Iowa Environmental Council

Press Release: Environmental Groups Push MidAmerican Energy to Commit to a Comprehensive Clean Energy Transition


Environmental Groups Push MidAmerican Energy to Commit to a Comprehensive Clean Energy Transition

Call for Wind XII Approval to Require Coal Retirements


Des Moines, Iowa — The Iowa Environmental Council and Environmental Law & Policy Center filed testimony with the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) in MidAmerican Energy’s Wind XII docket. Kerri Johannsen, Energy Program Director with the Iowa Environmental Council, provided the testimony on behalf of both groups, calling for approval of the additional wind to include requirements for equivalent coal capacity retirements. The groups also strongly recommended MidAmerican outline a process for a comprehensive clean energy transition that includes wind, solar, storage and demand side resources such as energy efficiency and demand response.

MidAmerican is touting Wind XII as the final project in the 100% Renewable Vision the company announced in 2016. However, MidAmerican has not announced a single coal plant retirement since setting this benchmark. The company owns and operates five coal plants in Iowa with a total of 3,740 MW of nameplate capacity and is majority owner of the 725 MW Ottumwa Generating Station.

According to 2016 data from the Energy Information Administration, this level of capacity puts MidAmerican’s coal fleet in the top 20 largest fleets of any utility in the country — at 19 — out of the 164 companies that own at least 100MW of coal generation. Construction of new coal plants is not cost-effective and utilities around the U.S. are announcing coal retirements on an almost daily basis. By betting on coal, MidAmerican will only climb in this undesirable ranking.

“The state of Iowa and MidAmerican’s wind energy leadership is commendable,” said Josh Mandelbaum, Senior Attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “However, a comprehensive clean energy vision requires a plan for retiring dirty coal plants and replacing them with a diverse mix of renewable resources including wind, solar, storage, and energy efficiency.”

MidAmerican filed its proposal for Wind XII on May 30, 2018. Wind XII is a 591 MW, $922 million project that would be completed by late 2020.

Wind generation provides significant benefits including hedging risks from fuel price volatility and geo-political uncertainty, environmental benefits, and reducing dependence on fossil fuels.  However, as Johannsen points out, “[m]any benefits MidAmerican claims for Wind XII are unlikely to occur unless coupled with retirement of coal capacity.”

Utilities around the country have begun proposing comprehensive clean energy transition plans. Johannsen’s testimony summarizes several examples of utilities retiring coal plants and replacing them with a mix of wind, solar, storage, and energy efficiency including Xcel Energy in Colorado, Consumers Energy in Michigan, and MidAmerican’s sister Berkshire Hathaway subsidiaries, NV Energy and PacifiCorp.

Iowa’s wind leadership helped the state attract companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Facebook that wanted to invest in a state that offered affordable, renewable energy for their power needs. Says Johannsen, “To remain competitive, Iowa utilities must not settle for the status quo, but instead continue to show leadership in clean energy innovation or the state will fall behind other emerging leaders.”



Midwest Energy News: Biggest Wind Project in Iowa History Back on Track

By Karen Uhlenhuth, Midwest Energy News

The largest proposed wind energy project in Iowa’s history appears to be back on track this week after a tense period when it seemed the deal might fall apart over differences between a utility and large energy users.

On Tuesday, MidAmerican Energy — the utility pursuing the $3.6 billion Wind XI project — reached an accord with several major customers that objected to the plan, including tech giants Google, Microsoft and Facebook and a group of large industrial customers known as the Iowa Business Energy Coalition (IBEC).

MidAmerican President Bill Fehrman said in testimony filed with state regulators that, based on the companies’ objections, he found it “hard to conclude that the Data Centers and IBEC want MidAmerican to develop Wind XI.”

The large customers testified about a range of concerns with the proposal, including MidAmerican’s approach to modeling, the amount of power the utility projected its turbines would produce, the return on equity that MidAmerican was requesting and the treatment of environmental credits resulting from the production of renewable energy.

In the settlement, the customers and MidAmerican agreed to an 11 percent return on equity, slightly less than the 11.5 percent that MidAmerican initially had requested. The customers wanted a 9.5 percent return. And the two sides agreed to assign the environmental benefits of Wind XI to the various classes of customers, based on each class’ kilowatt-hour sales.

Like MidAmerican, the Iowa Environmental Council had expressed concerns that the changes proposed by the industrial customers and data centers could prove fatal to the project.

In a blog post late last month, the council’s energy program director, Nathaniel Baer, wrote: “While no party appears to have explicitly opposed Wind XI, the changes recommended by several interveners, including the data centers and IBEC, could cause Wind XI to be smaller or, at worst, not to be built at all.”

In written testimony, Fehrman said he was surprised that large customers challenged the project, given that they never expressed opinions in any of the 10 previous wind projects developed by MidAmerican.

The objections also appeared to fly in the face of the companies’ history of supporting renewable energy. All three companies have made significant investments in renewable power, including in Iowa, and have indicated they eventually intend to power all of their operations with renewable electricity.

In 2014, Google signed a deal with MidAmerican to purchase 407 megawatts of wind energy to power a new data center in Iowa. A year ago, Facebook announced that it was expanding with a third data center in Altoona, Iowa. The company cited several reasons for the decision, including access to wind energy.

In April, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad attended the announcement of the 2,000-MW Wind XI installation, which MidAmerican claims is the biggest economic development project in the state’s history.

Wind XI would increase MidAmerican’s substantial wind portfolio to the point that wind would provide energy equal to 85 percent of the electricity sold by the company in a year’s time.

A final decision from state regulators is expected in September. MidAmerican has said it would need to start construction on the project before Dec. 31 in order to receive the maximum amount of federal production tax credits. The credit will gradually decrease over several years, beginning on Jan. 1, 2017.

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Business Record Daily: ELPC Wins Iowa Court Case to Better Protect State’s Waterways

By Perry Beeman, Business Record

A district court decision that overturned a sewage permit the Iowa Department of Natural Resources had issued to the city of Clarion reopens a long and heated fight over the protection of Iowa’s waterways.

The result, theoretically, could mean more expensive sewage projects at factories and at municipal sewage plants, although the exact ramifications aren’t clear yet.

District Judge Michael Huppert ruled that the DNR failed to properly consider how much pollution would go into the Des Moines River watershed, and instead focused primarily on the cost of the project. The Iowa Environmental Council, which brought the case and has long sought to force the state to enforce the so-called anti-degradation standards associated with the U.S. Clean Water Act, said the ruling is the first legal case addressing the enforcement of the anti-degradation standards since the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the standards in 2014.

Broadly, the rules are intended to prevent pollution in streams from getting worse. Often, that means limiting what can be emitted from sewage plants and other “point sources” of pollution through permit requirements.

“[E]conomic efficiency involves a comparison between costs and environmental benefit, [and] no such analysis appears in the final alternative analysis at even a rudimentary level,” Huppert stated in his opinion.

The ruling reverses the DNR’s approval of the permit and requires an accounting of the environmental benefits of less-polluting designs. DNR spokesman Kevin Baskins said state lawyers are still reviewing the case to determine next steps.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center represented the Iowa Environmental Council in the case.

“This ruling confirms that consideration of environmental benefits is not optional, and they need to be considered as part of the anti-degradation process,” Environmental Law & Policy Center attorney Josh Mandelbaum said in a statement. “The court’s ruling sends a strong message to the DNR that they can’t skirt the consideration of environmental benefits simply by relying on cost.”

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Cedar Rapids Gazette: ELPC Wins Iowa Case, DNR Failed to Follow Anti-degradation Standards

By Orlan Love, The Gazette

An Iowa District Court earlier this month found the Department of Natural Resources failed to appropriately enforce the state’s clean water anti-degradation standards when it approved a wastewater treatment project that would increase pollution in the Des Moines River watershed.

The ruling is the first legal case addressing the enforcement of the anti-degradation standards — which require consideration and implementation where appropriate of alternative treatments that reduce pollution — since the Iowa Supreme Court upheld them in 2014.

That year, the north-central Iowa city of Clarion submitted to the DNR a project design to expand its wastewater treatment plant that discharges into a tributary of the Boone River, which in turn empties into the Des Moines River.

The DNR allowed Clarion to choose the least expensive option without fully considering the environmental benefits of an alternative, pollution-reducing design that Clarion’s analysis deemed practical and affordable, according to Judge Michael Huppert’s ruling, issued March 17.

The alternative design would have reduced the amounts of nitrates and phosphorus discharged into a watershed that has been plagued with elevated levels of the pollutants targeted in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, said Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center, which filed a petition for judicial review on behalf of the Iowa Environmental Council.

The state’s nutrient reduction strategy specifically directs, in situations such as that prevailing in Clarion, that “evaluation of nutrient removal feasibility will be conducted as part of the construction permitting process through current anti-degradation rules and procedures” and that “nutrient removal will be encouraged any time construction is proposed.”

The court found that under Iowa’s anti-degradation standards, a higher-cost project design could be implemented if it would have a substantial environmental benefit. The ruling reverses DNR’s decision and requires the agency to revisit the analysis and appropriately account for environmental benefits of less polluting project designs.

Economic efficiency “involves a comparison between costs and environmental benefit, (and) no such analysis appears in the final alternative analysis,” Huppert said in his opinion.

He said Clarion’s alternatives analysis was “incomplete as measured against the anti-degradation implementation procedure, and the (DNR) erred by approving it.”

“This ruling confirms that consideration of environmental benefits is not optional, and they need to be considered as part of the anti-degradation process,” Mandelbaum said.

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Des Moines Register: Iowa Court Sides with ELPC on Implementation of Anti-degradation Standards

By Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register

The state of Iowa failed to adequately weigh the environmental benefits that would have come with a more expensive wastewater treatment system for a north-central community, a district court judge ruled last week.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center, representing the Iowa Environmental Council, said the Iowa Department of Natural Resources allowed Clarion to choose a wastewater treatment design based on cost alone.

“They chose the cheapest alternative, but there were other reasonable and practical options that would have reduced pollution,” said Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “The department didn’t consider the environmental benefits of those alternatives.”

The court found that under Iowa’s anti-degradation standards, a higher-cost project design could be implemented if it would have a substantial environmental benefit, the groups said.

Mandelbaum said Clarion’s $5 million wastewater treatment expansion would have cost about $100,000 more to build — and about $215,000 more annually to operate and maintain the plant. But the more environmentally friendly plant would have met the state’s goals on reducing nitrogen and phosphorus levels. The plant feeds into the Des Moines River watershed.

“Nutrient pollution is a priority (in the) state, and we assume that would be reflected in the way the state enforces its environmental laws,” Mandelbaum said.

An Iowa DNR official said the state would review the case. A city of Clarion official wasn’t available to comment Friday.

Mandelbaum said the court order requires the state and city to re-evaluate the plant’s environmental impact. The Clarion project is under construction.

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Iowa Judge Upholds Clean Water Standards

An Iowa Judge has tossed out a case challenging clean water standards  intended to stop pollution from entering the state’s unpolluted waterways. In their story about the case, the Associated Press caught up with Josh Mandelbaum, Staff Attorney in ELPC’s Des Moines office.

 “‘It’s a major victory for water quality in Iowa,” said Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center, an environmental advocacy group. “These rules are designed to protect public health and to protect our waterways and the uses of those waterways whether it’s making them safe for outdoor recreation or safe for drinking water.'”


Victory! Iowa’s Clean Water Standards Protected from Attacks

Two years ago, ELPC and our allies at the Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) celebrated Iowa’s adoption of strong “anti-degradation” standards – an important but often ignored part of the Clean Water Act designed to keep unnecessary pollution out of clean waterways. But since then, naysayers have been challenging this important standard and even issuing intrusive subpoenas to intimidate local environmentalists. On March 30th, ELPC’s and IEC’s work to fend off these attacks and protect the standards achieved a significant courtroom victory when a judge threw out the lawsuit challenging the clean water standards. This follows up on our victory from October 2011, when the judge dismissed the groundless subpoena requests and protected IEC’s first amendment rights. We look forward to continuing to protect and effectively implement Iowa’s strong clean water standard.

ELPC Defends Iowa’s Clean Water Standards

ELPC is defending Iowa’s clean water standards from a legal challenge by the farm bureau. The farm bureau attempted to subpoena private communications related to the clean water standards from the Iowa Environmental Council. ELPC argued that IEC’s first amendment rights protected them from this intrusive subpoena. On October 13, the judge ruled in our favor and agreed that IEC could not be forced to turn over private communication. As this case continues, ELPC will work to uphold clean water protections and protect the rights of our environmental colleagues in the Midwest. Read an earlier post about this case.

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