Energy centers got their money from the Iowa Utilities Board this year

During the first week of December 2015, an unexpected political scandal went out with a whimper as the Iowa Energy Center and the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research finally received the remittances the Iowa Utilities Board had collected on their behalf from gas and electric utility companies. For many years, the board had transferred those funds without incident, as stipulated by state law. But in her first year as Iowa Utilities Board chair, Geri Huser took the “unusual, perhaps illegal, step of withholding funding […].”

Huser’s power play was aimed at the Iowa Energy Center affiliated with Iowa State University. (Its leaders denied her unsupported claim that they had refused to provide sufficient financial information to the board.) Because funds for both centers are calculated and released at the same time, the unprecedented board action also delayed resources for the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa. Huser backed down a week after Ryan Foley of the Associated Press exposed the controversy to a wider audience.

Having heard nothing about the energy centers’ funding lately, I reached out this week to Iowa Utilities Board communications director Don Tormey. He sent documents showing that in accordance with the usual formula for splitting the remittances, the board disbursed $4,123,150.49 to the Iowa Energy Center and $727,614.79 to the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research. The board sent warrants (paper checks) using regular mail, as had happened in 2015 for reasons I still don’t understand. Before last year, the board typically transmitted those funds via wire transfer.

Communications staff at the state universities confirmed that the energy centers received checks in the mail last month for $4,123,150.49 and $727,614.79, respectively. Those totals comprise the remittances from utility companies but not the interest accrued on those funds. John McCarroll of Iowa State University noted, “In the letter with the check, IUB said they will be forward[ing] the interest payment in June 2017 as they close out the fiscal year. This is how they handled the interest in 2016.”

The board has faced criticism on other fronts this year after approving the Dakota Access (Bakken) pipeline and allowing its construction to commence this summer, when Dakota Access did not have all applicable federal permits. Pending lawsuits are challenging the board’s authority to use eminent domain for the pipeline, saying a 2006 Iowa law does not allow a company that isn’t a utility to condemn farmland. It would have been foolish for Huser to stir up more trouble by flexing her muscles at the energy centers’ expense again. Also possibly relevant: former Iowa Energy Center executive director Mark Petri, with whom Huser had tangled, left Ames this summer to take a new job as director of the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Branstad urged Army Corps to give last green light for Bakken pipeline

Governor Terry Branstad denied in September that he’s a friend to Big Oil interests seeking to build the Dakota Access (Bakken) pipeline across four states, including Iowa.

But in a move his office did not announce last week, Branstad joined North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple and South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard to urge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers not to delay approval of the final federal easement needed to complete the pipeline.

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Two Iowans among "40 Under 40" Midwestern clean energy leaders

The non-profit news site Midwest Energy News has honored two Iowans on its second annual 40 Under 40 list of “emerging leaders” working on “America’s transition to a clean energy economy.” From last week’s announcement:

Erin Buchanan works as an Energy Services Coordinator for Cedar Falls Utilities in Cedar Falls, Iowa. In 2011, Buchanan was named a “rising star in public power” by the American Public Power Association. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, with a B.S. in mathematical decision sciences. She also holds an M.S. in statistics from Iowa State University. […]

Josh Mandelbaum is a Des Moines-based staff attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC). Before joining ELPC, Mandelbaum practiced law with Lane & Waterman LLP in Davenport, Iowa. He previously served as a senior policy advisor to Iowa Governor Thomas J. Vilsack and Lt. Governor Sally J. Pederson. Before his work in the Governor’s office, Mandelbaum held a fellowship at the U.S. Department of Transportation in the Secretary’s Policy Office. Mandelbaum is a 2000 Truman Scholar, a 2001 magna cum laude graduate of Brown University, and a 2009 honors graduate from the University of Iowa College of Law.

I wasn’t familiar with Buchanan’s work before learning about this award. I was impressed to see all the resources Cedar Falls Utilites provides for customers seeking to use less energy, purchase wind-generated electricity, buy units in a community-owned solar garden, or install small-scale wind or solar systems.

I’ve known Mandelbaum for many years and am an active supporter of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. The non-profit’s legal team has contributed to major public policy victories in the renewable energy field, from a solar power case that went to the Iowa Supreme Court to mostly below-the-radar battles with intransigent rural electric cooperatives and investor-owned utilities Alliant and MidAmerican. Mandelbaum and his colleagues have also been involved in important water policy fights, such as a 2014 Iowa Supreme Court case that kept state “anti-degradation” rules alive. Earlier this year, an Iowa District Court ruled in favor of ELPC’s lawsuit on behalf of the Iowa Environmental Council, seeking to force the state Department of Natural Resources to enforce those rules, “an important part of the [federal] Clean Water Act.”

Iowans Paritosh Kasotia and Dwight Stewart were part of the first Midwest Energy News 40 Under 40 cohort last year.

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