Regent: University of Iowa utilities talks involve cutting coal faster

'That's been discussed'

Steam rises from the University of Iowa Power Plant in Iowa City on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Steam rises from the University of Iowa Power Plant in Iowa City on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Although University of Iowa students say they haven’t heard back from President Bruce Harreld regarding their demands he immediately halt coal burning on campus, Regent David Barker on Thursday told Iowa City-area leaders that ramping up environmental goals has been part of UI talks with potential utilities operators.

“That’s been discussed,” the Board of Regents’ newest member Barker told the Iowa City Noon Rotary Club, conceding the UI administration still hasn’t decided whether to partner with a private firm to operate its $1 billion utilities system.

But, Barker said, “My understanding is that some of the private operators might actually move to eliminate coal faster than the University of Iowa was planning on doing originally.”

UI for years has touted a goal of being coal-free by 2025, but a group of student activists recently penned an open letter to Harreld demanding he revamp “outdated sustainability practices and goals, especially in regards to the nearly century-old coal-burning and natural gas-burning power plant.”

Harreld hasn’t responded to that letter or to those students, who also have expressed concern with the UI proposal to partner with a private entity for its power operation.

But Barker explained Thursday the need for UI and Iowa’s other regent schools to find creative revenue sources — as state support has waned while tuition rates have surged. Tuition today accounts for a much larger share of higher education funding than appropriations, where the opposite once was true, even as Iowans demand affordability and accessibility at their public universities.

“The idea is to lease the power plant to a private company, allow them to operate it, preserving the jobs that we have there — all those employees will work either for the university or for the company coming in,” Barker said. “That company would sell us the power and operate on a 50-year lease.”

In exchange for the promise of decades of stable revenue, the private partner would pay UI a large upfront sum the university could invest in an endowment that would yield annual dividends.

“That endowment would support the core mission and goals and the strategic plan at the university,” Barker said, acknowledging it’s a non-traditional path that other universities also are trying.

“We’ve got quite a job here to maintain these world class institutions in a small state, so we need to be looking for new ways of funding it,” he said. “We won’t be able to rely on state support, that seems to be declining over time, and Iowans want to keep tuition at affordable levels.

“So we need to be looking at programs like this.”

Barker noted the university remains in its exploratory phase — although Harreld earlier this month said that phase was in its final stages. Harreld declined to answer follow-up questions from The Gazette, and the university hasn’t yet publicly released a request for proposals it said would help narrow its candidate pool — which started with inquiries from more than 100 firms and shrunk down to 16 bids over the summer.

An initial timeline of the process has the UI signing an agreement late this fall.

“I think you’ll see the results of that exploration fairly soon and a decision about whether we’ll move forward,” Barker said.

While Barker was sharing about the prospect of a partnership that could move up UI’s green goals, the “Iowa City Climate Strikers” seeking a “Town-Gown Climate Accord” were planning another climate strike for Friday — this one Halloween-themed as the “Nightmare on Burlington Street.”

“Every day the university delays on ending coal in the power plant is a day that the university released unacceptable levels of CO2 emissions, toxic particulates, and continues a deadly mining industry,” Alex Howe, a co-founder of the climate strike, said in a statement.

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