Three reasons Geri Huser should not have picked the fight the Iowa Utilities Board just lost

Geri Huser photo Geri_D._Huser_-_Official_Portrait_-_83rd_GA_zpszhoxeda1.jpg

The Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) announced yesterday that it "has started the process to transfer funds earmarked for the Iowa Energy Center (IEC) at Iowa State University and the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER) at the University of Iowa." The retreat came less than a week after a spokesperson had insisted, "The board will disburse the funds when they are satisfied (the centers) have answered all the board’s questions."

Restoring the flow of money means the centers charged with promoting alternative energy and efficiency and "interdisciplinary research on the many aspects of global environmental change" no longer face possible staff layoffs or program cuts. But yesterday’s climb-down won’t erase the damage done by IUB Chair Geri Huser’s unwise and unprecedented decision to withhold funding, in the absence of any legal authority to do so. She miscalculated in three ways.

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Iowa Utilities Board Chair Geri Huser's disturbing power play

In an unprecedented and "perhaps illegal" step, Iowa Utilities Board Chair Geri Huser is "withholding funding from the state’s renewable energy research center until its leaders satisfy her questions about its programs and finances," Ryan Foley reported today for the Associated Press.

Huser’s overreach reflects a serious misunderstanding of her role as a member of the Iowa Energy Center’s advisory council. Her power play also raises questions about why Huser would go to such extraordinary lengths to disrupt activities at a center that has been promoting energy efficiency, conservation, and renewable technologies for nearly 25 years.

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Pella Electric Cooperative drops discriminatory charge for solar users

The Pella Electric Cooperative has told the Iowa Utilities Board it will no longer seek to charge some customers using solar panels a much higher "facilities fee," Karen Uhlenhuth reported today for Midwest Energy News. The rural electric cooperative had informed members in June that customers installing new solar panels after August 15 would be charged a monthly fee of $85, which is $57.50 higher than what most of the Pella Electric customers pay. Those who had already installed solar systems would be exempt from the higher fee for five years, but would have to start paying it in 2020.

The cooperative’s action provoked an outcry from renewable energy advocates as well as from the handful of Pella Electric customers who would have been immediately affected. Uhlenhuth noted that the non-profit Environmental Law & Policy Center intervened with the Iowa Utilities Board, saying “a fee levied only on customers with distributed generation facilities ran counter to two provisions in Iowa law.” The Office of Consumer Advocate (part of the Iowa Attorney General’s office) asked the cooperative to provide data supporting a much higher monthly fee for solar users. The cooperative had refused to release its “cost of service” study last month.

To all appearances, the coop backed down once leaders realized they were on shaky legal ground, much like Alliant Energy reversed its position on net metering for some solar projects, shortly after critics had intervened with the utilities board. Uhlenhuth quoted a statement released by the Pella cooperative, which sounds like an unconvincing attempt to save face. The coop’s chief executive officer John Smith claimed it is “incorrect” to depict the higher facilities fee as “discriminatory.” He is sticking to his story that charging solar users more was merely an effort to be “fair” to other customers. While not admitting that the cooperative was wrong, the statement said it is withdrawing the proposal “until such time that we can better educate our members and the community as to the fair and equitable recovery of fixed costs.”

A press release from the Environmental Law & Policy Center, which I enclose in full below, notes that the Pella cooperative already benefits from solar panels installed by its customers, because it “buys excess solar energy at a rock bottom price” of 3.3 cents per kilowatt-hour and “sells it at a premium” price of 10.1 cents per kWh. (I’m an active supporter of the ELPC, but I have no role in drafting their public statements or legal strategy.)

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Pella Electric Cooperative trying to discourage customers from installing solar or wind

Solar power made big news in Iowa today, as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke in Des Moines about ambitious goals for installing solar panels. In a forthcoming post, Bleeding Heartland will compare the Democratic presidential candidates’ proposals to combat climate change by increasing renewable energy production and decreasing carbon emissions.

Iowa has tremendous potential to generate electricity from the sun. Recognizing that fact, large bipartisan majorities in the Iowa House and Senate “triple[d] the size of Iowa’s successful solar tax incentive program” in 2014 and during this year’s session increased available solar energy tax incentive funds by another $500,000 to $5 million per year.

But some segments of the utilities sector have been slow to embrace solar power. One of Iowa’s major investor-owned utilities persuaded the Iowa Utilities Board to block certain financing arrangements that made it easier for customers to install solar panels. An appeal of that administrative decision went to the Iowa Supreme Court, which overturned the Iowa Utilities Board last year.

Rural electric cooperatives, which supply electricity to roughly 650,000 Iowans, have approached renewable energy and solar power in vastly different ways. Farmers Electric Cooperative in the Kalona area installed the largest solar farm in Iowa last year.  

But as first reported by Karen Uhlenhuth at Midwest Energy News last week, the Pella Electric Cooperative is seeking to penalize customers who choose to install new solar or other renewable technology. Lee Rood picked up the story on the front page of today’s Des Moines Register. The cooperative’s new monthly charge for a handful of consumers is brazen and probably illegal.  

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No single issue is worth risking the Iowa Senate majority

Shortly before the end of this year’s legislative session, former State Representative Ed Fallon announced "political action" to stop the proposed Bakken Oil Pipeline. He warned that if the Iowa House and Senate did not approve a bill to block the use of eminent domain for the project, he would organize and fundraise "to help defeat one or two Democratic Senators and one or two Republican Representatives" who oppose the bill.

On June 5, the Iowa House and Senate adjourned for the year without passing an eminent domain bill in either chamber. Last week Fallon confirmed that he is sticking to his goal of defeating one or two majority party members in both the House and Senate, adding that he had already raised $4,500 toward the cause.

All I can say is, count me out of that political crusade.

Come to think of it, I have a few more things to say on the subject.

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