rate. Last spring, a controversial bill proposed an extra $300 annual fee for solar customers who sell excess energy, meant to cover the cost of using the electric grid. Critics said the fee would make it much harder for private owners to pay off their investment into solar, essentially killing the largely private solar industry in Iowa.

The new version also orders an independent cost-benefit analysis of solar power in Iowa, meant to make sure all parties pay their fair share. Following the study, the Iowa Utilities Board would make a recommendation for reasonable billing methods. Existing solar owners would be immune to recomended changes in billing methods.

EnvIowa Podcast Revived: Talking human/environment systems with Silvia Secchi


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Dr. Secchi in the CGRER offices. Photo by Julia Poska, Jan. 2020. 

Julia Poska| February 3, 2019

The UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research is excited to announce the revival and reimagination of our EnvIowa podcast. This weekly podcast will feature 10- to 20-minute interviews with Iowa environmental experts, mainly our own member scientists.

While these researchers are certainly well versed in the complicated jargon of their disciplines, our interviews aim to make their ideas accessible to a general audience. Questions focus not only on the research itself, but how the experts believe it can be applied to solve environmental challenges.

Today’s installment features an interview recorded January 28 with Dr. Silvia Secchi, an interdisciplinary economist and geographer at the University of Iowa. Listen to learn more about Dr. Secchi’s fascinating research on human/environmental interactions in the Mississippi River watershed and how agriculture in particular plays a role within the larger system.

Listen here!

 

 

Poet plant ‘production pause’ furthers cellulosic ethanol’s historic challenges


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Cellulosic ethanol is produced from crop residue, like the material depicted above (via Creative Commons) .

Julia Poska | November 20, 2019

An Iowa plant that produces ethanol from cellulose found in corn residue announced Tuesday that it will stop commercial operations in February.

Cellulosic ethanol is widely regarded as a more environmentally friendly version of the plant-based fuel because it provides a use for waste products like cobs and stalks rather than an incentive to put more land into industrial corn production.

Typical ethanol, made from corn kernels, has an “energy return on investment” (EROI) of less than 2:1, most sources agree. This means that the fuel supplies only about as much energy as was put into growing and refining the product. Researchers believe EROI for cellulosic ethanol could be somewhat higher than for corn-based ethanol, but still much lower than for other energy sources.

Despite the apparent benefits, cellulosic ethanol has been slow to take off. The Renewable Fuels Association 2019 Ethanol Industry Outlook report indicated that cellulosic sources provide only about 3.4% of U.S. ethanol production capacity.

The Des Moines Register reported that personnel of the plant, owned by POET, blamed the “pause” in production on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for granting Renewable Fuel Standard exemptions to oil refineries in recent years. The RFS sets minimum levels of biofuel that gasoline and diesel must contain, so exemptions reduce what would otherwise be a guaranteed demand for biofuel.

Cellulosic ethanol production has lagged behind forecasts since it first entered commercial purview, however.  In 2007, the Bush administration called for 100 million and 250 million gallons of commercial cellulosic ethanol production in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Actual commercial production did not begin until 2012, according to MIT Technology Review.

In July 2018, ethanolproducer.com thought national production of cellulosic ethanol could top 15 million gallons, far behind the EPA’s goal of 7 billion gallons for that year.

The POET cellulosic ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa opened in 2014, according to the Register. The facility cost $275 million to build and received about $120 million in state and federal incentives. The plant has a capacity to produce 20 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually, according to POET, and has spent years working on “optimizing” the production process to reach full capacity.

The plant will continue doing “research and development” on cellulosic ethanol while producing regular corn ethanol at another plant next door, according to the Register. Another cellulosic ethanol plant in Nevada, Iowa closed in 2017, the Register also reported.