Staff Editorial

Warnings of Iowa energy-related conflicts come to fruition

Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, speaks during a news conference where then-Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the state-wide Iowa Energy Plan under the Rotunda at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa, on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, speaks during a news conference where then-Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the state-wide Iowa Energy Plan under the Rotunda at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa, on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Iowans now are seeing the ramifications of legislative decisions to repeal the state’s 27-year commitment to public-centered research and advocacy for energy efficiency, and it isn’t a pretty picture.

The switch began a few years ago as the then-newly appointed head of the Iowa Utilities Board overstepped state authority to withhold funding to the Iowa Energy Center, which was created by the Legislature in 1990 and housed at Iowa State University. The mission of the Energy Center was primarily centered on less dependence on foreign energy and overall efficiency. The funds, which later were released, were held as part of a power play, with the Iowa Utilities Board demanding more detailed information about research and other grant projects funded by the Energy Center and over which the Iowa Utilities Board had no oversight authority.

Fast forward to last year when Iowa State University issued a statement supporting transfer of the politically-insulated Iowa Energy Center to the Branstad-Reynolds administration. Because the Energy Center’s affiliation with ISU was written into state code, transfer to the executive branch for placement with a state agency required legislative action. And, at the time of ISU’s announcement, no such bill had been introduced. It soon followed and was quickly signed into law.

The Iowa Energy Center was folded into the existing Iowa Energy Office at the Iowa Economic Development Authority despite warnings that the mission of the center would be rendered ineffective within a pro-industry environment. Such warnings were bolstered when Iowa’s two largest utilities supported the move. Lawmakers simply rewrote the mission.

Transfer of the Energy Center, which is funded by a percentage of utility company profits, also included a complete sunset of the organization in July 2022. The date may as well have been last year.

Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, told lawmakers this week that her office is cherry-picking which members of the legislature receive research information from the energy office. Although presented by Durham as an effort to get information into the hands of lawmakers that are currently reviewing proposals, comments by lawmakers made clear that the energy office is limiting its research to lawmakers perhaps perceived as supportive of proposals supported by the energy industry.

“I’ve have not heard one word,” said Rep. Bob Kressig, D-Cedar Falls, who serves on the House Commerce Committee that will soon vote on Study Bill 545. Rep. Gary Carlson, R-Muscatine, also on the committee, said he has received information from the department.

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The bill, a companion to a proposal passed by a Senate committee, would allow utility companies to take more control of some rule-making procedures as well as make changes in energy efficiency requirements and emission standards.

These proposals, as well as any compromise language brokered by Durham and the IEDA, could very well be in the best interest of Iowans and utility companies. They could be solutions tied to the Iowa Energy Plan released in December 2016 and championed by Gov. Kim Reynolds. But without rigorous vetting by fully informed lawmakers, we’ll never know.

Nearly 30 years ago there was a reason the General Assembly chose to create an Energy Center outside the reach of government and as far as possible from close industry ties formed within economic development offices. That reason still exists today.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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