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The game-changing spark Iowa's solar industry needs could be in Louisa County

Jul 16, 2019 at 7:30 am
    Moxie Solar foreman Tanner Williams of Iowa City installs a module in a 12-module solar array at a farm outside of Wellman on Monday, May 20, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

    Less than 1 percent of Central Iowa Power Cooperative’s energy comes from the sun, not all that rare in a state with less than 100 megawatts of installed solar.

    However, all that could change soon as CIPCO hopes next year to flip the switch on a solar project that essentially would double the state’s solar capacity.

    The Iowa Utilities Board in December approved plans to shut down Duane Arnold Energy Center in 2020, five years sooner than officials with CIPCO had anticipated, leaving the utility in need of a source of energy for the approximately 120 megawatts of power the utility receives from the state’s sole nuclear power facility — about one-third of the company’s 2018 energy portfolio.

    Bill Cherrier, executive vice president and chief executive officer of CIPCO, said the Des Moines-based utility looked to the sun for answers.

    “Say, a year ago, we really didn’t know where we would necessarily be going on solar, but we took advantage of the opportunity as it came about,” Cherrier recalled.

    Wapello Solar, a 800-acre, 100-megawatt solar project in Louisa County, easily would become the state’s largest solar installation and more than double the installed solar in Iowa.

    “We don’t have anything in Iowa that is to the scale of what we’re going to see out of this CIPCO project,” said Kerri Johannsen, energy program director with the Iowa Environmental Council. “It’s completely groundbreaking for the state of Iowa.”

    But Cherrier doubts CIPCO will hold onto that claim for very long.

    “I don’t think it was our goal to be the premier and, frankly, I don’t think we’re going to be the last, nor the biggest, on solar in Iowa,” he said.

    Cherrier is hardly alone in his prediction. Renewable energy advocates, economic development officials and solar photovoltaic installers across the state envision Iowa, known as a leader in the wind industry, as a prime location for a solar power surge.

    “Even in our current environment, even without specific climate goals and policy driving this nationally, we’re heading full steam in the right direction,” Johannsen said.

    History of renewable fuel in iowa

    Iowa’s status as a wind energy leader began with the 1983 adoption of a renewable portfolio standard, or RPS, the first of its kind in the nation.

    The Iowa RPS required the state’s two main utilities — now called MidAmerican Energy and Alliant Energy — to own or contract a combined total of 105 megawatts of renewable generating capacity, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.


    But it wasn’t until 1992, with the creation of the Federal Production Tax Credit, that Iowa began making strides in renewables, specifically wind. The credit — an inflation-adjusted, per-kilowatt-hour tax credit that provides credits for energy generated by qualified renewable sources such as wind — helped spur investment in turbines.

    Wind made up less than 1 percent of the power generated in Iowa in 1990. By 2016, that figure jumped to 37 percent of state generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a federal entity that tracks nationwide energy use.

    In the same time frame, coal — a fossil fuel commonly offset by renewable sources — dropped from 86 percent of the state’s electricity generation to almost half that, at 47 percent.

    Built on sprawling farms, wind turbines are much more suitable for utility-scale projects, whereas solar arrays often were built as small, rooftop installations on homes or businesses.

    The state’s two largest utilities have been the biggest investors in wind. MidAmerican Energy aims to produce 100 percent of its customers’ usage from wind, while Alliant Energy is aiming to generate 40 percent of its power needs from wind.

    But as wind power has flourished, Iowa’s solar portfolio has remained relatively meager — until recently.

    “For the foreseeable future we can expect to see wind remain cheaper, and it’s going to be the main source of renewable energy here. However, ... there really is a need to build out solar capacity,” Johannsen said.

    Brian Selinger, team leader of the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s Iowa Energy Office, said Iowa went from about two megawatts of solar in 2012 to 98 total megawatts at the end of last year.

    “You’re seeing growth year over year,” he said.

    On the cusp of growth

    Jason Hall, founder of North Liberty-based Moxie, a 10-year-old solar company, said the declining cost of solar — the price has dropped from about $8 per watt a decade ago to around $3 per watt — is a key reason for growing interest in solar arrays.


    “In 2008, there was no solar in Iowa. We didn’t do any,” Hall said, noting that the company’s primary function at the time was focused on energy-efficiency audits.

    By the end of 2019, Moxie will have completed more solar projects than the company has built in all previous years of operations combined, Hall said.

    U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics job projections for 2016 to 2026, updated this past month, list solar photovoltaic installer as the fastest-growing profession in the United States, with the position expected to grow by nearly 105 percent over that decade.

    There were about 11,300 solar installers in 2016, with the industry expected to reach close to 23,100 in 2026.

    While wind turbine technicians have dropped to the second-fastest growing profession in the nation, the industry is anticipated to grow from about 5,800 people in 2016 to 11,300 in 2026, marking an approximately 96 percent increase, according to the bureau.

    Hall said Moxie has grown from seven employees in fewer than five years to close to 100 — with the large majority of those employees in Iowa.

    What’s more, a growing push for applications of energy storage, such as with batteries, could further boost growth in renewables — essentially as a means of storing power for when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.

    “Storage paired with these renewable resources is really, we think, the next opportunity for Iowa,” Sellinger said.

    Uncertainty and potential

    Despite being strong proponents of wind power, the state’s two largest utilities have pushed back on small-scale solar in recent years, arguing that those installations put wear and tear on the overall grid and only benefit the owner.

    That puts a portion of the project’s cost on all customers, and not just those directly benefiting from the solar, officials have said.

    Earlier this year, a utility-backedsunshine tax” for homeowners, farmers and businesses that generate solar power was introduced in the Iowa Legislature.

    The bill would have allowed utilities to add a fee for when excess energy from a private solar panel goes into the grid.

    Supporters have argued the charges provide a savings for customers who don’t own solar. But proponents of renewables cautioned such a bill could kill the private solar-generation industry.

    While the bill ultimately failed, Moxie’s Hall said future iterations are inevitable.

    “Utility companies are always going to be the 800-pound gorillas, and us solar companies and providers are going to be kind of ants running around,” Hall said.

    But as installers such as Hall continue to put panels on rooftops, some in the industry view CIPCO’s 100-megawatt project as a game-changer, an example of a true, utility-scale solar application in Iowa.

    Boise-based Clénera will build and operate Wapello Solar, with CIPCO purchasing the energy for 25 years.

    Sellinger of the Iowa Energy Office said there’s a hope that Wapello Solar may act as a catalyst for future utility-scale solar in Iowa.

    “I think without a doubt you often see one significant, monumental and ambitious project sparks like projects coming behind it,” Sellinger said. “There are so many lessons learned from the CIPCO project.”

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