Iowa farmers concerned about land requirements for solar energy


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Solar panels near farmland (via Creative Commons).

Julia Poska | January 22, 2020

The Iowa Farm Bureau is urging state legislators to regulate siting of wind and solar operations this session, citing concerns about conflicting land use.

The Des Moines Register reported earlier this month that Farm Bureau legislative preview videos said generating 3,000 megawatts of solar power through 20 proposed projects in Iowa “could potentially take thousands of acres out of production.”

Kerri Johannsen, the Iowa Environmental Council’s energy director, told the Register that generating 10% of Iowa’s power through solar panels would require 13,000 acres, or 0.4% of Iowa’s farmland.

Bill Cherrier, CEO of Central Iowa Power Cooperative (which has a few solar projects in the works) said solar projects are usually cited on “subprime” land for farming. Environmental groups said they would be open to regulation, as long as they did not restrict the state’s transition to renewable energy in the future.

An article this week from clean energy website Clean Technica suggested Iowa farmers consider “agrovolatics,” or integration of renewable energy and crops. The author cited European studies and projects that demonstrated increased productivity of land through the practice.

 

UI enters final year for 2020 sustainability goals


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UI EV vehicle charging station (via a 2018 Office of Sustainability Report. )

Julia Poska | January 1, 2020

In 2010, former University of Iowa President Sally Mason announced the 2020 Vision: The University of Iowa’s Sustainability Targets. It laid out out sustainability goals to reach within the next decade, which began today. 

The goals were as follows:

1. Become a Net‐negative Energy Consumer

This goal indicated that the university should consume less energy in 2020 than it did in 2010, despite projected growth. Building energy consumption reports from The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) indicate energy energy consumption growth from 2005 to 2013 and 2013 to 2018. A 2018 presentation to the campus faculty council, though, provided data indicated that energy consumption was below the baseline, if baseline included projected consumption for new buildings.

2. Green Our Energy Portfolio

The document indicated that the University would consume 40% renewable energy in 2020. Since 2010, the university has increased production of energy through renewable biomass sources like oat hulls and miscanthus grass in the on-campus power plant. A 2018 presentation to the campus faculty council reported 17% renewable energy in 2017.

3. Decrease Our Production of Waste

This goal indicated that the university would “divert” (meaning recycle or compost” 60% of waste by 2020. The Office of Sustainability has since implemented a “tiny trash” program to encourage recycling and a dorm room composting program. The most recent data, for 2017, indicates a 38% diversion rate.

4. Reduce the Carbon Impact of Transportation

The university aimed to reduce per-capita fossil fuel emissions from campus transportation methods by 10%. A 2018 report to the university’s staff council reported a 14% reduction in per-capita transportation emissions, due in part to the campus’s fleet of electric vehicles and solar charging station.

 

5. Increase Student Opportunities to Learn and Practice Principles of Sustainability

6. Support and Grow Interdisciplinary Research in Sustainability‐focused and Related Areas

7. Develop Partnerships to Advance Collaborative Initiatives, both Academic and Operational

The last three goals provided qualitative measures, more difficult to measure and assess directly. The university undoubtedly provides  sustainability opportunities for students, in both practice and research, and has fostered numerous collaborative initiatives.

Stay tuned over the next 364 days to see whether these goals are fully met.

 

 

New UI research could help fight pollution with microorganisms


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Concrete and other surfaces are often covered in a thin film of pollution and pollution fighting bacteria and fungi (via Creative Commons). 

Julia Poska | December 20, 2019

As pollutants like particulates, PCB and pesticides filter out of the air, they often accumulate on surfaces like asphalt or building exteriors. When it rains, the pollutants can run off into water sources.

University of Iowa researchers recently published findings in Earth and Space Chemistry, revealing that a variety of bacteria and fungi live within the film of pollution on such surfaces. Some of those microorganisms are able to digest and break down the pollutants.

Researchers Scott Shaw (chemistry) and Timothy Mattes (civil and environmental engineering) intend to sequence the DNA of these organisms in the future. They will then be able to determine which could potentially be cultivated for fighting pollution in other areas, according to Iowa Now.

CGRER, the UI Center of Health Effects of Environmental Contamination,  the U.S. Department of Defense Army Research Office and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission funded this research.

New report highlights vulnerability of Iowa’s impoverished to flood impacts


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Cedar Rapids flooding (via Creative Commons). 

Julia Poska | December 18, 2019

A new report from the Iowa Policy Project considers the roles equity should play when crafting policy for disaster response and mitigation.

“Frontline communities”–which feel the “first and often hardest” direct impact from a disaster like a flood or earthquake–have lower capacity to recover or mitigate, according to the report. This is in part because properties in these high-risk communities are cheaper, so residents are more likely to live below the poverty-line and belong to other disadvantaged socioeconomic groups.

“These communities are themselves set up for a disaster down the road and continuing downward spiral and being trapped where they are until the community can’t take it anymore and has scattered, or they’re just continually suffering over and over as these disasters strike,” the report’s author Joseph Wilensky told Iowa Public Radio.

Wilensky, a graduate student in the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning, reported that these “frontline” communities are less likely to receive full compensation for damages in as timely a manner as wealthier communities. He pointed to several examples from Iowa’s 2008 flood.

He also reported that allocation of Iowa’s watershed mitigation funds (both past and proposed projects) disproportionately benefits wealthier populations, as the cost-benefit method used favors protecting more expensive property, reducing economic damage.

Wilensky made several policy recommendations in the report as well. These include “rebalancing” the cost-benefit method to consider larger impact, considering whether mitigation efforts located outside of the frontline communities–which may qualify for less federal funding–could be helpful and hiring a state watershed coordinator to guide mitigation project applications.

Rising flood risk in Iowa and the Midwest due to climate change makes this report and its considerations especially pertinent.

 

2019 Iowa Climate Statement Video


Kasey Dresser| December 16, 2019

The Iowa Climate Statement video has officially been uploaded to our website. You can watch the video again here, or access it at any time under the Iowa Climate Statement tab.

The statement, released on September 18, warns Iowans and Midwesterners of sobering extreme heat projections for the region. Based on the most up‐to‐date scientific sources, the statement makes clear the urgency of preparing for dangerously hot summers in the coming decades.

Betsy Stone, Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Iowa, reads this year’s statement in the video above. Access the full written statement here.

As flood risk increases, FEMA pushes updates on southwest Iowa levees


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Levees hold back floodwaters from developed areas (via Creative Commons). 

Julia Poska | December 6, 2019

FEMA will “de-accredit” 94.5 miles of levees in southwest Iowa and northwest Missouri unless owners make updates that ensure protection within new 100-year flood boundaries, the Des Moines Register reported Wednesday.

The levees protect parts of Pottawattamie, Mills and Fremont counties, which experienced historic flooding this spring.

Affected communities have historically been located in FEMA’s 500-year floodplain, giving them a 0.2% chance of flooding in a given year (NOT flooding once in 500 years, as is a common misconception). Flood recurrence is calculated from historic averages, and increasing flood frequency due to climate change now puts those areas within the 100-year flood plain, making flood risk 5 times higher.

The floodplain updates take effect in the spring but levee owners have a few years to make updates before official losing accreditation. The Register reports, “It’s estimated that work to meet FEMA’s standards could cost upwards of $1 million per mile of levee,” a steep price for an area still recovering from the last round of floods.

The Register reported that nearly 1,500 home and business owners would need to purchase flood insurance in the spring the levees don’t receive updates. In such a high-risk area, insurance would become mandatory, and rates in some areas could increase 2600%, according to the Register. 

 

Iowa Energy Districts bring local leadership to renewables


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Energy Districts encourage home solar projects like this one (via Creative Commons). 

Julia Poska| November 22, 2019

Though the state of Iowa as a whole has focused on shifting to renewable forms of energy–wind in particular–for years, some localities feel the transition has not been speedy enough. A handful of “Energy Districts” have formed in recent years with intent to push their communities forward in the renewable energy adoption.

These districts are independent and non-partisan entities led by a small staff and a local board of directors, according to the Winneshiek Energy District website. Winneshiek’s was the first such district to form (in 2010) and has since has encouraged and aided others. A recent Energy News Network article said Iowa now has eight districts active or in planning, including two in Iowa City and Des Moines.

The Energy Districts are modeled after Soil and Water Conservation Districts, local authorities formed after the 1930s Dust Bowl to encourage local solutions to resource conservation. With the goal of empowering locals to transition to renewables on their own terms, Energy Districts provide services such as:

  • Energy auditing and planning assistance to homes, farms, businesses and institutions (often in partnership with Green Iowa AmeriCorps).
  • Educational opportunities
  • Advocacy for improved renewable energy policy
  • Guidance to other localities hoping to establish Energy Districts

A fact sheet provided by the Winneshiek County Energy District says the entity has helped create a $14 million investment in renewable energy, over 100 energy jobs and a 100,000 ton reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in Winneshiek County alone.