New bill is "clear attempt by MidAmerican to monopolize the sun in Iowa"

A new bill backed by MidAmerican Energy would devastate the ability of Iowans to install solar panels for their homes or businesses. House Study Bill 185 would undo a longstanding policy of net metering, which “allows residential and commercial customers who generate their own electricity from solar power to feed electricity they do not use back into the grid.”

Iowans served by monopoly providers MidAmerican or Alliant Energy have been able to use net metering since the 1980s, under rules adopted by the Iowa Utilities Board.

In recent years, MidAmerican has periodically sought to subvert net metering in various ways. Environmental advocates have been concerned the policy would become the next target for Republican lawmakers who destroyed Iowa’s decades-old, successful energy-efficiency programs last year at the behest of utility companies.

State Representative Gary Carlson introduced House Study Bill 185 this morning in his capacity as leader of the Iowa House Commerce Committee. MidAmerican’s lobbyist immediately registered in favor–often a sign that an interest group or company had a hand in writing legislation. The utility’s media relations staff did not respond to an inquiry about why the company is pushing this bill.

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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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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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Calling Iowa's young leaders on clean energy

Midwest Energy News, a non-profit news website supported by non-profits focused on energy policy, is launching an award to recognize “emerging leaders throughout the region and their work to accelerate America’s transition to a clean energy economy.” The site will accept nominations for the “40 Under 40” designation here “until either 250 nominations are received or 10:00 p.m. CT on Monday, August 10.” Eligible candidates include “midwest-based leaders and innovators from all sectors -industry, government, regulatory, business, academic, and advocacy.”

I learned about the 40 Under 40 competition from State Representative Chuck Isenhart, who will serve on the selection advisory committee for Midwest Energy News. Isenhart is the ranking Democrat on the Iowa House Environmental Protection Committee and has been a strong voice in the Iowa legislature on a range of environmental issues.

Through volunteering for various non-profits, I have become acquainted with several Iowans who deserve serious consideration for the new award, and I plan to encourage their colleagues to nominate them. The candidate who immediately came to my mind, though, is someone I’ve never met. Paritosh Kasotia is the founder and CEO of Unfolding Energy, a non-profit “founded on a premise that clean energy choices can safeguard the climate as well as create economic growth.” She is best known as the highly capable former leader of the Iowa Energy Office; I enclose below more background on that part of her career. Late last year, leaders of the Iowa Economic Development Authority fired Kasotia for reasons never explained to anyone’s satisfaction. Some suspected the dismissal was related to a $1 million solar power grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, which Kasotia helped land but Iowa eventually relinquished after Branstad administration officials “amended an original proposal and insisted the grant not be used to evaluate solar energy policies – a change that utility lobbyists sought,” Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press last July.

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Grassley, Ernst vote for Keystone XL pipeline bill

After hours of floor debate and votes on dozens of amendments over more than two weeks, today the U.S. Senate approved a bill to force construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Nine Democrats joined all the Republicans present to pass the final bill by 62 votes to 36 (roll call). Iowa’s Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst have long supported Keystone XL, and Ernst possibly owes as much as any member of the Senate to campaign spending by the Koch brothers, who stand to profit from more tar sands oil extraction in Canada.

The Keystone XL bill now goes back to the U.S. House, which will surely send it to President Barack Obama. (All four Iowans supported the pipeline bill that cleared the House earlier this month.) A White House spokesman repeated today that the president intends to veto the current bill.

Before today’s vote on final passage, senators rejected more than a dozen amendments to the Keystone XL bill. You can find all the roll calls here. Democrats offered most of the defeated amendments, which went down primarily along party lines. For instance, Grassley and Ernst helped their GOP colleagues reject Sheldon Whitehouse’s amendment, which was designed to “require campaign finance disclosures from companies benefitting from the Alberta oil sands.” Other defeated Democratic amendments would have further studied potential safety problems and threats to public health associated with the Keystone XL pipeline, allowed permitting agencies “to consider new circumstances and new information,” or delayed the effective date of the bill until the President could rule out “certain negative impacts” from its construction.

In what may be the first Senate vote where Grassley and Ernst landed on opposite sides, Grassley was one of just three GOP senators to support Heidi Heitkamp’s amendment that would have extended renewable energy tax credits. Ernst was among the 51 Republicans who voted against that amendment, which would benefit Iowa’s wind power industry. Both Grassley and Ernst voted against Bernie Sanders’ effort to expand incentives for installing solar power and Tom Udall’s amendment on establishing a federal renewable electricity standard.

A few Republican amendments also fell short of the 60 votes needed for passage during the Keystone XL debate. Without Democratic votes, support from Grassley, Ernst, and most of the GOP caucus wasn’t enough to win approval of Ted Cruz’s amendment promoting crude oil exports, Jerry Moran’s effort to “delist the lesser prairie-chicken as a threatened species,” or Lisa Murkowski’s amendment, which would “free up areas like ANWR [Alaska National Wildlife Refuge] and others that have been designated by the federal government as wilderness regions to potential drilling.” Yesterday and today, Grassley and Ernst helped the Republican majority either to reject or to table a series of amendments related to climate change. Puneet Kollipara and David Malakoff described those amendments and votes in this Science magazine article.

During Senate sessions last week, Grassley and Ernst voted for language stating that climate change is “real” and “not a hoax” but against various statements indicating that human activity contributes to climate change.  

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