Iowa should watch, learn from neighbors on clean energy

Published in the Sioux City Journal, April 16, 2019

For decades, Iowa has rightfully taken pride in being a leader in clean energy nationally and in the Midwest. Iowa was the first state to establish a renewable portfolio standard in 1983. We produce some of the highest rates of wind energy per capita with roughly 37 percent of our electricity coming from wind.

But, in the last few years, signs are showing we may not hold that Midwest crown for long. Missouri, Wisconsin and Michigan were all in the top five states for growth in wind energy in 2017. And, record rates for solar growth are being set by neighboring Minnesota and Illinois. Minnesota has grown its installed solar power from one megawatt in 2008 to 882 megawatts in 2018. Most of this growth comes through community solar projects ranging in size from one to five megawatts following legislation clarifying investment rules which were passed in 2013. The legislation took a broad view of who could invest in a community solar garden — allowing renters and property owners, even those living in the shade, to invest in solar energy through a subscription.

Following passage of a major clean energy jobs bill in 2016, Illinois is projected to grow from 98 megawatts of solar to 2,000 megawatts in five years. Solar credits offered from the 2016 bill have been oversubscribed so heavily, the program is being revisited to ensure credits are spent fairly across rural and urban communities. Illinois continues to revisit and refine its initial commitment from 2016 through legislation as projects develop.

Meanwhile, in Iowa, declining prices for renewable energy projects and expiring federal tax credits for wind have resulted in expansive new projects. Transmission line upgrades have grown in tandem, helping to make a cleaner regional energy grid. But, broader visions for a clean energy future were largely absent from the governor’s election contest last year.

Legislative proposals looking to expand clean energy in Iowa have been modest and mostly placed on the back burner. Statewide standards for energy efficiency were rolled back in 2018 with passage of Senate File 2311. Annual tariffs for individuals and businesses with private solar or wind generation have been proposed in 2019 in Senate File 583 and House File 669. These regressive bills have put clean energy advocates on the defensive at a time when the market is competitive and ripe for new investments and growth. These bills could narrow and slow our renewable energy development in Iowa as the nation transitions to a clean energy economy.

Taking the lead on clean, renewable energy has become a partisan issue in Iowa’s polarized political landscape — it should not and does not have to be. Since 2018, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Illinois have announced their goals to expand their renewable energy portfolios and reduce carbon emissions. Wisconsin has proposed following the path of Hawaii and California in setting goals through legislation for 100 percent clean energy by 2045. Michigan, Minnesota and Illinois are following the lead of their governors to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050.

States are laboratories for democracy. Without alignment on these goals, Iowa could be left out of a Midwest alliance. After seven years, California is slowly beginning to invest the revenue generated from its cap-and-trade program into agricultural practices that sequester carbon. On the East Coast, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative has resulted in greater investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy upgrades. The Midwest could have its own regional focus by investing in infrastructure, agriculture and energy independence for rural communities.

In 50 years, we will look back to the lessons each state learned in transitioning to a clean energy economy. The insight and alliances will mark breakthroughs along this path which will last long into the future. Iowa would be wise to hold its strong renewable energy leadership position by revisioning where it wants to be in the future and introducing proactive policies to get there. And, that includes rejecting the current effort with House File 669 to charge annual fees for farmers, homeowners and businesses with private solar and wind generation.