Author Archives: nathanielbaer

Amplifying Iowa’s wind power

Wind XIowa’s wind energy leadership has created significant economic, community and environmental benefits for the state, but there is huge potential for additional wind energy. Thanks in part to continued advocacy for wind energy growth, utility companies are taking notice and investing in clean energy.

In May, we welcomed announcements from Alliant Energy to add 200 MW of wind and by MidAmerican Energy to build 552 MW of wind. When MidAmerican filed its official proposal – Wind X – with the Iowa Utilities Board, we joined with the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) to intervene and file testimony in support of the proposal.

Iowa ended 2014 with over 5,700 MW of installed wind energy that accounts for 28.5% of the state’s electrical generation, the highest of any state. Iowa’s wind energy potential is over 570,000 MW, and recent national studies indicate that 20,000 MW could be developed by 2030, and 37,000 to 46,000 MW by 2050. Wind X is an important step to reaching these goals, meeting more of our energy needs with clean energy, and reducing our reliance on coal.

Despite its leadership in wind energy, coal still accounts for the largest share of MidAmerican’s electricity. Importing coal costs MidAmerican’s customers approximately $285M annually, and the state of Iowa $590M annually. Wind X will directly reduce coal use and the associated costs, as well as cut emissions of carbon and other pollutants.

By doing so, Wind X will help MidAmerican – and Iowa – prepare to comply with the proposed Clean Power Plan, the first-ever standard to reduce carbon pollution – our country’s largest source of carbon pollution – from existing power plants. The Clean Power Plan establishes state-specific carbon reduction goals based on each state’s energy portfolio. Based on 2012 carbon pollution levels, Iowa’s proposed cut in carbon pollution from power plants is 16%. As a wind energy leader, Iowa is well-positioned to meet its goal.

Recent wind projects have already helped reduce MidAmerican’s rate of carbon emission from 1,168 lbs/MWh to 1,030 lbs/MWh. Wind X would further reduce the rate to 940 lbs/MWh or even lower. Thanks to its wind leadership, MidAmerican is ahead of schedule and can help the state – or even other states – meet these targets.

In addition to expressing our support for Wind X, our testimony encouraged MidAmerican to more thoroughly consider adding solar energy when it builds its next clean energy project. We reviewed MidAmerican data showing that its energy demand peaks occur in the summer and during the day, typically between the hours of noon and 6 pm. A typical solar array in Iowa can be expected to produce very well during such times, meaning solar can help MidAmerican meet energy needs when demand is at its highest.

We will continue to advocate, shape and voice our support for Wind X and projects like it, and build a broad base of support for the Clean Power Plan and a strong implementation plan that will benefit Iowa’s economy and environment.

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Local tours an opportunity to see solar energy’s growing role up close

Des Moines area legislators Rep. Kevin Koester, Sen. Janet Petersen, and Sen. Brad Zaun recently joined Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association (ISETA) president Tim Dwight on a tour of prominent solar installations in the Des Moines metro area.

L to R:  Rep. Kevin Koester, Sen. Janet Petersen, Tim Dwight, and Sen. Brad Zaun discuss solar energy's potential for Iowa during a press availability.

L to R: Rep. Kevin Koester, Sen. Janet Petersen, Tim Dwight, and Sen. Brad Zaun discuss solar energy’s potential for Iowa during a press availability.

The purpose of the tour was to highlight solar installations already helping local businesses and organizations take control of rising energy costs and reduce their environmental footprint.  It was also an opportunity to discuss issues facing Iowa’s emerging solar energy industry.

Organized by the Environmental Law and Policy Center and also sponsored by the Iowa Environmental Council and ISETA, the November tour follows one other earlier this year that visited sites in Dubuque and Decorah.

Covering the tour, the Des Moines Register’s William Petroski reported the legislators “went home impressed,” with what they saw.  State Sen. Janet Petersen told reporters, “It is great to see what happens when we put policies in place and actually see them implemented.”

Indeed, discussion of solar energy among policymakers in Iowa has been on the increase recently, after lawmakers created a new tax credit for residential and business solar installations in 2012 and an innovative approach to financing solar projects, known as a “third party power purchase agreement” received a green light from an Iowa District Court this spring (although this approach is on hold while opponents pursue an appeal).

Solar energy has tremendous potential in Iowa, which according to federal data has the nation’s 16th best potential for generating energy from sunlight.  The cost of solar energy technologies has fallen rapidly in recent years, making such installations more attractive than ever.

At the same time, numerous permitting and regulatory barriers in Iowa still remain as roadblocks to even greater use of solar energy. In a recent panel discussion at the Growing Sustainable Communities Conference in Dubuque, one solar installer, Jon Dwight of Solar Planet,  said this red tape is the “biggest barrier to us right now.”  He said in the Dubuque area, regulatory hurdles can lead to a three-to-four-month approval delay for solar projects.

Fortunately, in November, the Iowa Economic Development Authority announced the creation of the Iowa Statewide Solar Readiness Initiative, a major new U.S. Department of Energy-funded effort to reduce regulatory barriers and other “soft costs” of solar energy.  The Iowa Environmental Council and Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities are partnering on that effort.

In 2012, Iowa led the Midwest in renewable energy installations, though Iowa’s leadership primarily depends on the wind industry.  Through 2012, the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) tallied 5,133 megawatts of wind energy installed in Iowa, but only 1.2 MW of solar energy.

Legislators and solar energy experts inspect a solar array at Van Meter Inc. in Urbandale.

Legislators and solar energy experts inspect a solar array at Van Meter Inc. in Urbandale.

New transmission projects – critical for Iowa wind energy growth – are moving forward

The Council is working to ensure areas like this conserved ground in Kossuth County are protected as new transmission lines are planned and built nearby.

The Council is working to ensure areas like this conserved ground in Kossuth County are protected as new transmission lines are planned and built nearby.

Maintaining Iowa’s national leadership in wind energy requires more than just adding additional wind turbines; our state also needs a electric grid capable of moving wind energy to where it is needed. Some windy areas of the state have no existing transmission capacity and in other areas existing lines have reached full capacity.

MidAmerican’s wind expansion will be spread across the five counties outlined on the map above.  Proposed new or upgraded transmission lines are shown in black, along with the windiest portion of the state, in white.

MidAmerican’s wind expansion will be spread across the five counties outlined on the map above. Proposed new or upgraded transmission lines are shown in black, along with the windiest portion of the state, in white.

Occasionally, Iowa wind farms must even stop producing energy because the electric grid is too congested to accept additional production.  Now, three of the five Iowa counties where MidAmerican Energy recently announced plans to develop more than a gigawatt of additional wind capacity are on or close to transmission upgrades.  MidAmerican’s wind expansion has been called the largest single economic development investment in Iowa history.

Several transmission upgrade proposals are moving forward which, if built as proposed, would enable significant new wind generation to help Iowa reach important renewable energy goals. ITC Midwest and MidAmerican Energy are have plans for north-central Iowa and Clean Line Energy Partners is proposing a line from northwest Iowa into Illinois.

While these transmission proposals offer the environmental benefit of more wind generation, siting and construction of the lines themselves can have environmental impacts. So far, many portions of the MidAmerican and ITC Midwest transmission plans involve upgrading existing lines, which will not require additional land use. In some instances, however, no transmission lines currently exist and a new right of way is needed.

The land use in this part of the state is primarily in row crop agriculture, so transmission and additional wind are often very compatible. However, this also means that the remaining environmentally sensitive lands are very important to preserve. Doing so is not easy, since no comprehensive inventory of ecologically sensitive land under private ownership exists.

Right from the start of the planning and construction process, the Council has been working to minimize any risks by engaging transmission developers with environment and conservation stakeholders.  With open lines of communication, we believe it is possible to make necessary upgrades to the electric grid and also important habitat and open spaces.

Court ruling a boost to renewable energy partnerships

This map shows Iowa as one of the states not allowing 3rd party PPAs, but that has changed after a recent court ruling. (The map is maintained by the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency and NC State University. Source: http://www.dsireusa.org/solar/summarymaps/)

Like more and more Iowa business and communities, the City of Dubuque was interested in how a solar installation in their city could meet their energy needs.  While solar installations require little maintenance and can help bring rising energy costs under control, electric customers like Dubuque face a number of questions when deciding whether to go solar.

Could energy tax credit programs help the city reduce the cost of the solar installation?  Was there a way for Dubuque to enjoy the energy the solar panels provide without having to become an expert in solar operations and maintenance?

Late last month, an Iowa District Court ruling cleared the way for an important type of renewable energy partnership that can address those concerns.  This is also a victory for distributive energy, referring to locally controlled or owned energy sources.

Dubuque concluded that partnering with a local solar business, Eagle Point Solar, would allow it reduce the risk and upfront cost of installing the solar system. The City planned to enter into an agreement known as a third party power purchase agreement with Eagle Point Solar. Under the agreement, Eagle Point Solar would assume the responsibility of financing and installing the solar system on city property and the City would purchase the energy produced in a long-term contract.

Third party power purchase agreements are a popular way to manage solar projects in the many states where they are allowed, but the Dubuque project was the first time one had been attempted in Iowa.  The local electric utility objected to the agreement, and the Iowa Utilities Board ruled that it cannot proceed under Iowa law.

However, the Iowa Environmental Council and our allies recognize these agreements are a key option to have available to grow Iowa’s solar market, in addition to utility incentives and tax credits. The Iowa Environmental Council helped organize a Solar Coalition of state and national groups, represented by the Environmental Law & Policy Center, that supported Eagle Point Solar at the Iowa Utilities Board and then asked a judge to review the board’s decision.

Late in March, the Court overturned the Board’s interpretation of Iowa law, clearing the way for Iowa to join the other states allowing such agreements to support renewable energy development.

“Iowa has America’s 16th best solar resource, and tapping into that is going to require innovative solutions like PPA’s,” said Nathaniel Baer, the Council’s energy program director.  “This ruling brings us closer to the conditions necessary for solar to play a bigger role in our state.”

The Council and its solar partners welcome the court’s ruling and are optimistic about the potential for the third party PPAs in Iowa. The agreements are especially useful for local governments, schools, non-profits as well as farmers and homeowners – all of whom may not have sufficient tax liability to take full advantage of incentives for renewable energy or may not have the upfront capital required for solar investments.

impact“Solar energy is an attractive option for Iowa because our state receives a great deal of solar energy at the same time our demand for energy is very high—hot summer days,” said Baer.  “As Iowa homeowners and businesses continue to embrace solar, our coalition will keep working hard to overcome barriers along the way.”

While the Court’s ruling is still subject to appeal, the Council and its allies are hopeful it will stand.  Stay up to date on this case and the Council’s other efforts to support solar energy by following the “solar” tag on the Council’s blog.  To learn more about our energy program, visit iaenvironment.org.

Effective energy efficiency plans are critical for Iowa’s clean energy future

Above:  Energy efficiency efforts really add up.  In 2010, Iowa utilities saved an amount of energy equal to what this coal plant located between Muscatine and Davenport, Iowa, produces in a year, meaning a similar plant will not have to be built.  According to utilities’ own analysis, it is possible for Iowa to make almost twice as much progress each year through cost effective energy efficiency initiatives.

This year, the Iowa Utilities Board will be making big decisions about how much energy utilities in Iowa will attempt to save in the next five years. Iowa’s energy efficiency policy requires MidAmerican, Alliant, and Black Hills to make energy efficiency plans every five years for review and approval by the Iowa Utilities Board.

Historically, Iowa’s use of electricity and natural gas grows a little each year. Reducing use of energy in Iowa helps offset the need for building new power plants, reduces reliance on imported fossil fuels, and achieves a cleaner environment. The plans utilities create must identify annual goals for saving electricity and natural gas and describe individual programs to achieve those goals.

Nathaniel Baer

Baer

The Council, in partnership with the Environmental Law & Policy Center and Iowa Policy Project, will be closely engaged in this review and approval process. We will make proposals on a range of specific programs – from use of LED light bulbs in homes to more efficient industrial processes – but one of the most important issues is the overall savings goals utilities will meet for each of the five years in their plans.

Last year, the utilities hired a consultant to do a comprehensive study of what could be accomplished with energy efficiency in Iowa. The study, known as an energy efficiency potential study, showed that there is, frankly, big potential for energy efficiency in Iowa—so much so, in fact, that that the utilities could save about 2% of their retail sales every year with new energy efficiency measures. And fortunately, these measures are cost-effective because the economic benefits they produce are greater than their cost.

Two percent a year might not sound like a lot, but the savings grow over time. Each year, new measures are adopted to equal 2% of retail sales, on top of the measures installed in each previous year so that after five years of saving 2%, for example, the total saved is 10%.

Since most measures stay in place for a number of years – such as an LED bulb that will last 10 years or a more efficient furnace that should last longer – the savings really grow over time. The potential study indicated that over 10 years, utilities could meet 20% of their retail electric sales with efficiency measures. That is more electricity than Iowa gets from natural gas, hydropower, and nuclear combined.

In fact, over time doing energy efficiency is a lot like building – and operating – small piece of a power plant every year. Each year we add to the power plant and keep what we added in previous years. After 5 or 10 years, the power plant becomes quite a significant resource in the overall energy mix. By operating what amounts to an efficiency power plant, we can use our existing coal-fired power plants less and delay or eliminate the need to build new fossil fuel generation.

Unfortunately, just because we have the opportunity to use energy more wisely and it is highly cost-effective does not guarantee it will actually happen. MidAmerican and Alliant have proposed plans that do not take nearly take advantage of all the cost-effective savings, and are also in the process of proposing to build more expensive power plants. Our task is to convince policy makes and other stakeholders that the utilities should take advantage of every cost-effective efficiency opportunity in Iowa. The technical and economic case is there, but the political will to do this remains an open question.

 The author is energy program director at the Iowa Environmental Council.

Special update: Some large industrial users are attempting to ‘opt out’ of Iowa’s efficiency programs, meaning they would stop contributing to the efficiency funds and stop using the programs. The Council’s view is that energy efficiency benefits all ratepayers, so all ratepayers should contribute. The first attempt by these companies to opt out has failed after they withdrew a petition at the Iowa Utilities Board to determine whether the IUB had the authority to allow an opt out. The Council, working with ELPC, strongly opposed this petition. We will be closely monitoring this issue at the IUB in future proceedings as well as at the legislature.