Iowa’s energy choices extend beyond coal, natural gas, nuclear

As Iowans, utilities and policy makers make choices about which sources of electricity to rely upon, we are not constrained by a choice between coal, natural gas or nuclear. Instead, we are fortunate to have abundant and clean energy resources in Iowa to choose from.

By using a balanced mix of resources like energy efficiency, wind, solar, and combined heat and power, we can meet Iowa’s energy needs, phase out our use of coal, and improve our economy and environment.

Nathaniel Baer


Energy efficiency. A recent study commissioned by Iowa’s investor-owned utilities concluded that in the next 10 years, Iowa could use cost-effective energy efficiency measures to meet 20 percent of Alliant and MidAmerican’s electric sales. In context, this potential energy savings is more electricity than Iowa now uses from natural gas, hydro power and nuclear combined.

Solar. Iowa has not begun to scratch the surface of our potential for solar photovoltaic (PV) energy. A national study released in 2012 shows that Iowa has the technical potential to meet over 100 times our annual electric use with solar PV. We could utilize a small portion of this resource to meet 10 percent or 20 percent of our electric needs in the very near future.

Solar PV produces energy when we need it most — during the day, during afternoons and especially during hot summer afternoons — making solar PV a very valuable and useful resource. Solar prices have come down dramatically in recent years and that trend is expected to continue.

Recent projects by Luther College and the University of Northern Iowa demonstrate that larger-scale solar projects can succeed in Iowa.

Combined heat and power. Combined heat and power technologies generate two forms of energy — heat and electricity — at the same time, very efficiently, from a single fuel. Combined heat and power is a good match for the energy needs of a wide variety of larger energy users, such as schools, hospitals, universities and manufacturers.

Several recent studies have estimated Iowa’s technical potential for CHP to be between 1,675 megawatts and 2,709 megawatts — equivalent to as much as 40 percent of the coal power generation in Iowa today. Combined heat and power units operate at all times and can use natural gas, bio gas and biomass as fuel sources.

Wind. We know that Iowa is a leading state on wind energy. At the end of 2012, Iowa had over 5,000 megawatts of wind capacity installed, keeping Iowa in the top three of all states. Iowa’s wind potential is over 500,000 megawatts, which would produce vastly more electricity than we use today.

Iowa’s wind energy is economically competitive and typically meets local needs today, but it also feeds into a regional market for electricity. This is true of wind energy installed in other states as well.

In fact, by expanding our electric transmission lines and strengthening the regional grid, we can rely more and more on wind energy generated in Iowa and throughout the Midwest. On the rare days when there is not much wind in Iowa, there is often wind elsewhere in the region. By expanding transmission and enabling more wind generation, we will also save more money than we spend on that infrastructure — due to the economic strength of wind power and added efficiency of a better electric grid.

Iowa clearly has the clean energy resources to replace coal generation, and doing so will provide significant economic and environmental benefits. In addition to big cost savings from resources like energy efficiency, wind and transmission, we can expect new jobs as well. For example, building 300 megawatts of solar over five years would create nearly 5,000 new jobs in the fifth year alone. Building 20,000 megawatts of wind would create over 63,000 construction jobs and another 9,000 permanent jobs. Building just some of the proposed transmission lines will create between 3,700 and 8,700 direct construction jobs and up to 16,000 total jobs.

Realizing the economic and environmental benefits of clean energy requires more than a clear choice, however. It requires sound public policies and the political will to put them in place.

The author is energy program director of the Iowa Environmental Council.  This essay appeared in the Des Moines Register on March 9, 2013.


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