The Democrats on the Iowa Utilities Board let us down

I held back this diary for several days so as not to publish something written hastily in anger.

But five days after the fact, I remain disgusted that the only member of the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) to vote against the construction of a new coal-fired power plant in Marshalltown was Darrell Hanson, the lone Republican on the panel.

Putting Democrats in positions of power is supposed to be good for the environment. Unfortunately, John Norris and Krista Tanner failed to deliver "the change we need" when they voted to approve the application of the Interstate Power and Light Company (a subsidiary of Alliant Energy).

Here are few things you should know:

1. The IUB punted instead of seizing an opportunity to kill this proposal, and thousands of Iowans may suffer the consequences.

2. The conditions the IUB put on the plant's construction may have been well-intended, but they do not eliminate the harm that would be done by burning more coal near Marshalltown.

3. It is still possible that the plant will never be built. However, that in no way excuses the IUB's action, which prolonged this process and harmed environmental and public-health advocates, as I will explain below.

Join me after the jump for more on why IUB chairman Norris will never get my support in any Democratic primary for any office he may seek in the future.

Everyone I talked to who attended the IUB's hearings on the proposed coal plant earlier this year predicted that Norris would be the swing vote.

Tanner made clear throughout this process that she supported Interstate Power and Light's application. She was once an attorney for utilities before Governor Chet Culver put her on the IUB last year.

It was equally obvious that Hanson (another Culver appointee and a former chairman of the Environmental Protection Commission) opposed Interstate Power and Light's application.

Advocates thought they had a chance to sway Norris. Before joining the IUB in 2005, Norris worked on the presidential campaign of John Kerry, one of the strongest environmentalists ever to run for president.

Compared to Tanner, Norris seemed more receptive to the environmental and public-health non-profit organizations and expert testimony that urged the IUB to reject IPL's application.

However, when the chips were down last Wednesday, Norris cast the deciding vote in favor of building this plant, delighting the industry and organized labor representatives in the room.

I am well aware of the arguments in favor of this plant. Environmental activists like me were not the only ones left unconvinced. The Iowa Consumer Advocate recommended that the IUB reject the application. So did public-health advocates like the Iowa Medical Society. Even the Des Moines Register's editorial board, which supported the construction of a coal-fired plant in Council Bluffs five years ago, concluded that building a new plant near Marshalltown would do more harm than good.

If this plant goes online, more Iowans will develop respiratory problems, and many who already have asthma will suffer more attacks. Babies and children will be exposed to higher levels of mercury. In fact, the entire population will be harmed by the increased carbon-dioxide emissions from this plant.

The Democrats on the IUB could have stopped this from happening, but they didn't.

Instead, they made a gesture toward renewable energy advocates by putting conditions on the approval of this plant. The Iowa Environmental Council summarized those three conditions in a press release:

1.      The coal plant must co-fire five percent biomass within the first two years of the plant's operation, and 10 percent biomass must be co-fired by the fifth year of operation.

2.      Alliant's energy mix must include 10 percent renewable energy by 2013 and increase one percent each year for the following 15 years, to reach a total renewable energy portfolio of  25 percent by 2028.

3.      The Iowa Utilities Board will have authority to require Alliant to install carbon capture and sequestration technology at the plant when it becomes feasible.

The IUB's press release (available in pdf format here) explains the board's reasoning:

Board Chairman John Norris said conditions tied to the certificate would include requirements that five percent of the plant's electric generation be from biomass within two years and 10 percent be from biomass within five years. Possible penalties for failure to meet those requirements will be considered in a separate docket described below. According to Norris, additional conditions would be that 10 percent of IPL's electricity generation in Iowa be from renewable sources by 2013 and 25 percent from renewable sources by 2028.

"This reduces the burden of risk for consumers and provides continued incentive for wind and renewable energy, not only at this plant but throughout their entire fleet in Iowa, while adding generation for the company's customer base to support reliability," said Norris.

Ideally, our Democratic-controlled legislature would have the wisdom to enact a statewide renewable portfolio standard, which would require a certain percentage of electricity to be generated from renewable sources. Since our legislative leaders have failed to allow that to happen, it's not a bad idea for the IUB to be imposing a kind of renewable portfolio standard on the Interstate Power and Light Company.

However, one person on the e-mail loop managed by the Iowa Renewable Energy Association noticed that the IUB's press release includes language about penalties for not burning enough biomass, but says nothing about penalties for not meeting the requirements on generating a certain percentage of electricity from renewable sources. So it's not clear what is backing up this condition, or if IPL could ignore it.

In any event, wouldn't it be much more economical not to build any coal-fired plant until carbon capture technology is available, so that technology can be incorporated into the plant's original design?

Maybe Norris and Tanner were trying to find a reasonable compromise, but from where I'm sitting, the IUB's conditions look like an attempt to appear sensitive to environmental concerns without giving them the weight they deserve.

There isn't any middle ground between building a coal-fired plant and not building it.

Another possibility, which several people who do not wish to be identified have suggested to me, is that the IUB attached these conditions in the hope that the utility would shelve this proposal.

According to some speculation I have heard, Norris knows that this plant is a bad idea but doesn't want to be the one to kill it. He's already run for Congress once (against Tom Latham in 2002) and may want to do so in the future. Why make a bunch of labor unions, political and business leaders in Marshall County mad at him? Maybe Alliant will crunch the numbers and decide they can't make enough money on a new coal-fired power plant if they have to burn a certain amount of biomass and may have to install carbon capture technology in the future.

For all I know, that scenario could play out.

Or the Iowa Department of Natural Resources could deny an air quality permit to the proposed plant.

Or the utility could get cold feet following the IUB's decision on ratemaking principles for the plant, which the board's press release says will happen in late 2008 or early 2009.

Or Governor Culver could ride in on his white horse the way Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius blocked the construction of new coal-fired plants in her state.

But the bottom line is that Norris could have ended all uncertainty about the future of this plant last week. He chose not to.

Now a bunch of environmental and public-health organizations will have to spend more of their staff time and other scarce resources in the coming months as this battle moves to the DNR, and perhaps back to the IUB, and perhaps then to the governor's office.

Norris has inadvertently imposed a huge opportunity cost on non-profit groups that were already stretched too thin. Other pressing environmental and health issues in our state won't get as much attention this year as they might have if some of our best advocates didn't need to keep fighting a coal plant.

I won't forget that, even if IPL withdraws from the project eventually.

Norris has forfeited any chance of getting my support in a future Democratic primary.  

  • Not all Democrats think this is bad!

    I for one think that building new power houses, even if they are coal fired, is a good thing for Iowa. What no one seams to understand is that new coal fires are hands down better than older coal fires that we have online in Iowa today. By building new coal fired plants we can reduce the demand on the older coal plants and in the end produce less pollution.

    While I am a firm believer than coal is a dirty dirty option to produce power, and that in the long run we need to find something else (cough cough nuke). I hold firm that coal is our only current option.

    Now you can say that wind and solar are the way, but the wind isn't always blowing, and the sun isn't always shining. Also the power produced from these renewable sources is not even close enough to meet our demands. Wind and Solar are but a drop in bucket of energy demands.

    We all want to have it both ways, but as the age old saying goes you can't have you cake and eat it too. We can't depend on the renewable sources to keep up with our demand, we don't want coal plants, but we are 100% not going to consider the best option CONSERVATION! If we manage to lower our demands, then maybe some day we will have enough renewable energy to meet those demands.

    We can keep dreaming that wind and solar are our answers, but we really need to wake up and realize that we need to reduce our demands to make that dream a reality some day.

    PS. I'm bias I'm a Union Electrician and I'll be working on that coal plant, it will be a 5-6 year job for me and thousands of other tradesmen. (and we need it!)

    • of course I support conservation

      Reducing our demand for electricity is the most cost-effective way to make sure we meet our needs, and the quickest.

      When residents of Juneau, Alaska were facing a five-times increase in their electricity bills, they cut their usage by about 30 percent in a week:

      I am sorry to sound insensitive, because I do support unions and good jobs, but not when the project being built endangers the environment and public health. How about good jobs at plants building solar panels and wind turbines? Today, those sources cannot meet our energy needs, but if we invest in them today, they can meet those needs in the future.

      Imagine where we'd be today if Ronald Reagan hadn't reversed the incentives the Carter administration put in place for developing renewable energy. Not building a coal-fired power plant near Marshalltown, that's for sure.

  • Coal is NOT our only option

    Let's retire the old, coal industry argument that because "the wind isn't always blowing and the sun isn't always shining," that coal is our only option. Iowa gets over 80 percent of its electric generation from coal, leaving a large opportunity for investment in renewables (which also creates jobs), unless we continue to invest in dirty coal.  No power plant is 100 percent reliable--whether wind or conventional electric facility, backup is provided by the entire interconnected utility system. In Denmark, Northern Germany and parts of Spain, wind supplies 20 to 40 percent of electric loads without sacrificing reliability. When wind is added to a utility system, no new backup is required to maintain system reliability.  

  • An embarrassment

    indeed for us D's.  Just goes to prove that a good R can be much better than a bad D.  Of course, Darrell Hanson is known to be an unusually good R with environmental issues.  Great appointment by Culver.  Tanner, clearly not so much.

    Thanks for the post.  Good analysis on an important topic.

    • thanks, and good to see you, RF!

      Haven't seen you in a while, and thought perhaps my Obamaskepticism drove you away.

      I agree, Hanson was one of Culver's great appointments.

      • Not driven away

        just busy with work, vacationing, etc.  I'm all for civil disagreement and debate.  But, I have to admit I'm getting a little worn out by the prez primary.  Even a junky like me can have his fill.  

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