EPA Rolls Back Effluent Limits for Coal Power Plants


Graphic of a coal power plant
Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | September 7, 2020

EPA recently announced it was finalizing the “Steam Electric Consideration Rule,” a rule that will roll back requirements limiting toxic discharge from coal power plants

EPA adopted standards to limit this discharge in 2015, but they extended the compliance date to the completion of this new rule. Now, the new rule is set to adopt weaker standards, provide a further extension for compliance and exempt facilities that will switch fuel sources or are scheduled to retire within a set time period, according to an article published by the Iowa Environmental Council (IEC).

The rule outlines new “effluent limit guidelines” under the Clean Water Act for nitrogen and toxic metals like mercury, arsenic and selenium. These guidelines set water quality standards for industrial discharges based on “the best technology that is economically achievable” for power plants. Instead of setting a strict technology-based standard, this allows facilities to determine what treatment to install that will meet discharge limitations.

“Regulations are meant to be protective of the environment, not the industries that cause pollution,” said IEC Water Program Director Ingrid Gronstal Anderson in an IEC article. “Over the last several years, EPA has been rolling back environmental standards in favor of economic interests. This abdication of regulatory responsibility is a clear danger to public health and the environment.”

EPA claims the new rule will do a better job of reducing pollution than the 2015 rule. However, they base their calculations off of the assumption that facilities will instal better technology and achieve more reductions than the rule actually requires.

Iowa GOP Lawmakers Push to Block Eminent Domain for Wind Farms


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Nicole Welle | August 3, 2020

Three GOP members of a legislative rules review committee are looking to block the Iowa Utilities Board’s move to allow developers to condemn property for wind and solar farms.

Sens. Waylon Brown, Zach Whiting and Mark Costello announced their opposition Friday. They believe that the rules giving the Iowa Utilities Board jurisdiction over the siting of renewable energy facilities and the state the ability to overrule local zoning to allow developers to condemn private property for approved projects are administrative overreach, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article.

Some wind companies raised concerns over changing policy that has enabled an economic surge in the past. They also worry that some projects already underway could be stalled. Midamerican Energy, however, testified that the rule should include eminent domain if the state is going to govern siting.

The controversial rule has split environmentalists. Some believe it will help to push renewable energy development forward, but others worry that it could increase development time and cost. If the committee approves a session delay, the Iowa legislature will have the chance to consider the rule before it takes effect.

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.

Supreme Court Allows Construction of a Pipeline that May Cross Underneath the Appalachian Trail


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Nicole Welle | June 18, 2020

The Supreme Court ruled Monday in favor of a pipeline company by saying that a new natural gas pipeline could cross underneath the Appalachian trail on federal land.

The 600-mile pipeline is being developed by Duke Energy and Dominion energy and would run from West Virginia to population centers in Virginia and North Carolina. The 7-2 Supreme Court ruling overturned part of a lower court decision that blocked construction of the pipeline, and the case revolved around the question of which federal agency, if any, had the authority to grant the permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, according to an Iowa Public Radio article.

The U.S. Forest Service initially granted the permit in 2018 since they administer George Washington National Forest where the pipeline would cross the trail. However, a number of environmental groups raised concerns over the agency’s authority to do so. They believe that because the Appalachian trail is part of the National Park System, rules that govern National Park lands should apply instead.

There are also a number of environmental concerns associated with the construction of the pipeline. However, the Supreme Court noted that the pipeline would run hundreds of feet underground and entry and exit points are nowhere near the trail when making their decision. The winning argument centered on the interpretation of certain words in various federal laws and succeeded in disentangling the trail from the land beneath it. This will allow construction of the pipeline to proceed under the permit granted by the Forest Service.

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.

Advances in Carbon Capture and Storage are on Track to Meet Global Warming Mitigation Targets


Photo by Ramsey Martin from Pexels

Nicole Welle | May 25, 2020

Researchers at Imperial College London found that the current growth of carbon capture and storage (CCS) is on track to meet climate change mitigation goals set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The study shows that a maximum of 2,700 Gigatonnes of carbon dioxide would need to be captured and stored to keep global warming to less than 2˚C above pre-industrial levels by 2100. The IPCC recognized that CCS will be crucial in achieving this goal when implemented alongside efforts to increase clean energy use, according to a ScienceDaily article.

CCS is a process that involves capturing CO2 emissions at their source and storing it underground to prevent it from entering the atmosphere. Researchers combined data collected over the last 20 years on the growth of CCS, information on historic growth rates in energy infrastructure, and current models that monitor the depletion of natural resources to determine the maximum storage space required.

Past estimates revealed that there is actually more that 10,000 GT of potential carbon storage space available across the globe, a number that far exceeds the amount needed to meet the goals defined in the analysis. The current rate of growth in available storage space is on track to meet demands, but it is crucial that research and efforts to maintain this growth continue.

The Imperial College research team took into consideration the possibility of multiple climate change mitigation scenarios that might occur in the future, and they determined that even the most ambitious of scenarios would require no more that 2,700 GT of CCS. However, that number could increase over time if future deployment of CCS is delayed.

Climate Change Could Improve Hydropower Generation


via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | May 12, 2020

Researchers suggest that climate change will result in a larger benefit to hydropower generation if the 1.5˚C Paris climate goal is met, than if it is exceeded.

The researchers modelled how climate change would influence hydropower production for the tropical island of Sumatra and found a 40% increase in the ratio of hydropower production to demand at the 1.5˚C mark compared to 2.0˚C.  The model used by the researchers included both climate, and economic factors which were used to explore how increased temperatures would influence hydropower potential.  The study emphasized the importance of finding optimal locations for new hydropower plants considering the reality of a changing climate. 

Hydropower is an essential resource for the world’s carbon free energy supply and is expected to be an important component for improving energy systems around the world. In Iowa, wind and solar energy make up a larger fraction of Iowa’s renewable energy than hydropower.  In 2018, only 1.5% of Iowa’s electricity was generated from hydroelectric sources but it is thought that approximately 5% of the state’s electricity usage could come from hydropower if changes were made. 

The Iowa Environmental Council Strives for 100% Renewable Energy in Iowa by 2050


Photo by Bill Devlin, Flickr

Nicole Welle | April 23rd, 2020

The Iowa Environmental Council released Tuesday a report called “Iowa’s Road to 100% Renewable“. The report lays out the steps necessary for Iowa to transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050, a goal that many other states across the U.S. have already set for themselves in recent years.

The IEC concluded that, by 2050, Iowa will need to generate 30,000 to 61,000 MW of wind and 5,000 to 46,000 MW of solar energy to fully transition to renewable sources. The state currently generates 10,000 MW of wind and 110 MW of solar energy.

That sets a wide range, but the IEC analysis incorporated 12 studies on renewable energy growth with a variety of unknown variables. Electrification of fossil fuel sectors, like transportation, may increase exponentially by 2050, resulting in a higher demand for electricity. This, along with the current rate of general increase in electric demand, could alter the amount of renewable energy Iowa requires. The report also considers studies that incorporate the possible use of nuclear power and carbon capture and storage as additional renewable energy options.

Iowa is currently one of the country’s leading producers of wind energy. According to an article posted by T&DWorld, Iowa generated 41.9% of its electricity using wind in 2019. However, continued growth of wind energy necessary for the plan’s success will require increasing support from Iowa’s government and residents.

Some support has waned in recent years. Renewable energy tax credits have reached their capacity, according to The Iowa Utilities Board, and some Iowans have become wary of the number of wind turbines dotting the countryside across the state. Public concern over the land and resources required to expand wind energy production is a hurdle that must be faced before the goals outlined in “Iowa’s Road to 100% Renewable” can be reached.

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


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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.