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Build solar energy capacity in Johnson County
Cheryl Miller and David Osterberg
Nov. 13, 2022 6:00 am
Over the next 10 years, hundreds of billions of dollars will flow to small businesses, nonprofits, government entities, and homeowners to combat climate change. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) aims to speed up the nation’s transition to clean energy by offering generous tax credits and cash-back rebates for solar panels, storage batteries, electric vehicles, energy efficient appliances and other upgrades. Importantly, it offers tax-exempt entities, such as government and nonprofit organizations, direct payment in lieu of tax credits.
The IRA contrasts to the earlier, so-called “infrastructure bill” focused on large systems (e.g., airports, drinking water systems, transmission lines). Instead, the IRA focuses on individual and community upgrades to reap the benefits of lower carbon emissions, reduced energy costs, and improved power reliability. With good planning, upgrading individual buildings can spread benefits to a whole community.
Solar energy is the linchpin of this strategy. Solar photovoltaic panels are modular units that can generate electricity virtually anywhere. In contrast to today’s highly-centralized energy systems, this “distributed generation,” combined with storage batteries, allows buildings to generate and store electricity, and — when the grid goes down — to disconnect and supply their own energy. A new technology, the microgrid, is a small network of users, such as hospital complexes or business districts, that generate, store, and use their own electricity when needed. The proliferation of distributed generation reduces the need for large investments in centralized supplies and transmission lines so vulnerable to extreme weather events.
How much distributed generation would make sense to a city considering its energy future? Professor James McCalley, distinguished professor of engineering at Iowa State University, spoke recently at a University of Iowa solar conference and emphasized the importance of diversifying the region’s energy system, and being smart about it.
He suggested that the way to think about distributed generation is, first, to plan backup solar energy for the most important buildings in a community (e.g., critical services, hospitals, emergency shelters), and for the most vulnerable. He also suggested that, based on projections of the nation’s energy supply in 2050, up to 10 percent of the region’s energy portfolio in distributed solar would be economically-sound in achieving diversity benefits. At present, only one-tenth of 1 percent of the U.S. electrical system is distributed generation. Iowa City and Johnson County have similar, woefully inadequate, percentages.
Earlier this year, Johnson Clean Energy District and the University of Iowa’s Initiative for Sustainable Communities submitted a report to Iowa City urging that investments in distributed solar be increased. Iowa City Solar 2035 proposes diversifying the city’s existing portfolio with stand-alone solar projects to protect critical infrastructure (fire, police, emergency services and shelters, etc) and increase access to low-income households, renters, and others without solar-suitable buildings. The report calls for a ten-year program to build out a distributed generation infrastructure in neighborhoods throughout the city.
A 2021 poll taken of Iowa City residents found very high levels of support for action to prevent climate change. This mirrors high bipartisan support in national polls on the need for government action. As the new IRA legislation rolls out, we’d like Johnson County residents to know about opportunities now becoming available to them. A series of free “solar energy breakfasts” will be held at MERGE in downtown Iowa City over the coming months. To learn more, go to the Johnson Clean Energy District website: https://johnsoncleanenergydistrict.org/events-2/energy-breakfasts/
Cheryl Miller is a board member of the newly formed Johnson Clean Energy District in Iowa City. David Osterberg, former Iowa state legislator from Mt. Vernon.
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