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Fact Checker: Are MidAmerican coal plants ‘not needed’ in Iowa?
Renewable energy is one of the fastest growing energy sources in the United States, in part driven by shifting consumer priorities as concerns about climate change continue to increase.
Energy providers have shifted their business models to push renewable sources in recent years, but for some advocacy groups, that effort isn’t growing fast enough.
In an April Fools’ Day-themed commercial that began airing in Iowa at the start of this month, an Iowa environmental group called on Des Moines-based MidAmerican Energy Company to close down its coal plants in Iowa within the next decade.
The group funding the ad is the Iowa Environmental Council, an advocacy coalition made up of individuals, businesses, nonprofits and local government agencies including solid waste authorities and conservation boards.
The group is also part of the larger Clean Up MidAm Coalition that is leading the campaign calling on MidAmerican to close its coal burning facilities. Other coalition members include the Environmental Law and Policy Center, Sierra Club, Clean Energy Districts of Iowa and Iowa Interfaith Power and Light.
A few members of this coalition also filed a lawsuit against the Iowa Utilities Board last year for failing to consider closure of MidAmerican coal plants when approving the company’s annual emissions and budget plans.
We’ll check three statements made in the 30-second ad.
“While touting a 100 percent renewable energy vision, they’re secretly operating one of the largest coal fleets in the country.”
MidAmerican Energy operates five coal plants within Iowa.
The units generated annually vary between these plants — ranging from 584.1 megawatts at George Neal North in Sergeant Bluff and 922.5 megawatts at Water Scott 4 in Council Bluffs, according to the Energy Information Administration within the U.S. Department of Energy.
In total, these plants created 3,740 megawatts of coal-generated power. That places MidAmerican as the 16th largest operator among the 188 utilities that operate coal plants in the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration.
These plants aren’t exactly a secret, as the ad describes.
However, it is true MidAmerican has spent considerable effort over the years touting its goals to source 100 percent of its energy to customers from renewable energy. The company stated on its website that 83.6 percent of customers in Iowa received energy needs through wind and other renewable sources.
Earlier this year, the company also announced a $3.9 billion investment to further develop wind and solar energy production by late 2024.
But according to environmental advocacy groups behind the ad, which provided sourcing to the Fact Checker, the energy company’s advertisements of renewable energy efforts “does not contain an asterisk about MidAmerican’s continued operation of these five coal plants in Iowa with no retirement dates.”
However, a company spokesman told Axios last year that MidAmerican has plans to close its five Iowa-based coal plants by 2049. In addition, the same spokesman told Iowa Public Radio the company has retired four “coal units” between 2015 and 2020.
This claim earns a B.
“This coal generation is all excess and not needed to serve Iowa customers.”
The group’s sourcing pointed to federal regulatory filings that showed the company reported more than 26.5 million megawatt hours to MidAmerican customers in 2020.
Data from those filings shows energy generated from sources besides coal — including wind, nuclear and methane gas — was enough to meet consumer demand for that year.
Therefore, all 7.2 million megawatt hours of energy generated by coal in 2020 was excess, Iowa environmental groups argued.
MidAmerican seems to agree these sources can meet the need, based on its claims to go 100 percent renewable. But in the meantime, the company has stated it will “continue to use its natural gas, nuclear and coal-fueled plants to ensure reliable electric service even in times of low wind,” according to a 2018 advertisement in the Des Moines Register.
Data does seem to indicate MidAmerican could operate without the help of coal-powered plants, but it doesn’t support the claim that coal generation is “excess” or “not needed,” given that the company relies on these plants to keep up a reliable power system in Iowa. This claim gets a D.
“Iowans are forced to pay $1.2 billion to keep MidAmerican’s coal plants running so Warren Buffett can make more money.”
This part of the ad references MidAmerican’s parent company, Berkshire Hathaway, a multibillion dollar conglomerate holding company owned by Warren Buffett.
The Clean Up MidAm Coalition pointed to a December 2021 analysis by Synapse Energy — which was commissioned by the Iowa Environmental Council along with the Sierra Club and the Environmental Law and Policy Center.
The analysis, which used available federal data, states that retiring Midamerican’s existing coal plants in Iowa over the next 10 years and replacing those energy sources with solar or wind would save ratepayers “approximately $1.2 billion between now and 2040.”
Researchers came to that conclusion by studying costs of continued operation of MidAmerican coal plants, such as the cost to maintain aging coal plants. By comparing that to projected costs under scenario of 100 percent renewable energy generation in Iowa, the analysis concluded the difference came to nearly $1.2 billion.
Other reports have shown the cost of wind and solar energy is competitive with the cost of coal, nuclear and other non-renewable sources. The annual Levelized Cost of Energy from Lazard show renewables fell below the cost of coal in 2018, and have continued to drop into 2019, according to Forbes.
The group also pointed to a 2020 report from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which showed MidAmerican sold about 11.2 million megawatt hours to other utilities. That’s about 29 percent of its total generated energy that year, bringing the company $124.3 million in revenue, according to the report.
The environmental advocacy groups behind the ad do have the data to back up that particular $1.2 billion figure, and other sources agree that renewable energy costs less than coal. However, this statement fails to recognize the time and investment to build a renewable energy infrastructure, which MidAmerican has made strides toward in recent years.
This statement earns an B.
International climate leaders have designated climate change as a global emergency, and it's no surprise much of that effort has focused on ending coal-powered plants. Scientists say coal-fired plans are the single largest contributor to climate change, making up 30 percent of all global carbon dioxide emissions and accounting for more than 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from the worldwide electricity sector.
At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, about 40 countries pledged to phase out coal plants in the near future. However, some of the countries with the world’s biggest production of coal — including the United States — did not sign the commitment.
The Biden Administration has rejoined the Paris Agreement and taken other steps to tackle the climate crisis in the United States, but without steps to roll back coal plants specifically. So groups like the Iowa Environmental Council have taken direct aim at companies operating these plants nationwide.
The 30-second ad airing in Iowa this week does miss some key context for its claims about MidAmerican, but also has the data to back it up the financial impact of maintaining coal operations.
The claims in the environmental group’s commercial garnered two Bs, and a D, which averages to a C.
The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate or officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in ads that appear in our market.
Claims must be independently verifiable. We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.
If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at email@example.com.
Members of the Fact Checker team are Elijah Decious, Erin Jordan, Marissa Payne and Michaela Ramm. This Fact Checker was researched and written by Michaela Ramm.