Last week, Alliant Energy announced it would retire its coal-fired Lansing Generating Station by the end of 2022 and convert its coal-fired Burlington Generating Station to natural gas in 2021. Alliant will add 400 megawatts of solar by 2023 and up to 100 megawatts of distributed generation (smaller-scale solar and batteries) by 2026.
Alliant’s decisions are a win for Iowans in several ways: customers will save money, and Alliant will reduce harmful air pollution, solid waste filled with heavy metals, and greenhouse gas emissions.
The Iowa Environmental Counsel and Environmental Law & Policy Center argued in Alliant’s controversial 2019 rate case that the monopoly utility was forcing customers to pay more than they should. Old coal plants are expensive to operate, and cheaper renewable energy is readily available. As part of a settlement in the case, Alliant agreed to undertake a “resource planning process.” That process required Alliant to consider the cost-effectiveness of its electric generation fleet and to plan for the future. It tested whether the costs of the existing plants exceed the expense to build new renewable generation.
Alliant said the Lansing retirement will benefit customers by saving money — $300 million over 35 years. The retirement also reduces harmful air emissions from the power plants, such as 250,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide and the carbon dioxide equivalent of 100,000 cars. The replacement solar generation, in contrast, will have zero emissions. Lansing and Burlington both have toxic coal ash waste disposal sites that will be closed, with huge quantities of additional dangerous coal ash waste avoided through the early retirement and conversion. Solar, of course, does not produce any ash.
This is progress, but we still have a long way to go. We will still have more than 90 percent of today’s state coal capacity operating in 2023. Natural gas still produces carbon emissions and we have many gas plants. Economics are driving the transition to renewable energy: wind and solar costs have declined enough that they out-compete fossil fuels, even though fossil fuels have significant pollution costs that aren’t directly accounted for. We could save significant money by transitioning to 90 percent carbon-free energy by 2035.
The environmental disasters we faced this year — a significant drought, a catastrophic derecho — show the urgency of avoiding the more devastating consequences that will accompany increased climate change. We don’t have time to wait for every coal plant to mark its 45th year of operation — the age of the Lansing coal plant when it will finally be retired.
Alliant and MidAmerican need to step up to address their coal generation. Alliant’s announcement is progress, but we need to tackle the remaining assets soon to minimize climate impacts. MidAmerican is one of few major utilities in the country without a target date to stop burning coal — not one of the five coal plants it operates has a retirement date.
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Our groups are engaged in regulatory efforts to clean up our power. IEC has a grassroots effort through 100% Iowa to build support for clean energy. We know we can get there, but it will take continued pressure on Alliant and MidAmerican to retire their dirty, expensive coal habit.
Michael Schmidt is staff attorney for the Iowa Environmental Council. Josh Mandelbaum is senior attorney for the Environmental Law & Policy Center.