Associated Press: Amid Backlash, Iowa Co-Op Drops Planned Fee for Solar Hookup


August 28, 2015

Amid Backlash, Iowa Co-Op Drops Planned Fee for Solar Hookup

The Associated Press

PELLA, IOWA — Facing a backlash from solar energy advocates and an inquiry from regulators, a rural Iowa electricity cooperative has dropped a plan to charge customers who install solar panels on their homes and businesses a special $85 monthly charge.

The Pella Cooperative Electric Association withdrew its proposal Thursday in a filing to the Iowa Utilities Board, which was considering a challenge from solar customers and environmental groups who argued the charge was illegal, unjustified and discriminatory.

Similar disputes between utilities and solar energy advocates are playing out across the country, but observers said the cooperative’s proposed interconnection charge was believed to be among the highest in the nation.

The cooperative, which serves about 3,000 members in rural southern Iowa, notified customers who already have or were planning to install solar generation systems of the new charge last month. The cooperative argued that the fee was justified because customers who generate some, but not all, of their own electricity use less from the utility’s distribution system and therefore pay less. The fee was meant to have those customers pay their equal share of fixed costs and avoid having other customers subsidize them, the cooperative argued.

In a statement, the cooperative said the fee wasn’t meant to discriminate against solar customers but that it would be withdrawn in light of the complaints.

“We need to ensure every member is being treated fairly,” the cooperative said. “Because we are a cooperative, we have decided to withdraw the proposed increase … until such time that we can better educate our members and the community as to the fair and equitable recovery of fixed costs.”

The news delighted Mike Lubberden, who halted his plan to install a solar array outside his Pella home after learning of the charge in July. He said Friday that he now plans to move forward but hopes the utility doesn’t try to resurrect the charge at a later date. He said the charge was “outrageous” and designed to discourage solar energy deployment.

He and other solar energy backers note that the cooperative receives some revenue from customer-owned generation systems: the coop pays 3.3 percent per kilowatt-hour for excess solar and sells it for 10.1 cents. They noted that solar arrays have benefits for the environment and energy grid.

The Office of Consumer Advocate had requested information and data about the fee as part of an inquiry into whether it would violate Iowa law, which bars charging “discriminatory rates” for customers who use renewable energy. The office, which represents utility customers’ interests, had been planning to update the board on its investigation next month.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center, which had intervened to challenge the proposal, said Friday the withdrawal was good news and should spark discussion about the role solar can play at rural electric cooperatives in Iowa.

“There are better ways to prepare for the energy future than imposing punitive and unjustified fees on members who are leading the way on renewable energy,” said Josh Mandelbaum, a Des Moines attorney for the group.

Press Release: Pella Electric Coop Reversal on Solar Charge Good News for Coop Members


August 27, 2015

Pella Electric Coop Reversal on Solar Charge Good News for Coop Members

It’s Time for an Open, Data-Driven Discussion on Benefits of Solar to Coops

DES MOINES, Iowa – Late Thursday the Pella Electric Cooperative withdrew a controversial proposal which would have hit members with solar panels with an exorbitant fixed charge of $85 month. The news was welcomed by members of the co-op, and underscores the need for an open discussion about the role solar will play in the coops energy future.

“Families and businesses that have joined institutions like Central College in cutting energy costs and bringing us closer to energy independence with solar will not be punished for making a choice that is better for budgets and for the environment,” said Bryce Engbers, a Pella Electric Coop member and pork producer who has solar panels.

Mike Lubberden, another solar Pella member commended the move, but added that the coop should alter the way it looks at solar.

“This would have been the most extreme anti-solar, anti-renewable energy fee anywhere in the country,” Lubberden said. “Pella Electric Cooperative Association should permanently drop this proposal, and instead take an approach that captures the value of solar energy for all coop members.”

Josh Mandelbaum of the Environmental Law & Policy Center expressed hope that Pella Electric Cooperative’s withdrawal of the flawed proposal was an indication that the coop has reevaluated its approach. “There are better ways to prepare for the energy future than imposing punitive and unjustified fees on members who are leading the way on renewable energy. We look forward to working with the Pella Electric Cooperative to identify ways to bring the benefits of solar to all of the coop’s members.”

Mandelbaum pointed to the fact that solar now creates revenue for the coop. Currently, Pella buys excess solar energy at a rock bottom price and sells it at a premium any time the member’s system produces more energy than the member uses. The coop pays 3.3 cents per kilowatt-hour for excess solar and sells it for 10.1 cents. The member who installs solar has paid all the costs to do so, and the coop keeps nearly 7 cents on every unit of excess energy.

Nathaniel Baer, Energy Program Director of Iowa Environmental Council also lauded the decision to drop the solar charge. “This proposal was never supported by data showing it was needed, in fact, we are confident that solar is bringing value to the coop. We hope that this opens the door to a larger discussion of how we can bring more solar to rural electric coops across the state.”


Good News for Solar From Our Iowa Office


Alliant Reverses Stance That Hindered Solar Projects in Iowa

By Ryan J. Foley, Associated Press

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Facing a new legal challenge, Iowa’s second-largest power company has abandoned a business practice that critics say improperly slowed the adoption of solar energy across the state.

Over the last year, Alliant Energy had told schools and municipalities that it wouldn’t allow net metering for rooftop power-generating systems financed by third-party solar companies. That meant customers would not be credited on their bills for excess energy they generate during peak sun times and return to the grid, making many of the projects economically unfeasible. In response, customers delayed, downsized and shelved solar projects meant to reduce their energy costs and impact on the environment.

But in a surprise reversal, Alliant said in a legal filing last week it will allow net metering for many such projects. Alliant spokesman Justin Foss said the company “revised our stance” after receiving the first formal applications for interconnection from customers entering into such arrangements.

“Since this is a relatively new issue, we adjusted to find the most customer-focused solution,” Foss said.

Joshua Mandelbaum, an attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Des Moines, called that explanation disingenuous, noting Alliant hadn’t received other applications because customers were told earlier in the process that net metering wouldn’t be allowed.

He said the change was positive and would allow “a number of customers who are interested in pursuing solar to be able to finance their systems.”

“I’m still puzzled why it took so long for Alliant to come around to this position. Nothing has changed on the ground in the last year,” he said. “It only served to delay customers’ ability to take advantage of this option and create unnecessary tension and bad feelings with customers.”

The reversal came days after Mandelbaum, on behalf of a coalition of solar advocates, told the Iowa Utilities Board that Alliant’s position violated the state’s net metering rule and was thwarting renewable energy projects proposed by nonprofits and government agencies. Such entities, which don’t pay taxes, often enter into agreements to purchase power directly from solar companies that install generating systems on their buildings. The arrangements allow them to benefit from federal tax breaks designed to promote solar energy.

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled last year that the so-called power purchase agreements were legal, rejecting a challenge by Alliant.

After the ruling, Alliant argued that net metering for those projects wasn’t allowed because the solar companies were reselling power within its service territory, which was barred by its state operating agreements. That position has now been dropped.

Alliant notified the Iowa Falls Community School District — which dropped a proposal to install solar arrays on four school buildings — and other customers of its reversal in recent days.

“I was shocked,” said Cresco city councilor Amy Bouska, who learned the news from Alliant last week. Bouska said her city’s exploration of solar came “to a screeching halt” last spring when Alliant said net metering wouldn’t be allowed. She praised Alliant’s change but noted the utility still won’t allow net metering at buildings classified as large industrial users, such as the city’s fitness center and wastewater treatment plant.

Eagle Point Solar, a Dubuque-based company which had prevailed in last year’s Iowa Supreme Court case, filed a complaint with the utilities board in June alleging Alliant’s policy was illegal and forced it to scale back a plan to install solar arrays on buildings for the city of Asbury. Company President Barry Shear said he was surprised by Alliant’s “amazing rollover.”

“This change in policy from Alliant is going to have significant impact on the feasibility of projects that fall into the general service rate category,” he said.


Press Release: Environmental Law & Policy Center Commends President Obama, U.S. EPA on Final Clean Power Plan

For Immediate Release

August 3, 2015

Environmental Law & Policy Center Commends
President Obama, U.S. EPA on Final Clean Power Plan;
Will Partner With Regional Leaders for Smart Implementation

Executive Director, Environmental Law & Policy Center

“The Clean Power Plan is our nation’s strongest step forward to reduce carbon pollution by accelerating clean solar energy and wind power solutions. Solving our climate change problems is the moral, economic, policy and political challenge of our generation. The Plan’s clean energy development solutions will create Midwest jobs, improve global public health and protect our Great Lakes ecosystem.”

“The Clean Power Plan gives states flexibility for implementation strategies that maximize the benefits of both cutting carbon pollution and growing the clean energy economy. The Environmental Law & Policy Center’s experts on the ground will work with the Midwest’s local stakeholders on plans that will deploy clean technologies to hold down utility bills, create jobs and improve environmental quality.”

“For Midwest manufacturing centers, today’s news is a signal to advance the clean renewable energy and energy efficiency supply chain businesses producing modern equipment. For the Midwest’s rural areas, today’s news is a signal that wind power development will keep growing and provide a new income stream for farmers, spur rural economic development and improve the environment for everyone. For cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Des Moines, Detroit, Indianapolis and Minneapolis, today’s news means a new era of solar panels on rooftops and more energy efficiency buildings that can better energize our urban communities.

“It’s time for the Midwest’s Congressional Delegation and Governors to step up and seize this opportunity to modernize our aging energy system and gain the benefits of growing the new clean energy economy. Let’s end the political squabbling and move forward with smart climate change solutions that are good for many Midwestern businesses and good for our environment.”


Press Release: Thank You Sen. Grassley for Leading Charge On Wind Energy

July 21, 2015

Environmental Law & Policy Center Thanks Iowa’s Sen. Grassley for Leading Charge to Extend Federal Wind Energy Production Tax Credit

DES MOINES, Iowa – The Environmental Law & Policy Center thanks Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) for leading the charge to include the Wind Energy Production Tax Credit in the Federal Tax Extenders Package Bill, which passed out of the Senate Finance Committee today on Capitol Hill.

“Senator Grassley played a key role in Congress extending the federal wind energy production tax credit, which is helping to spur wind power growth in Iowa,” said Steven Falck, ELPC’s Senior Policy Advocate in Des Moines.

The wind energy production tax credit first passed in 1992, which has fostered growth of the Iowa wind energy supply chain and created more than 6,000 jobs. Through the last quarter of 2014, the U.S. installed wind energy capacity was at 65,879 megawatts, which also created more than 73,000 jobs.

“The Environmental Law & Policy Center urges the full Iowa Congressional delegation to support Sen. Grassley’s lead in extending the Federal Wind Energy Production Tax Credit,” said Falck.

Howard Learner Statement on Supreme Court Mercury Ruling

June 29, 2015
Contact: David Jakubiak 

Supreme Court’s Mercury Decision Limits Progress for Cleaner Air, Healthier Environment
Costs of Mercury Pollution Too High to Ignore

Executive Director, Environmental Law & Policy Center

“The Supreme Court’s decision today delays important mercury and other air toxics standards that limit pollution in order to protect children’s health and the Great Lakes. State public health officials in the Great Lakes states have issued ‘mercury advisories’ warning people that, sadly, it’s not safe to eat many fish they catch in most of our lakes and rivers. The U.S. EPA should now act promptly, following the Court’s decision, to fully assess the public health and environmental costs of mercury pollution, finalize lawful standards and move our country forward.”

“Unfortunately the coal industry is being rewarded for endless litigation stalling the U.S. EPA’s reasonable standards to reduce mercury pollution in our environment and protect public health. It’s well past time for EPA and the courts to move forward in responsible ways to greatly reduce mercury and other toxic pollutants that harm our children’s health and our waterways.”


Greenwire: Lawyers Mine Health Care Ruling for Clean Power Plan Clues

This story featuring Howard Learner is re-posted from

By Jeremy P. Jacobs, E&E reporter

Environmental attorneys are grappling with whether today’s Supreme Court ruling upholding the Obama administration’s health care reform could set a precedent in expected legal challenges to U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

In a 6-3 vote, the justices upheld the Affordable Care Act’s tax subsidies for people who get insurance on both federal and state-created exchanges.

Challengers claimed that a strict reading of the law mandated that the IRS provide the subsidies only for individuals who purchased insurance on an “exchange established by the state” and, therefore, not on the exchanges in roughly three dozen states that were set up by the federal government.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in his opinion for the court, wrote that the context of the law indicated that Congress intended both types of exchanges to qualify for the subsidies. Otherwise, he wrote, the underpinnings of the health care law would crumble.

“Those credits are necessary for the Federal Exchanges to function like their State Exchange counterparts,” Roberts wrote, “and to avoid the type of calamitous result that Congress plainly meant to avoid.”

Environmental lawyers, however, have homed in on the chief justice’s brief discussion of the 1984 precedent Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council. In that ruling, the court set up a two-step structure for adjudicating agency actions. Step 1 is whether the law directing the agency’s work is ambiguous. If it is, under Step 2 the court must defer to the agency’s interpretation if it was reasonable.
At first glance, the health care reform case, King v. Burwell, looked as if it could be decided on Chevron grounds. But Roberts quickly sidestepped the precedent.

Chevron didn’t apply because the health care case is “extraordinary” and centers on a question of “deep ‘economic and political significance,'” Roberts wrote, quoting precedent. The Chevron two-step process, he said, need not be initiated if it appears the ambiguity at issue was not one that Congress intended for the acting agency to resolve.

“Had Congress wished to assign that question to an agency, it surely would have done so explicitly,” Roberts wrote.

Lisa Heinzerling, a Georgetown Law professor and former climate official at EPA, said she was “struck” by the passage.

It’s an “affirmation of the idea that because an issue is really important, an agency doesn’t get deference,” she said.

She noted that the “economic and political significance” argument has been raised in the early challenges to EPA’s proposed greenhouse gas standard for existing power plants, the key component of the administration’s effort to address climate change that is due to be finalized later this year.

In fact, Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe, a former mentor to President Obama, made that argument earlier this year, Heinzerling said.

A potentially analogous issue involves the conflicting Clean Air Act amendments under which EPA is issuing the greenhouse gas rules. Due to a legislative glitch, two versions of Section 111(d) were signed into law — one from the House and one from the Senate. Critics of the proposal read the House version to prohibit EPA from issuing regulations for sources of pollution already regulated under the law.

Because EPA has already issued power plant standards for other pollutants, that theory would foreclose the new rule.

EPA and environmentalists counter that the Senate version only prohibits redundant regulation of specific pollutants, which would allow the greenhouse gas standards to stand.

The two amendments are not easily reconciled, and Thomas Lorenzen, a former Justice Department environmental attorney, said today’s ruling reinforces the idea that the fate of the Clean Power Plan will ultimately be resolved by judges.

And Roberts’ opinion, he said, may have provided a way for them to sidestep the traditional two-step Chevron analysis.

With the two amendments, “you have a congressional goof,” said Lorenzen, who now represents industry clients at the law firm Crowell & Moring. There is “no clear intent to delegate authority to the agency.”
Jeff Holmstead, a former EPA air chief now representing industry at Bracewell & Giuliani, echoed that point.

“The decision in King v. Burwell makes it pretty clear that the court will not just defer to EPA but will make its own decision about the legal implications of the competing House and Senate versions of 111(d),” Holmstead said. “The court clarified its holding in Chevron by saying that the courts should only defer to an agency on the types of issues that Congress intended to leave to that agency’s discretion. It will be hard for EPA to argue that Congress intended to give EPA discretion over the scope of its own power.”

‘You need to look at the context’
Heinzerling, as well as environmentalists, however, cautioned against reading too much into today’s decision. They noted that several factors differentiate the case from the inevitable challenges to the Clean Power Plan.

Roberts said Chevron didn’t apply because the ambiguity in the state versus federal exchange issue was left to the IRS.

“It is especially unlikely that Congress would have delegated this decision to the IRS, which has no expertise in crafting health insurance policy of this sort,” Roberts wrote.

That would not be the case in a challenge to the Clean Power Plan, said Howard Learner, the president of the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center.

“There is a congruence between the statute, the Clean Air Act and the agency, EPA, being called upon to execute it,” he said. “I would be very, very surprised if the court went to some sort of Chevron step 0 analysis with regard to EPA’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act.”

Heinzerling added that there was an alternate way to read the health care decision that would bolster EPA’s case.

After rejecting a Chevron analysis, Roberts chose to look at the broader context of the law in order to uphold the administration’s reading of it.

In the context of the Clean Power Plan, EPA and environmentalists contend that the 1990 amendments to the law were clearly intended to strengthen EPA’s authority under Section 111(d), not weaken it — and critics’ reading would.

Roberts, Heinzerling said, seemed to say “you need to look at the context in which that language appears.”

“That’s very helpful in most environmental cases,” Heinzerling said.

More broadly, some law professors still found reasons to be concerned about Roberts’ reasoning, even though the case turned out to be a major win for the administration.

Justin Pidot, a former DOJ environmental attorney now a professor at the Sturm College of Law at the University of Denver, said the ruling reinforces the court’s willingness to wade into high-profile agency actions.

There is, he said, “this newly minted rule that the court is going to intercede when costs get high. I think it’s alarming,” he said. “That’s a pretty dangerous principle for EPA.”

Midwest Energy News: Net Metering Policies Drive Solar Growth

Turns out, solar energy is good for rate payers, good for the grid and good for the environment.

ELPC’s Brad Klein spoke with Midwest Energy News about what a new Environment America study on the value of solar  means for the on-going discussion about the role of solar in the energy future of the Midwest.

From that story:

“…In the Midwest, many feel like solar is under attack. In states including Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan, utilities are seeking — or state regulators have adopted — policies that impede net metering or solar more generally. Clean-energy advocates lament that these decisions have generally been made without referencing data, hence they hope evidence like that presented in Environment America’s report will help shape future decisions.

“When [utilities] argue about the cost of solar they never use any specifics, they’re generalized arguments that don’t reflect the level of solar penetration and don’t reflect any benefits that solar brings to the grid,” said Brad Klein, senior attorney for the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC).

“And the more systemic issue is those arguments completely fail to recognize the benefits of solar, all the things this report lays out. When you study distributed solar on the grid, you learn there are a whole host of benefits utilities are ignoring when they claim net metering is unfair.”

Read the whole story here:


Crain’s Chicago Business: Exelon’s nuke partner is also a rival

Exelon has a frenemy in Warren Buffett.

The billionaire chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, which owns Des Moines, Iowa-based utility MidAmerican Energy, is playing an outsized role in Illinois’ energy future. MidAmerican is co-owner with Exelon of the Quad Cities nuclear plant, which Exelon has threatened to close unless lawmakers vote to hike electricity rates on most state residents to provide more revenue to the company’s six Illinois nukes, including Quad Cities.

But MidAmerican is arguably a major contributor to Quad Cities’ woes.

Exelon consistently has blamed the sale of wind power from Iowa into Illinois for driving wholesale energy prices down to levels that make it impossible for some Exelon nukes—in particular Quad Cities, which sits along the Mississippi River—to make money.

Who’s building all that wind power? Since 2004, MidAmerican has developed more than 2,800 megawatts, about half the wind capacity in Iowa, according to the American Wind Energy Association, and significantly more than the 1,819-megawatt capacity of the Quad Cities nuke.

On May 1, MidAmerican announced plans to invest $900 million in the construction of two wind farms next year that will add 552 megawatts. Buffett is an enthusiastic supporter of renewable energy, saying last year that he would be happy to invest $15 billion in green energy over coming years. For his company, investing in Iowa wind farms comes virtually without risk because they’re approved by the state’s utilities board and ratepayers cover their cost. But the operations generate more power than can be sold exclusively in Iowa, so excess output is sold into Illinois and elsewhere.

While Exelon says Quad Cities is losing money, those losses are borne solely by Exelon, not MidAmerican. That’s because MidAmerican, which owns 25 percent of the plant, sells its portion of the output to its own ratepayers in Illinois, Iowa and South Dakota at regulated rates, ensuring it’s profitable. Exelon, operator and 75 percent owner of Quad Cities, sells its share at market prices, with no guarantee those rates will cover its costs.

MidAmerican says it supports Exelon’s proposed legislation in Illinois, which would impose a surcharge on customers of Commonwealth Edison, which serves northern Illinois, and Ameren Illinois, which delivers power downstate. The fee would support “low-carbon” forms of power and is crafted so that Exelon’s Illinois nukes would get the vast majority of the $300 million in revenue it would generate.

The bill wouldn’t impose that charge on MidAmerican’s 85,000 customers in the Quad Cities region of Illinois. That’s despite the fact that one of Exelon’s arguments for subsidizing its nukes is to preserve their high-paying union jobs and the tax base in affected communities.

So, MidAmerican’s support for its business partner is qualified. “Exelon has described the legislation as not negatively impacting MidAmerican Energy’s Illinois customers, which is critical to the company’s support,” MidAmerican spokeswoman Ashton Newman says in an email. “If future versions of the legislation impose additional costs that harm our customers, MidAmerican Energy will need to re-evaluate the measure.” MidAmerican says it wouldn’t be fair to charge its Illinois customers when they pay for MidAmerican’s part of the plant in their rates.

Yet MidAmerican has raised rates in Illinois just once since 1992. As a result, Illinoisans in the Quad Cities pay 11 cents per kilowatt-hour, 17 percent less than the 13.3 cents ComEd households pay. An average household using 653 kilowatt-hours per month pays $87 to ComEd and $72 to MidAmerican. Exelon says its proposed surcharge would add about $2 a month to the average residential bill.

“Many businesses are willing to support Exelon getting more money for its nuclear plants as long as someone else is paying for it,” says Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago and a frequent Exelon critic.

For its part, Exelon says it has no position on whether MidAmerican customers should pay the surcharge. It wrote the bill to exclude them because past state laws to aid specific forms of energy have affected only ComEd and Ameren customers.

Regarding MidAmerican’s role in harming the economics of Quad Cities, Exelon spokesman Paul Elsberg says in an email, “We cannot fault any company for taking advantage of governmental support available to them.”

Exelon continues to lobby Congress to end federal tax credits for new wind farms that it says distort the energy markets. In the meantime, Elsberg says, “If Illinois’ nuclear plants were permitted to compete on an equal footing with other low-carbon energy sources through (Exelon’s surcharge), we believe the plants would return to a modest level of profitability.”

So far, Exelon hasn’t persuaded state lawmakers to act despite threats that it will start the process of closing Quad Cities and two other nukes without immediate action. CEO Chris Crane said at an investor conference on May 28 that Exelon would move in September to start the process of closing Quad Cities without financial relief. If so, Exelon won’t be able to do so unilaterally.

Exelon will need its frenemy’s acquiescence. “It is a legal issue that would need to be worked out between MidAmerican Energy and Exelon,” says Newman, adding the company “hopes the plant will continue to operate for a number of years.”

Press Release: New Clean Water Standards “An Important Step Forward” According to Environmental Law & Policy Center


Wednesday May 27, 2015

New Clean Water Standards “An Important Step Forward” According to
Environmental Law & Policy Center  

CHICAGO – Today, the Obama Administration issued new clean water standards that are an important step forward to protect safe drinking water and healthier community rivers, streams and wetlands in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds.  ELPC and many of our allies across the nation have worked to achieve these new standards for many years. These standards have been informed by public input, are well grounded in the law, and are based on sound science.


ELPC’s Founding Vision is Becoming Today’s Sustainability Reality

Support ELPC’s Next 20 Years of Successful Advocacy

Donate Now