MidAmerican Energy has proposed its first-ever solar energy project: a public-private partnership with the City of Iowa City.
The city would lease nearly 19 unused acres at Waterworks Prairie Park to MidAmerican for 30 years, installing 10,000 solar panels, according to The Gazette.The energy generated would be able to power 580 average Iowa homes, a MidAmerican representative said in the article.
The Iowa City City Council will hold a hearing on the proposal later this month. If the city approves the plan, it will receive annual payment for the land.
The project would not impact the park’s walking trail. The Gazette reported that the land in question is currently planted with prairie, which would be replaced with “low-growth pollinators and perennials.”
Steel producer SSAB Americas announced on Tuesday that its steel production process will be completely fossil-free by 2026. This would make the Swedish-American company the first supplier of fossil-free steel in North America. As steel production is responsible for 7% of carbon dioxide emissions globally, widespread implementation of these techniques would have a significant environmental impact.
The SSAB steel mill located in Montpelier, Iowa is already on track to be powered completely by renewable energy in 2022, the company says. SSAB Iowa plans to partner with MidAmerican Energy to power this mill using renewable energy, primarily from wind farms in the state. In addition, plants in Alabama and Iowa will use recycled and fossil-free materials in their production process.
MidAmerican Energy has previously announced its goal to use wind energy to provide 100% renewable energy to all of its customers. If MidAmerican meets this goal, it would also be the first investor-owned utility company in the country to do so, though environmental groups have questioned whether they will indeed be able to, as the company has resisted closing coal-fired plants.
In August, Iowa City, motivated by student climate strikers, became the first city in Iowa to declare a climate crisis. The resolution updated the emissions goals set by the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan passed in 2018, and directed the City Manager’s Office to develop a report recommending ways to meet these new targets within 100 days.
Last Friday, City Council released that report, which contains 64 initiatives to reduce carbon emissions in buildings, transportation, and waste, as well as to adapt to more volatile weather, and promote sustainable lifestyles. The greatest number of these initiatives are focused on increasing energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy in buildings, which account for approximately 82% of emissions.
The new targets set in August were based on a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which claimed that human-caused emissions would net to be reduced by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, and to reach net zero by 2050 in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In Iowa City, that would require a minimum annual decrease of about 22,000 metric tonnes of carbon emissions.
The report also includes recommendations of tax increases to fund incentive programs and public projects and education, as well as a partnership with MidAmerican Energy to install utility-scale solar panels. City Sustainability Coordinator Brenda Nations said that, while these goals are feasible, “the challenging thing is we need a lot of people on board to do it.” City Council will review the report and its recommendations at Tuesday evening’s work session.
A group called the REAL Coalition has been targeting Iowans with ads in support of the SOLAR Act or ‘Sunshine Tax.’ The act would impose an over $300 annual fee on private solar power generators to cover their use of the electric grid, which many believe would kill solar power in Iowa.
Others, like MidAmerican Energy and the REAL Coalition, say the cost of maintaining the grid is unfairly shifted onto non-solar customers.
Josh Scheinblum from KCRG fact checked the coalition’s TV ad. The coalition claimed most energy in Iowa comes from “clean, renewables” while coal and other fossil fuels actually generate the majority. The ad also said solar panel owners use the grid more than others, who end up paying their share. Scheinblum spoke with a solar owner and consultant, who called that claim ridiculous.
“The whole point for solar is either to slow down or to stop the flow of energy flowing into the meter,” he said.
Little is known about the REAL Coalition. It formed as a non-profit in January and is not a registered as lobbying group or Political Action Committee. Their site says they “give voice to Iowa consumers, farmers and businesses on the energy issues affecting our state,” and gives no information about their leadership or funding sources.
A Little Village article describes them as a dark money group (“a nonprofit that engages in political activity but does not disclose its funders”) and details a vague encounter with a REAL Coalition telemarketer. Some suspect MidAmerican Energy is behind the group.
The so-called “sunshine tax” might have a bright and cheery name, but the proposed fee could put a real damper on private solar power in Iowa.
Described in House Study Bill 185 and Senate Study Bill 1201, the “Solar Options Lead to Affordable Renewables (SOLAR) Act” would impose an over $300 annual fee on solar customers — property owners with small-scale solar panel setups who sell excess power back to the grid. The fee would cover the cost of using the electric grid and support Iowa’s energy infrastructure.
Currently, such customers can expect to pay off the high initial cost of solar panel installation in less than 10 years through savings on energy bills and sales of excess power. Cedar Rapids City Councilman Tyler Olson told the designated House subcommittee the fee would extend that period to as much as 20 years, as reported in the Gazette. This would greatly discourage private individuals from investing in home setups, which typically last about 25 years.
Supporters of the fee, including major Iowa utilities like MidAmerican and Alliant Energy, say it is unfair that customers who do not generate their own power absorb the cost of maintaining power infrastructure that is used by solar generators.
“Growth is possible when policies allow all customers to benefit from renewable energy,” MidAmerican Energy’s president and CEO said in a press release. “Common sense legislation focused on keeping costs low and affordable for everyone provides the best opportunity to grow solar in Iowa.”
Opponents say the fee would only allow solar to grow for large corporations, however, and that it would kill the future of Iowa’s growing solar industry, which largely develops and installs systems for private homes, businesses and farms.
On Tuesday, the Gazette reported that the the bill would soon move forward in the Iowa House, to the full House Commerce Committee. Yesterday, the Iowa Senate held a hearing on their version of the bill, and did the same.There is a push among some legislators to delay the conversation until the Iowa Utilities Board finishes an assessment of compensation for solar energy producers next year.
MidAmerican Energy’s Wind XII project will bring the utility company’s “100 percent clean energy vision” to reality so why are groups like the Iowa Environmental Council and the Environmental Law & Policy center unhappy with it?
These groups and others opposed the project throughout court proceedings, which concluded with the Iowa Utilities Board granting approval for the projection Dec. 4. While expanding wind energy is certainly a positive in itself, environmentalists hoped the board would require MidAmerican to shut down coal plants and evaluate the cost effectiveness of coal power as a condition to the project’s approval.
“It is time for MidAmerican to make a transparent and long-term commitment to 100% clean energy that includes phasing out one of the 20 largest coal fleets in the country,” explained Environmental Law & Policy Center Senior Attorney Josh Mandelbaum in a press release.
Though MidAmerican has committed to providing “100 percent renewable” energy, in reality they have only promised to “generate renewable energy equal to 100 percent of its customers’ usage on an annual basis,” in their own words. The Wind XII project would be the final step to completing that vision. The company is one of the nation’s top coal-burning utilities, however, and has no plans to phase out its coal production in Iowa, even as it expands wind power.
MidAmerican told the Des Moines Register in August that coal was necessary for “low wind” times, but Mandelbaum in the same article called the whole renewable energy declaration “a gimmick.” The company still derives about 30 percent of energy from coal.
More recently, the Register published an opinion piece by Elizabeth Katt Reinders, a senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. Reinders shamed MidAmerican for its continued reliance on coal, and urged it towards a truer clean energy vision for the sake of our air, energy bills and climate.
The initiative is a part of MidAmerican Energy’s goal to eventually provide 100% renewable energy for its customers in Iowa. Expected to be completed by late 2019, the Wind XI project will add 1,000 wind turbines to Iowa’s grid. Ashton Hockman, a spokesperson for MidAmerican, said in an email earlier this week that while the exact locations are still being finalized, the farm will be located on multiple sites around the state. She added, “Wind XI will add up to 2,000 megawatts of wind generation in Iowa and is the largest wind project MidAmerican Energy has ever undertaken.”
MidAmerican Energy plans to earn back all $3.6 billion dollars through federal production tax credits over the course of ten years. As such, the company did not seek financial support from the state and will not need to raise rates for customers, according the MidAmerican representatives.
New findings from AWEA show that support for wind energy production is on the rise, even across party lines. Polling results show that public support for wind energy seems to rise as the industry grows. In Texas, the top wind producing state in the country, over 85% of voters support wind energy. Nationwide 70% of registered voters have a favorable impression of wind energy, including 60% of Republicans and Independent voters. As the election draws nearer, AWEA CEO Tom Kiernan said,
“Candidates running for office on both sides of the aisle in this important election year should take note: The more wind farms we build, the stronger support from U.S. voters grows. As wind power has more than tripled over the last eight years, so have its economic and environmental benefits. Wind technician is the fastest growing job in the U.S., and the billions of dollars of investment in local economies have revitalized many rural communities.”