Environmental activists gathered in Des Moines to demand Iowa’s largest energy company to stop using its coal plants in the next decade on Wednesday.
Protesters from Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and the Iowa Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign gathered outside the MidAmerican Energy headquarters with signs. They also asked MidAmerican Energy to invest funds in retrofitting Iowa homes to improve energy efficiency. The demonstrators want the company to focus on the homes of families of color and low-income housing.
The group chanted “people over profit” inside the headquarters building. The demonstration remained peaceful, regardless of security asking the group to vacate the premises.
MidAmerican Energy currently runs five coal energy plants across the state. Two plants are in Sioux City while Ottumwa, Muscatine, and Council Bluffs all have only one. The Sierra Club estimated the plants have cost customers nearly $25.7 million in the last five years. The protestors want the plants retired by 2030.
Geoff Greenwood, a spokesperson for the company, told Iowa Public Radio the company is striving to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. He did not specify a timeline of when MidAmerican plans to hit net-zero. The company has decreased its carbon dioxide emissions by 58 percent since 2005.
The Environmental Protection Agency is imposing new, more stringent standards on water pollution specifically from coal power plants.
The new standards are reinstating previous regulations that Former President Donald Trump’s administration rolled back. The agency announced the reinstatement on Monday, but it hopes the new rules will be finalized in 2023. Until then, coal power plants that are close to waterways still risk polluting them.
The EPA announced its intent to initiate the beginning of the new standard making process when it signed a Federal Register Notice. Public comment on the proposed rule changes will occur in fall 2022. The EPA first set federal limits on the levels of toxic metals discharged from power plants that entered waterways in 2015.
Some environmentalists are still disappointed that President Joe Biden’s administration is not taking quicker, immediate actions to prevent pollutants in waterways. The standards could take longer to enact even if they are finalized in 2023. Government Affairs Director for the Center for Biological Diversity, Brett Hartl told CNN earlier this week that new rules may not see implementation until 2026. He said waiting so long for implementation is not sufficient.
Increases in coal usage across Asia and the US are contributing to the second largest annual rise in CO2 emissions, according to The Guardian. The last largest leap in CO2 emissions occurred 10 years ago after the financial crisis. Coal is the most carbon-intense fossil fuel and is more expensive than renewable energy.
“Demand for all fossil fuels is set to grow significantly in 2021,” The International Energy Agency said in their 2021 Global Energy Review. “Coal demand alone is projected to increase by 60% more than all renewables combined, underpinning a rise in emissions of almost 5%, or 1 500 Mt. This expected increase would reverse 80% of the drop in 2020, with emissions ending up just 1.2% (or 400 Mt) below 2019 emissions levels.”
Scientists warn that emissions need to be cut by 45% this decade to reduce global heating by 2.7F.
The Iowa Environmental Council and Environmental Law and Policy Center last month submitted testimony from five “expert witnesses” to the Iowa Utilities Board regarding Alliant Energy’s proposed base rate increases, currently under review.
The environmental groups disapprove of the proposal overall and said they believe they have identified alternative “solutions that will save customers money while cleaning up Alliant’s generation mix.”
Below are summaries of Alliant’s proposal and the environmental groups’ critique.
About Alliant’s proposal
On April 1, 2019, Alliant customers began seeing an interim base rate increase (about $8 for the typical residential customer) on their energy bills.
The company plans to further raise the rate beginning January 1, 2020. The total increase of $20 (24.45%) for typical residential customers would bring about $203.6 million in revenue into the company annually.
In a proposal to customers, Alliant said the company is “investing in new wind farms, energy grid technologies including advanced metering infrastructure, and environmental controls that reduce emissions.”
The company has also said that the additional cost to customers would be offset over time by reductions in other costs like energy efficiency.
The proposed increases are awaiting a hearing in November from the Iowa Utility Board. If the increases are not approved, Alliant would have to refund customers for excess paid during the interim increase.
The IEC/ELPC perspective
The IEC and ELPC have both economic and socioeconomic concerns about the proposal, as outlined in their testimony to the IUB. The testimony also providedeconomic analysis of the utility’s current coal power generation.
A few highlights from the testimony include:
Coal generation costs more than renewables. An analysis by Rocky Mountain Institute Principal Uday Varadarajan on behalf of the two organizations found that the cost of Alliant’s coal generation exceeds that of projected renewable energy costs. Retiring three Alliant coal plants and purchasing market energy or purchasing or generating wind energy could save customers $16 million in 2020, he found. This was proposed as an alternative move for Alliant to make, increasing renewables while reducing rather than increasing cost to consumers. (Read more from U.S. Energy News).
Revenue would be spent on wasteful initiatives. The groups call out one initiative Alliant has proposed — putting power lines underground — as a poor use of consumer funds.
Proposed solar programs could undermine the industry. The groups believe Alliant’s new community solar program (implied to be funded in part by the rate increase) would compete with solar businesses and potentially create a monopoly. They said the proposal also includes measures similar to those proposed in the “Sunshine Tax” legislation earlier this year to increase cost for solar customers.
Of the 58 largest greenhouse gas emitters globally, the United States ranks second to last for its efforts to combat climate change in a new report published Monday at the COP24 Climate Summit in Katowice, Poland.
The 2019 Climate Change Performance Index evaluates countries’ advancements in energy production, use and policy to put pressure on those falling behind. The only country with a worse score than the U.S. is Saudi Arabia.
According to the report, the U.S.’s greatest failures are at a national level, thanks to President Trump’s denial of man-made climate change and his intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. U.S. policy still favors fossil fuels, though individual states and cities have made some progress in spite of that position.
The nation brought its pro-fossil fuel attitude along to the summit, and hosted an event called “US innovative technologies spur economic dynamism,”there Monday to promote supposedly “clean” uses of coal, oil and natural gas . Australia, ranked just four spots above the U.S. in the index, was the only nation to support the event, but the Australian climate change policy advisor disagreed and called the event a “slap in the face” to neighboring Pacific Islands that are desperately threatened by the rising sea level, according to the Guardian.
The top countries in the index, Sweden and Morocco, have made greater progress in reducing emissions, but are still not quite on target to keep warming under 1.5°C, as the International panel on Climate Change has deemed necessary to protect the planet’s inhabitants and resources. These nations rank “High”, so as of now the top three spots on the index, marked as “Very High,” remain empty.
Researchers at Duke University are using a satellite imagery mapping tool to track mining activities in Appalachia. According to their paper, published in PLOS ONE, the experts at Duke estimate that 21,000 acres of land has been transformed each year since 1985 due to mountaintop mining. The study tracked areas in the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Mountaintop mining is categorized as surface mining, unlike traditional mining strategies. Vegetation is clearing from the top of a mountain, then explosives are used to destroy the surface of the hill or mountain. This process exposes any coal underneath. Mountaintop mining poses many problems. Rubble leftover is often pushed into the existing valleys, which blocks and contaminates streams and destroys animal habitats.
Tracking landscapes that have been destroyed and transformed due to mountaintop mining is necessary to better understand the effect that this process has had on Appalachian ecosystems. The data from this study is free and open to the public. You can find downloadable files of the imagery here.
From 2008 to 2016, the portion of the U.S.’s energy derived from coal decreased from 51 percent to 31 percent. Of those coal units that are still up and running, about 25 percent of them plan to retire or switch to another energy source soon. While some coal units are retiring completely, many of them are switching to natural gas. Either way, the report found that the decreased coal production has provided the following environmental health benefits:
80 percent less sulfur dioxide, a source of acid rain
64 percent less nitrogen oxide, a key component in smog
34 percent less carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas
Scientists estimate these changes have saved residents about $250 billion in public health costs related to breathing polluted air from 2008 to 2016.
The researchers also looked at the challenges faced by economies in former coal-mining areas to learn more about how residents cope with closing plants. The results were decidedly mixed. For example, after one especially dirty plant in Chicago closed down following years of activism, area residents found that the city planned to redevelop the building into a transportation center–posing additional air quality risks. In contrast, an organization in West Virginia is working to train laid off coal-workers in construction, agriculture and solar energy jobs. As the shift to cleaner energy sources continues, the Union of Concerned Scientists call on lawmakers. They write,
“As more coal plants close, the importance of investing in these and other impacted communities will only grow. Policy makers should prioritize economic development and job transition assistance, alongside other investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency.”
Alliant Energy has also recently transitioned from coal to natural gas at plants in Marshalltown, Dubuque, Council Bluffs, Bettendorf and Clinton. Prairie Creek Generation Station is expected to be coal free by 2025.
While coal still provides 47 percent of Iowa’s energy, that number has decreased significantly in recent years. Wind energy provides the second largest percentage of Iowa’s electricity, making up 36.6 percent of the total energy picture.
For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.
From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.
A recent state-run tabloid read, “Western opinion should continue to pressure the Trump administration on climate change. Washington’s political selfishness must be discouraged.” It continued, “China will remain the world’s biggest developing country for a long time. How can it be expected to sacrifice its own development space for those developed western powerhouses?”
China consumes more energy from coal than the rest of the world’s nations combined and is also the global leader in greenhouse gas emissions; the U.S. is in second place. China’s population measures 3.4 billion people while the U.S. population is roughly 3.3 million. China also leads the world in the exportation of renewable energy.
The Trump administration discussed the possibility of withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement after the President referred to it as a “bad deal” for the U.S. Projections from the International Energy Agency reveal that if the U.S. backed out of the Paris Climate Agreement and all other countries stuck to emission reduction goals, 10 percent of emission decrease expected from the agreement would be lost.
Chinese President Xi Jinping said, “All signatories should stick to it instead of walking away from it, as this is a responsibility we must assume for future generations.”
Exxon Mobil, the largest oil company in the U.S., echoes Xi’s sentiment. “We welcomed the Paris Agreement when it was announced in December 2015, and again when it came into force in November 2016. We have reiterated our support on several occasions,” said Peter Trelenberg, the company’s environmental policy and planning manager, in a letter to the White House.
According to a report from the United Nations, Earth is expected to warm by about 3 degrees Celsius by the end of this century – even if all nations keep their end of the Paris Agreements.
The Sierra Club, the state of Iowa, and other local and federal agencies sued Interstate Power and Light alleging the company was in violation of the Clean Air Act. In addition to the closures and upgrades to its facilities, Interstate Power and Light has also agreed to a pay a $1.1 million civil penaltywithin 30 days of the settlement. The company will also spend an additional $6 million on other environmental projects including the development of solar facilities, the replacement of traditional utility bucket trucks with hybrid trucks, and the development or expansion of anaerobic digesters.
“For several years, we have been executing a plan to create cleaner and more efficient ways to generate energy for our customers,” Alliant Energy Iowa utility President Doug Kopp said in a press release. “Iowans are already seeing the benefits of our work, and our next projects will deliver even more clean-energy solutions.”
Emission reduction projects will take place on two of the company’s largest facilities in Lansing and Ottumwa while smaller power stations in Burlington and Cedar Rapids will convert to natural gas. Alliant generating stations in Clinton, Dubuque, and Marshalltown have already transitioned to natural gas.