Webster County Approves Plan to Build New Solar Field


Pictured are solar panels in a field.
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Elizabeth Miglin | February 25, 2021

Webster County recently approved plans to build a 957-acre solar field. The energy produced by the panels would be able to power 30,000 homes.

Holliday Creek Solar LLC, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota will build the field and eventually transfer the site’s certificate to MidAmerican Energy. Construction is set to begin in the spring and conclude by next winter, according to Webster County planning and zoning administrator Jeff Johnson. The energy will be directed to a nearby substation, then exported to a transmission grid providing energy to other counties.

“We are moving in the right direction,” Johnson said many participating landlords and homeowners in the county are interested in this project.

While Iowa solar panels net capacity has grown from 2-megawatts (MW) in 2012 to as much as 160 MW in 2020, many counties have yet to adopt solar and wind ordinances which provide construction guidelines for these projects.

The Webster County Board of Adjustment approved the project on Jan. 18, followed by the Iowa Utilities Board on Feb. 3.

Iowa Business Interests Face Off Over Proposed Ethanol Mandate


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Thomas Robinson | February 16th, 2021

Gov. Kim Reynolds has proposed a new ethanol fuel mandate which would increase the sale of renewable fuels at Iowa gas stations and shift existing tax credits to support higher percentage renewable fuels.

The proposed rule, House Study Bill 185, would mandate that all gasoline sold in Iowa must include 10% ethanol and that all diesel fuel must include 5-11% biodiesel depending on the time of year.  Gas stations would also be allowed only one non-renewable pump, and, would also be required to install new equipment that could handle higher percentages of biofuels.  The potential equipment upgrade has pitted fuel business interests against the governor as the required upgrades could potentially cost up to $1 billion dollars.

Fuel interests in Iowa, like FUELIowa and the Iowa Motor Truck Association, warn that the proposal may increase consumer fuel costs and drive truckers to not purchase fuel in Iowa.  On the other side, biofuel interests, such as the Iowa Corn Growers Association and the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, favor the proposal as it is projected to increase biofuel grants by around $7 million per year.  Competing interests between these two groups over a vital Iowa industry suggests that there will be heated discussions when subcommittee hearings for the bill begin on Wednesday.

Tom Vilsack’s USDA Secretary Nomination Passes Committee, Moves to Full Senate


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Nicole Welle | February 4, 2021

The Senate agriculture committee approved former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack’s nomination as U.S. agriculture secretary Tuesday and sent it on to the full Senate for consideration.

Some Republicans, including Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, are expected to join Democratic Senators in confirming Vilsack’s nomination. Once confirmed, Vilsack will begin his second tour as agriculture secretary, a position he previously held from 2009 to 2017 under President Barack Obama. His position under Biden will come with the responsibility of leading the department during a global pandemic that has increased the need for food assistance, and he will be tasked with urging the agriculture industry to prioritize combatting climate change as Biden’s nominee, according to a Des Moines Register article.

Vilsack fielded multiple questions about climate change and biofuels while the Senate agriculture committee considered his nomination. As an Iowa Republican, Sen. Joni Ernst took an interest in his views on ethanol and biofuel production. She asked if he would support their production as President Biden looks to shift the country to electric vehicles, a move she said would put farmers at risk.

Vilsack responded that it is necessary to advance the production of both electric vehicles and biofuels moving forward. He referenced a recent study showing that greenhouse gas emissions from corn-based ethanol are 46% lower than from gasoline, and he reassured the committee that Americans need the biofuel industry for the foreseeable future as electric vehicle technology catches up. Vilsack added that expanding renewable energy can also benefit farmers. Iowa farmers and landowners receive about $69 million annually from energy companies that lease their land for wind turbines, and those opportunities could expand as demand for electric vehicles increases.

Des Moines City Council Approves Transition to 100% Renewable Energy


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Nicole Welle | January 14, 2021

The Des Moines City Council unanimously approved a resolution this week that aims to transition all Des Moines homes and businesses to renewable energy by 2035.

Environmental activists celebrated the resolution, and more than 40 businesses in Des Moines endorsed it. Councilman Josh Mandelbaum, who introduced the resolution, said that it was made possible in part by MidAmerican Energy’s investments in renewable energy sources. MidAmerican is working toward the goal of producing all of its power from renewable sources, and it plans to close all of its coal and gas plants once renewable energy transmission and storage technology improves enough to meet demands, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article.

Des Moines has already implemented changes in recent years to become more environmentally friendly, and this resolution will push the city closer to that goal. Frank Cownie has advocated for the city to reduce carbon emissions since becoming Mayor of Des Moines in 2004. He pledged to honor the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement after Donald Trump announced the United States’ departure from the climate pact in 2016, and the city passed an ordinance in 2019 that requires large businesses to inventory and submit their greenhouse gas emissions and water use annually. In a statement to the city council, Cownie said that local governments play an important role in promoting sustainability and climate change mitigation. They are often tasked with addressing the impacts of extreme weather events caused by climate change, so steps like these are becoming increasingly important.

By approving the resolution, Des Moines will join over 170 other cities across the country that have already made 100% clean energy commitments. Some council members had previously expressed concern over the cost associated with the goal and resisted pushing for even faster action by leveraging the city’s partnership with MidAmerican Energy. However, by working with MidAmerican and other parties to meet the 2035 goal, Des Moines will likely save energy users money in the long run. Renewable energy projects are also likely to create jobs and attract businesses and residents to the Des Moines area in the future.

Nuclear Energy Plant Closure Decreases Clean Energy In Iowa


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Thomas Robinson | January 5th, 2021

The Duane Arnold Energy Center (DAEC) near Palo, IA was decommissioned in August after incurring damage from the Derecho which decreases the amount of clean energy in Iowa.

The DAEC began commercial operation in February 1975 and served Iowa for 45 years before plans to decommission the plant in October, 2020 were sped up after the cooling towers were damaged by the Derecho.  Plans for the decommission will have all nuclear fuel in dry storage by 2023, and all building structures removed by 2080 once radioactivity has decreased. 

Approximately 10% of Iowa’s electricity came from the DAEC which means alternative energy sources such as natural gas and coal will be required to cover energy demand until alternative sources such as windmills are installed.  Other states, such as Illinois, are facing similar nuclear plant closures but have previously taken steps to prolong the lifespan their of nuclear power plants. Iowa has not taken steps to promote nuclear energy as a tool to combat climate change.

Approximately 20% of all U.S. energy has been reliably provided by nuclear energy since 1990, and nuclear energy has been deemed necessary to achieve global climate goals.  Energy produced by nuclear sources is commonly equated with energy produced by fossil fuels, however, they are not the same as carbon emissions are generally ignored in these types of comparisons.   Nuclear energy can be used to aid the transition from fossil fuels to cleaner sources of energy, but to meet our goals current nuclear capabilities must be increased.

Iowa Drops to #36 in National Energy Efficiency Rankings


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Nicole Welle | December 21, 2020

Iowa may be one of the nation’s leaders in renewable energy production, but the state fell short in this year’s national energy efficiency rankings, dropping 13 spots since 2019 and landing at #36. The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE), the organization that created the rankings, says that poor state legislation is to blame.

In 2018, the state passed a bill that added restrictions to state energy efficiency programs. Another bill passed in 2019 placed caps on certain energy investments, and Iowa now gives customers the option to opt out of paying for energy efficiency programs that fail to pass a cost-effectiveness test. ACEEE also noted that Iowa lacks performance incentives for utilities, has not studied buildings’ compliance with energy efficiency standards since 2011 and has not updated conservation codes since 2012, according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

All of these factors have stalled progress toward reducing gas and electricity use in Iowa and explain why Iowa took the biggest drop of any state on the list this year. However, ACEEE also noted that Iowa did adopt a new energy plan in 2016 that called for modernizing the electrical grid, promoting alternative-fuel vehicles, expanding natural gas service and increasing building efficiencies. The state is still working towards the goals outlined in that plan, and it is considering adopting the 2015 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) as a baseline for building energy codes used in residential and commercial construction. It is currently working from the 2012 version of the IECC.

California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota were at the top of ACEEE’s list, and Kansas, Mississippi, and North Dakota were at the bottom. ACEEE’s rankings are based on transportation, utility and public benefits policies, state government initiatives and appliance and building efficiencies. States are given a score out of 50, and Iowa is currently below the national median score in every category, according to Iowa’s ACEEE scorecard.

In order to improve the state’s ranking on next year’s list, the Iowa state government will need to reassess recent policy changes and consider updating the state’s outdated energy efficiency standards.

Proposed Climate Resolution Triggers Debate in Des Moines City Council Meeting


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Nicole Welle | December 10, 2020

Des Moines city council members debated a proposed city resolution that would transition the city’s electric users to 100% renewable energy by 2030 earlier this week.

Councilman Josh Mandelbaum, who supports the proposal, debated with Councilman Joe Gatto over a potential conflict of interest. Gatto accused Mandelbaum of the conflict because Mandelbaum is the senior attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center’s Des Moines office, a non-profit organization that supports renewable energy, aggressive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and the retirement of coal plants. Gatto said he would not support any resolution Mandelbaum writes because of his ties with the organization, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article.

After hearing about the proposal, MidAmerican Energy warned that the move could be too bold. The company is a large, investor-owned utility and has a powerful political presence in Iowa, and council members in the meeting expressed the importance of passing a resolution that MidAmerican will agree with in. MidAmerican has retired some of its coal plants across the state and invests heavily in wind energy, but it expressed concern over the cost of Mandelbaum’s proposal, saying that monthly electric bills would more than triple for homeowners under his plan. MidAmerican suggested adding small modular nuclear power stations to help meet the plan’s emissions goals and lower costs, and it said it would continue to shift away from coal power over time rather than rushing it to avoid blackouts.

Councilwoman Linda Westergaard sided with Gatto in opposing the resolution, and she called for a more cost-effective proposal that aligns with MidAmerican’s goals. Other officials in the meeting echoed her desire for a more conservative approach while some, like Jeremy Caron, Des Moines’ sustainability program manager, expressed the need for “bold but achievable goals.” Caron said that a bold plan like Mandelbaum’s could attract workers to the city and give it a reputation as sustainable.

Mandelbaum added that his proposal would increase jobs in renewable energy and bring in federal aid since it aligns with the Biden administration’s commitment to reducing emissions. However, it is unlikely that the council will have a final proposal ready by the end of the year as planned, and discussion will likely continue into 2021.

Johnson Clean Energy District 2020 Virtual Clean Energy Tour


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Thomas Robinson | November 24th, 2020

The Johnson Clean Energy District (JCED) held a virtual tour of solar energy installations across Johnson County this past Friday.

The event was held to celebrate and discuss clean energy transitions occurring within the county.  The tour included the Prairie Hill Cohousing site, the Johnson County solar power installation by the county building, and an installation at Herbet Farms.  Attendees included state legislators and community members who are involved in the district.

Clean energy districts are local groups that strive to speed up transitions to clean energy. These organizations have been styled after the soil and water conservation districts that emerged in the 1930s following the Dust Bowl.  The first district formed in Iowa was the Winneshiek Energy District and the idea has spread to surrounding states like Illinois and Wisconsin.  The JCED works for homeowners and businesses alike, through education on available energy incentives, as well as their STEP program that installs energy efficiency measures directly in homes.

In a recent brief, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has confirmed that solar energy is the cheapest electricity in history.  Their report emphasizes the importance of a clean energy transition, and the potential cost reductions it could bring for consumers around the world and right here in Iowa.

Environmentalists Hope Biden’s Win will Improve Iowa’s Renewable Energy Industries


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Nicole Welle | November 12, 2020

Iowa environmental advocates are celebrating President-elect Joe Biden’s win and say that his presidency could boost Iowa’s renewable energy industry and environmental protection efforts.

The Iowa Environmental Council is interested in seeing the Biden administration increase federal opportunities that expand solar and wind development, promote the construction of transmission lines to deliver clean energy from Iowa to the rest of the U.S., and push policies that promote sustainable farming practices. Iowa has been heavily impacted by storms and flooding events in recent years, so the council also hopes to see policies that will encourage the adoption of a more resilient infrastructure, according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

Angelisa Belden, a council spokesperson, says that she expects the Biden administration to reverse the Donald Trump’s environmental deregulation efforts from the last four years. The council is also focussing closely on who Biden will appoint as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They disapprove of Andrew Wheeler, the current head of the EPA, because of his close ties to the coal and oil industries.

The Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club also endorsed Biden during the presidential race. They, along with other environmentalists across the state, believe Biden’s bold plans to address climate change will aid them in their own efforts to transition the state to clean energy and protect natural resources, and they look forward to his first days in office.

Alliant Energy Announces Plans to Shutter Iowa Coal Plant and Begin Transitioning to Renewable Energy


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Nicole Welle | November 2, 2020

Alliant Energy announced the Clean Energy Blueprint for Iowa last week, a plan that will transition one of their coal-burning plants to nuclear energy and shut down the Lansing Generating station altogether.

The Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) and the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) have publicly announced their support of the plan. By shuttering the Lansing Generating Station by 2022, converting the Burlington plant to nuclear energy and constructing more solar plants and battery storage stations, Alliant Energy will eliminate 487MW of coal-generated power in Iowa by 2026, according to an IEC news release.

Not only will eliminating coal plants reduce pollution, it will also save Alliant customers money. When Alliant Energy requested a 24% rate increase on residential customers in 2019, the ELPC and IEC contracted Uday Varadarajan, an expert data analyst, to examine the economics of Iowa’s coal plants and examine the cost of alternative forms of energy. He found that maintaining the coal plants was more expensive than both clean energy alternatives and buying power from the wholesale market. Retiring the Lansing plant and committing to expanding solar power will help prevent rate increases for customers in the future and help them avoid more that $300 million in costs over the next 35 years, according to an Alliant Energy press release.

Environmental activists hope that positive changes like this will spark further discussion and push companies throughout the Midwest to move away from carbon-based energy. Future efforts to move Iowa towards 100% renewable energy will benefit the environment and help save Iowans money.