Iowa isn’t just all about corn and soybeans anymore.
The Hawkeye State generates 27 percent of its electricity from wind, the most in the nation, according to the Wind Energy Foundation. It also boasts 4,000 industry-related jobs. And companies dole out millions in annual payments to farmers who agree to erect wind turbines on their land.
That’s why when nearly a dozen potential Republican presidential candidates drop into the first-in-the-nation caucus state for an agriculture summit this Saturday, they are likely to be pressed for their position on the federal wind production tax credit, which Congress allowed to expire last year.
The credit provided companies willing to embark on a new wind project 2.3 cents per kilowatt-hour of energy produced. Backers call the incentive vital to spurring growth in the renewable fuel industry; opponents dub it a handout to wealthy investors.
But in Iowa, it has the rare blessing of bipartisan support.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is the original sponsor of the credit. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad has lobbied for a federal extension. Even Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, is on board.
Yet last month, Grassley was just one of three GOP senators to back its continuation.
Environmental groups on the left see that vote, coupled with this weekend’s Republican forum, as an opportunity to box the 2016 hopefuls into a corner.
“Three of the people coming – Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Lindsey Graham and Sen. Marco Rubio – have all voted against extension of the production tax credit,” Daniel Weiss, senior vice president of campaigns for the League of Conservation Voters, noted on a conference call Thursday.
(Originally scheduled to attend the forum, Rubio, R-Fla., said he won’t make it due to a family wedding.)
Cruz has already indicated he opposes renewable fuel standards that provide subsidies that allow the government to “pick winners and losers.” It looks as if the freshman agitator will gamble with a stand on principle, advocating an unpopular opinion locally.
For others, it’s less clear.
In 2005, then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed into law legislation requiring the state to increase its renewable energy capacity, which helped make it the leader in wind power.
But when Perry ran for president in 2012, he indicated he opposed extending the wind tax credit.
Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011 proposal in Wisconsin to restrict where wind turbines could be built was seen as an attempt to erect “the biggest hurdle to wind farm development in the nation,” according to industry advocates.
And while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has endorsed a goal of the U.S. producing 25 percent of its energy from renewable resources by 2025, he hasn’t recently taken a specific position on the wind credit renewal.
There are political cross-pressures for the potential candidates to consider.
Americans For Prosperity, the free market group backed by David and Charles Koch, has lobbied strongly against the tax credit, calling it “corporate welfare.”
“When the federal government props up failing energy industries by giving them special handouts, Americans end up footing the bill,” AFP President Tim Phillips said last year.
So with conservatives split on the policy, Saturday’s forum could present a tricky choice for the hopefuls: Side with Iowa Republicans or align with the Koch brothers.
“I’d be relatively confident that, if not Saturday, as the candidates make their way across Iowa, they will be asked their views on the extension,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center.
DES MOINES – More than 100 Iowa businesses in the wind power and solar energy supply chain are providing more than 4,000 jobs to people across the state who are manufacturing, financing, designing, engineering, building, installing and maintaining renewable energy projects here and across the nation, as detailed in the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC)’s study released today. The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) joins in the report’s release to underscore why politicians attending this weekend’s Ag Summit should support renewable energy policies that benefit farmers and rural communities.
“The upcoming Ag Summit participants should recognize how Iowa is a national leader in wind power development, which provides additional income for farmers and creates jobs and economic development in Iowa’s rural communities,” said ELPC Executive Director Howard A. Learner. “Iowa has a well-trained workforce that is building the renewable energy equipment used around the world. People say Iowa feeds the world; now Iowa is helping power the world, too.”
“The report shows that clean energy means Iowa jobs. The politicians at the Iowa Ag Summit should join Sen. Grassley and Gov. Branstad in supporting the federal Production Tax Credit for wind electricity to benefit farmers,” said Daniel J. Weiss, Senior Vice President for Campaigns, League of Conservation Voters. “The visiting suitors must reject conservative organizations’ efforts to kill the wind industry in Iowa and across the nation.”
ELPC’s report identified 75 wind power supply chain companies and 47 solar energy supply chain. The businesses were identified through ELPC’s analysis of data from several industry groups and then contacted individually to confirm their supply chain role.
For businesses involved in the installation and construction of wind power and solar energy projects, increased renewable energy development results in new business and increased economic activity in the communities where they operate.
“Heartland Energy Solutions and other Iowa businesses in the renewable energy industry are working hard to innovate and develop new technologies to bring down our energy costs,” said Charlie Sharp, President and CEO of the Mount Ayr-based wind turbine manufacturer. “Supportive policies not only help my business but also bring clean, affordable energy to the state. Iowa should continue leading the way.”
Policies that support renewable energy development also help Iowa farmers, who can gain revenues from wind turbines on their property and can reduce their utility bills by installing solar panels.
“I really believe that the more policies that can be developed to promote more growth in wind power and solar power is helping our landowners, helping our communities and making Iowa a national leader in something that’s really exciting ,” said Mark Kuhn, a Floyd County Supervisor and area farmer who has wind turbines on his property. “This is about developing our own natural resources – the wind and the sun.”
The ELPC report’s findings also offer insights into the types of businesses driving Iowa’s growing renewable energy sector. For example, the average size of a renewable energy supply chain business in Iowa is 37.7 employees.
Because Iowa is a relatively “small state,” the average Iowa supply chain business is quite large. The major wind equipment component manufacturers in Iowa employ large numbers of people,” said John Paul Jewell, Research Coordinator at the Environmental Law & Policy Center.
While Ohio regulators last week rejected one utility’s plan to guarantee income for its power plants – characterized by critics as a “bailout” – the decision left the door open for similar proposals in the future.
Meanwhile, protective orders will continue to prevent public disclosure of all the facts and figures behind the plans proposed by utilities.
Last Wednesday the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) rejected a proposal by American Electric Power (AEP) that would have guaranteed sales for AEP’s share of all electricity from two coal plants owned by the Ohio Valley Electric Corporation. All ratepayers would have had to cover the costs of that plan, whether they chose AEP for their electricity generation company or not.
AEP claimed the plan would give ratepayers a hedge against long-term inflation. It described its plan as a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA).
Environmental and consumer advocates have said the plans would impose huge immediate costs on ratepayers with the likelihood of large long-term net losses as well.
In AEP’s case for the Ohio Valley plants, the company’s own estimates of the plan’s probableimpacts varied widely. Estimates ranged from a net benefit of $8.4 million to a net cost of roughly $52 million over the first three years of the plan.
Opposing advocates foresaw net losses for consumers in both the short and long terms.
After weighing the evidence, the PUCO found that the plan could “result in a net cost to customers with little offsetting benefit.” Because AEP failed to prove a net benefit to ratepayers from its plan, the commission did not approve the proposed Power Purchase Agreement.
“Today’s decision is great news,” said Rachael Belz, executive director at Ohio Citizen Action. The group had encouraged large numbers of people to voice an “outcry” against the utility plans. “One down, two to go!” she said, referring to similar proposals from FirstEnergy and Duke Energy.
“PUCO’s decision today recognizes that consumers should not be forced to subsidize aging, polluting coal plants,” said Howard Learner, Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “That’s a win for Ohioans.”
“Ohioans can breathe easier knowing PUCO has chosen clean air and customer choice in Ohio,” said Trent Dougherty, managing director of legal affairs for the Ohio Environmental Council. The group was “cautiously optimistic” that the PUCO would treat the decision as precedent for future decisions, he added.
Yet while the PUCO did not approve AEP’s plan, it did not categorically reject the idea, either.
Rather, the PUCO let AEP set up a “placeholder” rider. The amount would be set at zero for now, but could turn into an actual cost for consumers at some later time.
In other words, the PUCO left the door open for AEP to come back and pitch the plan again.
“We recognize that there may be value for consumers in a reasonable PPA rider proposal that provides for a significant financial hedge that truly stabilizes rates, particularly during periods of extreme weather,” the PUCO’s opinion said.
Beyond that, the PUCO laid out a blueprint of evidence it would want to see in any future hearing.
Among other things, the PUCO said, AEP would have to show the necessity of keeping a power plant open, its financial need, impacts of any potential closure and plans for complying with “all pertinent environmental regulations,” including ones which are pending.
“The commission’s order does recognize the legality of a PPA being established by a regulated utility,” said AEP spokesperson Terri Flora. She added that the company would “now have to work with the commission to understand their concerns.”
Good old Exelon. The company has come up with legislation to subsidize its nuclear reactors, get electric users throughout the state to pay for it and claim it’s in the interest of clean energy.
State lawmakers need to see this bill for the dirty trick it is and kill it.
A 2 percent surcharge would be added to people’s electric delivery charge, generating an estimated $300 million a year. The way the bill is written, virtually all that money would go to Exelon for its nuclear power plants. Perhaps the surcharge could be justified if the money were going to create new low-carbon energy sources, although we’re not sure even then. But in this case electric users would be paying more even though nothing new would be created.
Exelon said the bill would help ensure the continued operation of the nuclear power plants, which supposedly would help keep electric prices low. But there’s nothing to prevent the company from shutting down one or two of the reactors.
This isn’t energy policy, this is picking a winner – Exelon – at the expense of consumers. As we said, kill this bill.
Jeremy P. Jacobs, E&E reporter Published: Friday, February 27, 2015
Ask Chicago environmentalists who’s the Windy City’s best lawyer, and they’re likely to name Howard Learner.
Learner has built his Environmental Law and Policy Center into a Midwest powerhouse over the last 20 years on transportation and clean energy issues, scoring victories in courtrooms and state legislatures along the way.
His shop eschews the national spotlight for a hyper-regional focus that he says is part of the group’s DNA.
“First of all, we are Midwesterners,” he said. “The Midwest is probably the most important region in the most important country in the world.”
ELPC is among a few regional environmental law centers that operate in the gap between national Goliaths like the Natural Resources Defense Council and small grass-roots organizations. The center takes on major litigation — fighting lawsuits brought by former Chesapeake Energy Corp. CEO Aubrey McClendon, arguing for solar and wind energy in state Supreme Courts, and battling Great Lakes pollution. Moreover, it has developed a lobbying operation that pressures government officials — from U.S. senators to mayors — to support environmentally progressive policies.
Learner prides himself on leading a “grass-tops” organization, meaning it seeks to unite leaders from often-opposing camps — such as unions and local chambers of commerce — to push for common goals.
Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but ELPC is now thriving, thanks largely to Learner’s grasp of regional politics.
“He has steered clear of the weird political fights,” said J. Paul Forrester, an energy and agricultural specialist at Mayer Brown in Chicago. “He has a lot of political acumen. I give him a lot of credit for that. That’s helped him avoid ugly confrontation.”
Learner, 59, lives a mile-and-a-half from where he was born in Chicago. The son of a University of Wisconsin football player, he’s well over 6 feet tall and bearded. He cuts an imposing presence that he establishes right away with a firm handshake.
Growing up as an outdoorsman, Learner biked across Wisconsin several times and always had a backpack ready for weekend trips. He attended the University of Michigan and remains a devoted fan of the Wolverine football team, then headed to Harvard Law School.
He returned to Chicago with his law degree and worked for a public interest law firm that specialized in housing cases. Learner launched the group’s environmental practice and specialized in pro bono work.
In 1991, seven major foundations pooled funds and asked several local lawyers for proposals for a regional-based legal center to address environmental programs in the Midwest. Such a group didn’t exist, and, as Learner recalled, there were ample reasons the region needed one.
The Great Lakes contain nearly a fifth of the world’s freshwater supply and provide drinking water to more than 40 million people. At the time, electricity utilities were becoming more regionally focused, building power lines across state borders. The Midwest was also home to some of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants. Three-quarters of the pollution in the Great Lakes was coming from the energy and transportation sectors.
The region also served as the nexus of multiple types of transportation; interstate highways crisscross the area, as do major railways. And Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport serves as a hub of air travel in the region.
“If you are serious about solving our climate change problems, and you’re serious about keeping the Great Lakes clean,” Learner said, “you need to deal with the energy and transportation sectors on a regional basis.”
Learner applied for the funding, basing his proposal in part on other regional outfits like the Conservation Law Foundation in New England, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund on the West Coast, which has since become Earthjustice.
The foundations backed Learner, guaranteeing $850,000 per year for three years. He left his practice, rented a storefront and started assembling furniture.
At the core of the group’s philosophy from the start, Learner said, was devising “pragmatic solutions” that paired environmental benefits with economic growth and job creation. Now such proposals are increasingly common among environmental groups, but at the time they weren’t.
Learner pledged that whenever his group came out against a project or proposal, it would say yes to a less harmful alternative.
“We said from the beginning we weren’t going to get boxed in as naysayers,” he said.
ELPC now has an annual budget of more than $6.5 million and about 50 employees in eight offices throughout the Midwest. It divides its efforts into two groups. Its strategic advocacy arm lobbies and files lawsuits to fight what it views as environmentally harmful policies. And second, it brings parties together to come up with “eco-business” deals and proposals, such as working with labor unions, local chambers of commerce and officials to facilitate solar and wind energy development in the Midwest, or a regional high-speed rail network.
Those efforts have yielded results. Iowa is the second-largest wind energy producer in the country, and Illinois, Minnesota and Kansas all rank within the top 10. And plans for a regional high-speed rail proposal to serve 60 million people in eight states are starting to jell. The St. Louis-to-Chicago-to-Detroit line is being built, and sections already run at 110 mph. The effort has garnered the support of the Obama administration, which committed $13 billion in the 2009 stimulus package.
Looking for opportunity
ELPC’s success is due in large part to Learner’s relentlessness.
Jerry Adelmann, president of the Chicago-based Openlands conservation group, said it typically takes Learner “two seconds” to respond to an email.
“He lives and breathes this stuff,” Adelmann said. “It’s part of his very being.”
To his foes — which are typically entrenched energy utilities — Learner can come off as a zealot. But he has overcome such criticism through political adeptness, which is unusual for someone who wears his Democratic-leaning politics on his sleeve.
Learner was Illinois delegate at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and has served on political committees that others in the nongovernmental organization community would likely shy away from out of fear of reprisals from the other side.
“Howard is out front in terms of his politics,” Adelmann said.
Learner seems to dodge most blowback, though, largely because of his instincts.
“I think Howard is one of those visionary leaders,” said Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney in ELPC’s Des Moines, Iowa, office. “His mind is always spinning, and he sort of sees the direction that things are moving. He is constantly trying to anticipate what opportunities will present themselves and constantly trying to take advantage of them in a strategic way.”
That doesn’t mean ELPC doesn’t have critics.
Todd Maisch, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said it’s possible to have a “reasonable conversation” with ELPC. But he stressed that the group often presses for more stringent environmental controls than his members can support.
“Bottom line is, we think a big part of their agenda results in very little environmental improvement but huge costs,” Maisch said.
He added that ELPC’s coalition building is often less successful than the group says.
“Their attempts,” he said, “to bring people together to build a consensus — a lot more of those fail than succeed.”
Battling energy tycoon
Learner and ELPC can nevertheless point to significant achievements, both on the large and small scale.
ELPC was part of a coalition that pushed for the closure of two old power plants in 2012 on Chicago’s South Side, the city’s last two coal-fired facilities. Before that, it fought to ensure that wastewater was treated before utilities discharged it into the Chicago River.
And last summer, ELPC lawyers secured an Iowa Supreme Court victory in challenging an Iowa Utilities Board decision that created an unfavorable and expensive environment for solar energy development in the state.
There is also a strong “defender of the little guy” thread to their work. Perhaps no case illustrates that better than ELPC’s work for a small community in Saugatuck, Mich., against former Chesapeake CEO McClendon.
An artsy Lake Michigan resort town with fewer than 1,000 year-round residents, Saugatuck is a 2½-hour drive from Chicago. In summer, tourists visit the town’s art galleries, shops and renowned beach dunes. The community has sought to protect those attractions from development by passing strict zoning laws.
Those efforts were threatened, however, in 2007, when McClendon bought 412 acres at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River that the town had been trying to make part of the public domain and conserve for 50 years.
McClendon wanted to build a gated community and resort on the land, with a nine-hole golf course, hotel, mansions and condos. Within 30 days of purchasing the property, he filed a series of lawsuits challenging Saugatuck’s zoning laws.
Overwhelmed, David Swan and the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance turned to Learner for help.
ELPC took the cases, and Swan said the group’s attorneys became part of the community. They also provided communications and marketing support to Swan and his allies.
They were able to halt McClendon’s development. In November 2011, a federal district court judge threw out a settlement between McClendon and the Saugatuck Township Board that would have essentially removed zoning provisions from the property. The judge ruled that the settlement would have illegally prevented the board from ever updating its zoning laws for the property.
Further, the court held that any future such settlement would require a hearing to ensure it benefits the “public good.”
There remains some ongoing litigation, but the community has since bought back half the land McClendon purchased. And, Swan said, nothing has been built on McClendon’s land.
Swan credits ELPC with saving the dunes — and his community.
“It just kind of amazed me,” Swan said. “Here was a really brilliant attorney, who is really busy with huge projects, and he doesn’t let small projects like trying to save 400 acres of pristine duneland fall by the wayside.”
Exelon’s new plan to support aging nuclear plants and cut carbon emissions has is putting a big decision in front of Illinois lawmakers.
Will legislators make ratepayers rescue Exelon’s uncompetitive nukes to sustain reliability and an influential economic sector? Or will they turn to renewables and energy efficiency to fill the gap when the plants retire?
“There are likely to be tremendous cutbacks of basic social services and the legislature is likely to have to raise taxes or fees to make the budget balance,” said Environmental Law and Policy Center Executive Director Howard Learner. “Will legislators at the same time force consumers, through a non-bypassable charge, to pay hundreds of millions of dollars each year for the next six years to bail out Exelon nuclear plants?”
But many who make their livelihoods in and around the nuclear plants see things a bit differently.
“Part of the upcoming debate in Springfield should focus on what these plants mean to their host communities,” read a letter signed by Mayors from six nuclear plant neighbor cities. “Illinois nuclear facilities provide thousands of good jobs; the kind of jobs you can support a family on …”
What Illinois stands to gain and lose
In Potential Nuclear Plant Closings in Illinois, a report to the legislature, four state agencies recommend a Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) as one of five market-based solutions to the challenges facing Exelon. Other possible solutions assessed by the agencies are (1) pure market economics, (2) a carbon tax, (3) a cap and trade program, or (4) a sustainable power standard.
In the report, the Illinois Commerce Commission concludes negative economic impacts from the closures would include:
2,500 direct job losses at the nuclear plants
4,431 indirect job losses at local businesses
$1.8 billion in annual lost economic activity
a 10% to 16% increase in wholesale power prices which would cause further economic impacts, including 896 job losses and $45 million in lost economic activity
The report released Wednesday by the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago was designed to showcase the contribution clean power is making to the state economy at a time policy makers are putting up roadblocks to renewable energy development in the state.
“Wisconsin has a strong manufacturing base and well-trained workforce that can export renewable energy products to a world that wants more clean energy with each passing year,” said Andy Olsen, senior policy advocate in ELPC’s Madison office in a statement.
The report found that many of the Wisconsin companies working in the clean energy space were actually smaller firms, with an average of 12 employees. That compares with Illinois where the typical renewable energy firm has nearly 50 people.
“Wisconsin’s renewable energy economy is driven by small businesses spread across the state, rather than by a few very large employers,” said John Paul Jewell, lead researcher on the ELPC project.
“There is only one comprehensive energy bill that costs less to consumers, promotes a cleaner environment and will create tens of thousands of new jobs in every part of Illinois — that’s the Illinois Clean Jobs bill. Introduced by Sen. Don Harmon and Rep. Elaine Nekritz with bipartisan support, when fully implemented the Illinois Clean Jobs Bill will create 32,000 new clean energy jobs per year by growing renewable energy and raising energy efficiency while giving Illinois a greater set of tools to help consumers, including the option of market-based strategies to reduce carbon pollution.
“The Illinois Clean Jobs Bill sets a long-term clean energy policy that creates jobs — rather than sunsetting soon, missing opportunities to create jobs and raising the risk that consumers will again be asked to pay more in just a few short years.
“We look forward to reading Exelon’s proposed bill more closely. But mostly, we look forward to discussing this issue in the months ahead, and we will continue to urge lawmakers to join their colleagues from both parties who have sponsored the bipartisan Illinois Clean Jobs Bill to enhance our environment and to create 32,000 new jobs per year.”
The Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition is made up of Illinois businesses and organizations representing the state’s environmental, business and faith communities. Currently, more than 40 businesses and 28 organizations have formally joined the coalition to promote steps to improve the Illinois environment, help consumers, improve public health, and create tens of thousands of new jobs across the state.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: David Jakubiak (312) 795-3713 or email@example.com
STATEMENT BY HOWARD A. LEARNER
Executive Director, Environmental Law & Policy Center
“PUCO’s decision today recognizes that consumers should not be forced to subsidize aging, polluting coal plants. That’s a win for Ohioans. We hope the Commission will continue to thoroughly scrutinize any future proposals to ensure that utilities don’t engage in self-dealing that forces customers to bailout plants that aren’t economically competitive. Let’s advance cleaner, more efficient energy sources.
“We believe that this ruling lays the groundwork for the Commission to reject similar proposals by FirstEnergy and Duke,” added Learner. “That said, we’ll continue our work to show that bailouts like this go against consumer interests and harm the environment. We hope that the Commission will apply the same thorough scrutiny to these pending cases as it did to AEP’s claims.”
ELPC’s Founding Vision is Becoming Today’s Sustainability Reality
Support ELPC’s Next 20 Years of Successful Advocacy