For years nearly 10 percent of electricity produced in Iowa came from the Duane Arnold Energy Center (DAEC), the nuclear reactor north of Palo. Now the reactor is gone for good. Its owner, NextEra, made the decision to close it. Even though more than 40 percent of our state’s electricity comes from clean wind power, most of the rest comes from natural gas and coal, which produces local air pollution and contributes to warming the planet.
The plant could have continued to produce carbon dioxide-free electricity for another five years at least. It was shut down early at a cost to Alliant Energy ratepayers of $110 million because it could not compete with brand-new wind-produced electricity or natural gas. Keeping it would have cost even more than Alliant paid to get out of its contract.
Although it is true that the Aug. 10 derecho and its 140 mph winds knocked out the cooling system at DAEC and put it out of commission, the plant already was scheduled to close just months later in October.
The economic calculation that closed the plant treated electricity from the DAEC the same as kilowatt-hours from a coal or natural gas plant. When it comes to global warming and local air pollution, they aren’t the same.
In Illinois, the state government decided that heading off climate damage and the loss of good union jobs was worth keeping nuclear plants there alive. The Democratic-controlled legislature and Republican governor forced Illinois ratepayers to pay more to keep nuclear reactors going.
Three states in addition to Illinois did something similar. Iowa did nothing. Bailouts for old nuclear plants are controversial; the votes are tough to round up — and the results mixed.
The bailout bill in Illinois was supported by nearly the entire environmental community, including groups that opposed nuclear power on principle. This was because the bailout greatly expanded solar power and ensured workers from lower income neighborhoods were able to install them. As the subsidies for the nuclear plants fade away the replacement power will come from new clean solar energy.
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The Ohio bailout bill, in contrast, was about as bad as it could get. State government eviscerated earlier established programs to boost renewable energy and energy efficiency and gave coal plants subsidies.
There was a way to keep the DAEC going for another five years, one that would have improved our environment. With smart planning, we could have gradually replaced the reactor’s capacity with new electricity generated from solar and wind over five years. Good jobs would have continued at the plant and new renewable energy jobs created. That could have happened, but it did not.
The challenge of climate change demands new ways of thinking if Iowa is to be part of the solution. With nuclear energy now off the table, a stronger commitment to clean, renewable power is essential.
David Osterberg is a former state legislator from Mount Vernon and is a senior researcher at Common Good Iowa. His 10-page paper that is the basis for these comments can be found here.