116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Future utilities will use 100 percent renewable energy. But how soon?
‘If we want that by the 2030 timeline, we have to start today’
We all want the lights to turn on when we flip the switch and to have heat when there’s a blizzard and air conditioning during a heat wave.
But American utility companies, including those in Iowa, are facing increasing pressure to slash greenhouse gas emissions in hopes of preventing the worst effects of global climate change.
Alliant Energy, which serves Iowa and Wisconsin, has set a goal of net zero carbon emissions from the electricity the company generates by 2050. MidAmerican Energy, with customers in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and South Dakota, already generates more than 80 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.
But environmental advocates say we need 100 percent renewable, like, yesterday. Or at least by 2030 or 2035.
“This has to be aggressive in terms of overturning our energy infrastructure,” said Steve Guyer, energy and climate policy specialist for the Iowa Environmental Council.
Electricity generation in the United States in 2019 resulted in 1.72 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, which equaled about 0.92 pounds of CO2 emissions per kilowatt-hour of energy produced, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Power plants that burn coal, natural gas and petroleum fuels produced about 62 percent of total U.S. electricity in 2019, but accounted for 99 percent of U.S. CO2 emissions, the administration reported. The agency considers electricity from renewable sources, including wind, solar, hydro and biomass, to be carbon neutral.
Boosting renewable energy is the game plan for most utilities, but how will we get there? And are there other ideas aside from putting up more wind turbines and solar panels?
Wind and solar
Iowa generated about 60 percent of its electricity through wind in 2020, with the 34,145 megawatt hours coming from wind turbines in Iowa up 30 percent from 26,301 megawatt hours in 2019, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Some Iowa counties have made it harder to build wind turbines, citing concerns of people who live near the towers who don’t like the way the blades create strobe-like flickering in their homes and interrupt the agricultural views.
A 2019 report by the University of Iowa College of Public Health, Iowa Policy Project and the Iowa Environmental Council said that while the spinning blades might be “annoying,” they do not cause negative health effects, such as headaches or seizures.
Iowa has nearly 5,900 wind turbines, with companies continuing wind projects even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some Iowa counties have made it harder to build wind turbines there, citing the concerns of people who live near the towers who don’t like the way the blades create strobe-like flickering in their homes and interrupt the agricultural views.
A 2019 report by the University of Iowa College of Public Health, Iowa Policy Project and the Iowa Environmental Council said that while the spinning blades might be “annoying” they do not cause negative health effects, such as headaches or seizures.
“I would hope that as a state we would start to transition a little more to larger-scale solar, which I don’t think will have as many attributes that people don’t like,” Guyer said. “They don’t have any flicker issue. There are those in the state who don’t like them (solar farms), but there’s enough of the state where there are areas where people won’t mind them.”
While it’s hard to miss wind turbines rising dozens of stories in the air, solar farms can be shielded from view with berms, trees or grasses, Guyer said.
Solar amounts for less than 1 percent of Iowa’s net electricity generation, but it’s warming up. Here are just three examples:
- Alliant opened a 2.5 megawatt solar system last year in Marshalltown as part of its plan to have 400 megawatts of solar by 2023.
- MidAmerican plans to purchase a 100 megawatt solar development in Webster County. That development could power about 17,600 Iowa homes, the company reported in December.
- Idaho-based Clenera will build a 100-megawatt solar farm outside Coggon by 2022 and sell its power to the Central Iowa Power Cooperative, or CIPCO, through a 25-year deal.
As utilities shift to renewables, they are retiring coal-fired power plants. Alliant is closing its coal-fired Lansing generating station by the end of 2022, said Mayuri Farlinger, Alliant’s director of operations. An Alliant generating station in Burlington will switch from coal to natural gas by the end of this year, she said.
“We are expanding our renewable resources and moving toward a cleaner energy mix,” Farlinger said. “That’s based on our customers requesting that for us and because it’s the right thing to do for the environment.”
MidAmerican’s Green Advantage Program, launched in 2017, allows Iowa customers to claim a verified renewable energy amount to help them reach sustainability goals. Sukup Manufacturing, an Iowa-based maker of grain storage bins, bragged on Facebook in 2018 that more than half its energy was from renewable sources, thanks to the Green Advantage program.
Some Iowa customers want to move faster than the investor-owned utilities.
In 2018, Decorah residents very narrowly voted down a plan for the city to take over electric utilities from Alliant. The battle was over electric rates and many residents’ desire to put more renewable energy on the grid through wind and solar.
The Decorah City Council voted in December to create a municipal electric activity task force to study the issue, do community outreach and ultimately recommend whether the city should hold another referendum, said Carly Hayden Foster, a Luther College political science professor and chair of the task force.
“It’s not our job to push forward and go toward that goal, but to be a fact-finding organization,” she said. “There hasn’t been a municipal electric utility here, but they are not that radical of an idea.”
Municipals remain strong
Iowa has 136 municipal electric utilities, ranging from tiny towns of a few hundred residents to the larger cities of Ames, Muscatine and Cedar Falls. That number has stayed the same as long as Troy DeJoode, executive director of the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities, can remember — and he doesn’t see it changing.
“People value local control,” he said. “It’s not just local choices on generation, which I think was probably a big part of (the) Decorah (referendum). They wanted a say on renewables. But it’s also local decision making on rates.”
Cedar Falls Utilities is a municipal utility offering electricity, water, natural gas and telecommunications. The utility also has an electric vehicle charging station, which General Manager Steve Bernard thinks will become more common for utilities in the future.
Nearly 40 percent of CFU’s electricity is renewable, mostly wind, Bernard said. The utility installed a 1.5 megawatt solar project in 2016, paying for the project with subscriptions from more than 1,200 residents and businesses. Customers who purchased Simple Solar units receive a utility bill credit based on output from the panels.
“A lot of customers wanted to buy into this thing,” Bernard said. But “if customers didn’t want to participate in it, we didn’t want to put that on the back of all rate payers.”
Bernard sees the main challenge for municipal and investor-owned utilities as switching to renewables while maintaining reliability. “You still have to plan your system for those circumstances when the renewable energy isn’t able to produce.”
Many Iowans have wondered, while driving down an Iowa highway, why some wind turbines aren’t turning. Those machines aren’t broken; they’ve been powered down because there’s a surplus of energy at that time and nowhere to store it for later use.
If utilities could store energy, they could use it during “peak” hours rather than having to buy more expensive energy off the grid.
“To support these renewable resources, we’re going to have to have storage mechanisms,” Guyer said.
Storage can come in the form of massive batteries installed with wind or solar facilities.
Alliant put in a $2.5 million battery system in Decorah earlier this year to store renewable energy and regulate voltage. The pilot project, partially funded with state and federal grants, is intended to test the feasibility of battery installation and battery life span. Batteries now are lithium ion — ideal for storing energy for 12 to 24 hours but in the future they might be zinc or sodium.
Another storage strategy is using renewable energy to power the electrolysis of water, creating what’s called green hydrogen.
“All you have is water vapor, no pollutants,” the Iowa Environmental Council’s Guyer said. “The turbine manufacturers are looking at this. Even the natural gas companies. They view it as a way they can keep their existing infrastructure, but reduce overall carbon output.”
Guyer doesn’t think batteries or hydrogen will be the final answer for energy storage, but they are good transitions.
Utilities and the communities they serve are vulnerable during storms because strong winds can fell trees and pull down above-ground power lines. More than 130,000 customers in Linn and Johnson counties lost power after the Aug. 10, 2020, derecho tore a horizontal swath through the state. Alliant replaced 3,400 power poles in the wake of the storm.
At the end of 2020, Alliant had about 18 percent of its power lines underground.
“Our preference is to bury power lines underground when we can,” Alliant’s Farlinger said. Not only are those lines better protected from high winds, they make operations “more affordable in maintain in the long term, reducing costs associated with tree trimming and animal control that needs to be done to prevent outages.”
It’s too expensive to bury 200,000 miles of power lines, Farlinger said. But, in some cases, underground is more cost-effective.
A high-voltage transmission line proposed from Mason City to Yorkville, Ill., would be buried underground instead of passing on aboveground lines. The 349-mile SOO Green HVDC Link uses a new technology that conducts electricity along a rubber-based cable that is easy to splice, according to a March 30 article by the Energy News Network.
The line carrying 2,100 megawatts would follow the Mississippi River for about 100 miles, then head east to Yorkville, southwest of Chicago. It would follow the Canadian Pacific Railway, which has granted the Direct Connect Development Co. use of its railroad right of way. So far, public hearings have not turned out much opposition to the plans, the Energy News Network reported.
“When they compared the cost of undergrounding to overhead scenario, it was actually a little cheaper” to go underground, Guyer said. He predicts Iowa will see more high-voltage transmission lines.
A new superstructure?
When Texas was hit with a February ice storm, the state’s electric operator lost control of the power supply and millions of people didn’t have power, some for days.
That storm sparked fresh conversations about a major transformation of the nation’s energy grid.
Those conversations include “looking at the country as a whole, creating this superstructure on top of existing structure so we have the ability to be more resilient and handle these storms so we don’t have another Texas,” Guyer said.
This energy superstructure would be a little like the interstate highway system, authorized in 1956. The interstate system layered federal roads — often bigger and better — over the existing network of streets and highways to make it easier for motorists to move from state to state.
But it comes down to regional attitudes and states’ rights and whether there’s enough will to cooperate. And enough government incentive. President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal may include some funding for energy infrastructure, Guyer said.
“If the average length of time to construct one transmission line is 10 years, that’s a long time,” Guyer said. “There’s a lot of push out there to accelerate that. If we want that by the 2030 timeline, we have to start today.”
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