Compromise brewing on MidAmerican's solar bill

One of the biggest fights of the 2019 legislative session may be resolved peacefully this year.

After months of negotiations, the monopoly utility MidAmerican Energy is close to reaching an agreement with key stakeholders on a bill that would affect future solar development in Iowa.

With the help of big spending by a brand-new organization that did not disclose its donors, MidAmerican pushed hard for a bill (Senate File 583) that would have imposed new fees on small-scale solar users. Solar installers, environmental organizations, and the Iowa Pork Producers Association lobbied against the bill, fearing it would make investments uneconomical for small businesses and homeowners. (Many livestock producers have invested in solar panels to offset the energy costs associated with concentrated animal feeding operations.)

A group of Republican holdouts helped keep the bill bottled up in the Iowa House, despite then Speaker Linda Upmeyer’s determination to pass it and lobbying by MidAmerican, business advocacy groups, and some labor organizations.

Rather than trying to pass the bill by brute force, the utility began seeking common ground with opponents not long after lawmakers adjourned last year.

The Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association informed members in its February 7 legislative update,

As we previously shared, ISETA has been meeting with MidAmerican Energy and solar coalition partners the past eight months in a collaborative effort to find a compromise on solar legislation. We are proud to share that your voice has been heard and a deal has been reached that will help provide consistency, reliability and the opportunity for solar energy to continue to grow in Iowa. The deal is subject to final agreement on amendment language and earning legislative support.

Legislation is being drafted as a strike and replace amendment to the bill that was introduced last year. When adopted, the amendment then becomes the bill. Once the draft is finalized, we will share it. Key aspects of the deal include the codifying of net metering in state code, grandfathering of existing customers in their current plans, and a transition to a Value of Solar rate down the road. This will provide predictability for the solar industry, our customers and the utility while diversification of our state’s energy portfolio will continue to keep costs low for all customers.

Net metering allows consumers who have renewable energy systems to sell excess electricity back to utility companies. Although it has been state policy since the 1980s, net metering is not part of Iowa Code, which means the Iowa Utilities Board could substantially alter or do away with it.

Grandfathering means Iowans who already have solar power systems will not have to pay additional fees, as MidAmerican’s bill proposed last year.

The Iowa Environmental Council‘s latest Legislative News Bulletin, released on February 10, described the state of play much like the solar trade association had. The umbrella group for dozens of Iowa environmental organizations added, “if you see action on SF 583, don’t be alarmed – that means the deal is moving forward.”

There are also numerous specific parameters included in the deal that will ensure certainty for the solar industry, customers, and the utility going forward. The bottom line is that this agreement will continue to grow solar in Iowa and benefit our state through creating a more diverse and low-cost energy mix.

Tina Hoffman, MidAmerican’s vice president of corporate communications and public affairs, confirmed progress toward an agreement in a February 10 email to Bleeding Heartland.

We’ve been working with stakeholders over the past eight months in a collaborative effort to create statewide policy that would both value customer-owned solar generation and quantify its benefits to all users. We continue our dialogue with stakeholders and legislators on what we hope will be positive outcome for all customers by providing predictability, diversifying our state’s energy portfolio and keeping costs low for all customers.

Key aspects of the conversation include codifying net metering, grandfathering existing customers in their current plans, recovering infrastructure costs and transitioning to a Value of Solar rate down the road to pay solar owners for the energy they provide to the grid.

Representatives of the Iowa Pork Producers have not responded to Bleeding Heartland’s inquiries.

Legislative language will need to be examined closely, but if an amendment acceptable to all parties is drafted, the solar bill seems likely to clear both chambers with little controversy.

Over the weekend, I sought comment on the developing compromise from thirteen Iowa House Republicans who helped keep the solar bill off the floor last year. Most did not reply. State Representative Dave Maxwell said he didn’t have enough information about what might be in the amendment to have an opinion. State Representative Andy McKean, who was among the Republican holdouts before switching to the Democratic caucus last April, told me, “I will be reviewing the ‘compromise’ very carefully before taking a position on it.”

UPDATE: Most bills must be approved by at least one Iowa House or Senate committee by February 21 in order to make it through the legislature’s “funnel.” However, this bill made it through the Iowa Senate and a House committee in 2019, so it is not subject to the first funnel deadline. The Iowa Environmental Council noted in its February 17 legislative news bulletin,

The solar compromise language continues to be worked on in drafting at the Legislative Services Agency. Because this bill is not subject to the funnel, we anticipate it will not begin moving through the House committee process until at least the week of February 24th after time-sensitive bills are through the process. We look forward to being able to share more detailed information at that time but continue to feel excited about the compromise reached that will bring certainty to solar in Iowa for many years to come!

Kerri Johannsen, energy program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, clarified via email, “We anticipate seeing the new solar language introduced as an amendment to SF 583 in the House Commerce Committee. SF 583 is the bill that passed the Senate last year and was reassigned back to House Commerce when it did not pass off the House floor at the end of the 2019 Session.”

Top photo by Kelsea Arthur of a ground mount solar array in Iowa available through Shutterstock.

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  • Thank you for this good report

    It would be wonderful if a good compromise bill passed and thereby blocked future potential bad bills. And if a good compromise passes, it seems clear that one reason will be the recognition of many stakeholders, not just one or two.

    One reason for Iowa’s awful farm pollution situation is because only Big Ag is regarded as a stakeholder. The rest of us in Iowa are regarded as bupkis.