Guest Columnist

Iowans: Learn from Teddy Roosevelt

A wind turbine and solar panels are seen at a farm in rural Monticello on Nov. 30, 2018. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
A wind turbine and solar panels are seen at a farm in rural Monticello on Nov. 30, 2018. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

In times like these, it is helpful to recall what our nation learned from the leadership of President Teddy Roosevelt. He was a great conservationist and protected land for recreation and habitat for species. He also went after trusts and monopolies because he knew they used their huge size to strangle other businesses.

Over a century later, Iowa could use that kind of leadership. Monopoly electric companies are attempting to strangle small businesses. Their monopoly status — and guaranteed profits — are only sanctioned because of the public benefit of efficiencies in the large-scale production and distribution of power.

Iowans are protected against abuse of that power because utilities are regulated by a state agency, the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB).

Utilities now are attacking that check on their power by going directly to the Legislature to kill small-scale competitors — small solar energy generators — that not only do not threaten them, but help the utilities.

Small customers who could not operate a coal plant can put up solar panels. Public policy currently promotes this, and MidAmerican Energy — for one — feels threatened. Even though only 750 of their 770,000 customers have solar panels on their property, MidAmerican wants this market to itself.

So now, MidAmerican is trying to bypass its IUB regulators by going to the Iowa Legislature to get what they want. MidAmerican’s approach is a job-killer for solar contractors, suppliers and a few manufacturers in the state.

Legislation the company is pushing — and that dark money from undisclosed sources is promoting with TV ads — would strip those small competitors of most of their market, reducing or even removing the financial benefits to people who chose to install solar panels.

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MidAmerican’s solution is effectively a tax on sunlight. Call it what you want, but it greatly reduces the incentive to freely generate electricity from a source nobody owns: the sun.

Customers with solar panels now can produce more electricity than they use — often at the highest-demand times, during the middle of a sunny day in the summer when electric prices are at their highest. They reduce utilities’ need to buy extra power at those high prices.

Currently, these customers are compensated for the excess energy they provide back to the grid at the same price they pay the electric monopoly. In contrast, MidAmerican’s legislative bills, HF 669 and SF 583, could charge extra fees, or cut compensation, to homeowners and businesses that have clean energy systems. This would make most solar projects cost-prohibitive.

The dark-money ads ignore the fact that already, clean-energy customers — like all customers — pay a fixed, mandatory and regulated fee each month. Each rate case, official regulators appointed by the governor determine the fair fee to be paid by all customers for lines, transformers and billing expenses. Already, they pay.

The utility strong-arming is not new. Last year, both MidAmerican and Alliant Energy successfully bypassed the IUB by dismantling Iowa’s energy-efficiency requirements rewarding customer purchases of more efficient refrigerators or light bulbs, or adding insulation. Those programs ended last month.

MidAmerican is using the same game plan: Avoid sensible, common-sense regulation to help all Iowans and convince legislators to unleash their monopoly power. This will destroy local small businesses who insulate homes or install solar panels.

Solar energy gives citizens control over part of their lives. Teddy Roosevelt would protect their freedom, not only to stop utilities’ bullying, but to enhance a pro-environment energy strategy.

• David Osterberg of Mount Vernon is lead environmental researcher for, and the co-founder of, the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. Comments: dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

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