Josh Mandelbaum

Two Big Wins in Iowa

Despite adding wind, Iowa’s MidAmerican Energy still clings to coal. Two recent ELPC wins could change that.

Iowa has carved out a role as a wind energy leader, but MidAmerican Energy continues to run its fleet of dirty coal plants without firm plans to retire them.

This is largely due to the state’s lack of an integrated resource planning process and MidAmerican’s resistance to robust and transparent planning. Without a requirement to conduct resource planning, MidAmerican simply has not developed a plan to phase out its coal plants.

Two big wins, one at the Iowa Supreme Court and one at the Iowa Utilities Board will change the trajectory of Iowa’s energy future and make it easier to shut down uneconomic coal plants that pollute our air and waste our money.

Iowa Supreme Court Finds Regulators Can’t Exclude Evidence

In reviewing MidAmerican’s most recent Emission Plan and Budget, the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) excluded evidence presented by ELPC and our coalition groups that showed retiring coal plants was a cost-effective way for MidAmerican to meet air pollution standards. The IUB’s order effectively put MidAmerican in control of the conversation, indicating it would only consider closing coal plants if the utility proposes it.

In April, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed the IUB’s order and sent the case back to the IUB. The Court found that it is the IUB’s job to consider all of the evidence in a case, not just the evidence that the utility presents.

MidAmerican wants to avoid scrutiny of its uneconomic coal plants because coal costs Iowa more. The Supreme Court’s ruling means environmental groups and other stakeholders can provide real evidence about better options than running costly coal plants indefinitely.

Iowa Utilities Board Order Recognizes Role of Solar and Storage

When MidAmerican proposed its massive Wind PRIME project, which includes 2,042 megawatts of new wind and 50 MW of new solar development, ELPC and our colleagues questioned it on two fronts: Where was MidAmerican’s analysis to justify this plan and why wasn’t MidAmerican also planning to close its coal plants as part of this major investment in renewables?

Our environmental coalition submitted independent expert analysis that demonstrated customers would save money if MidAmerican planned for a phased retirement of its coal plants and invested in battery storage and solar to round out its wind fleet.

MidAmerican’s own internal study reached a similar conclusion. The Zero Emissions Study, which MidAmerican tried to keep secret and our coalition only obtained through legal action, also showed solar was a better clean energy resource to meet reliability needs in a zero-emission future. MidAmerican knew solar was better, but proceeded with a plan that kept coal alive.

The Iowa Utilities Board agreed with our coalition, finding that MidAmerican did not demonstrate adequate planning when pushing forward with Wind PRIME. The IUB found solar generation is better situated to meet MidAmerican’s reliability needs than MidAmerican’s wind/coal fleet. As a result, the IUB ordered that MidAmerican should bear the economic risk if its $3.9 billion project performs less efficiently than the Company’s claims.

If MidAmerican decides to proceed with the Wind PRIME project under the IUB’s new conditions, it must also conduct a public planning process before it proposes any future generation projects that includes a comparison of the proposed project with other feasible sources of supply. The Board made clear that MidAmerican must be more transparent if it wants to keep running its coal plants.

Now MidAmerican Can’t Dodge Resource Planning

Together, these wins mean MidAmerican cannot avoid scrutiny of its uneconomic coal plants.

The Wind PRIME decision requires a full open conversation about MidAmerican’s coal fleet and renewable generation for all future advance ratemaking cases. The Iowa Supreme Court decision makes it clear that utilities are required to compare cleaner alternatives like solar and battery storage, and should make it easier for environmental groups to introduce relevant evidence over utility objections in other IUB proceedings.

ELPC and our colleagues have advocated for transparent planning and a comparison of coal plants to renewables in multiple dockets over the last five years. Both our analysis and MidAmerican’s secret internal analysis have consistently demonstrated that coal plants are uneconomic when compared to new renewables.

Regulators and utilities must now compare the cost of keeping coal on life support to the cost of adding renewables to a modern energy grid. That’s a comparison we think renewables will always win.

Josh Mandelbaum,

Senior Attorney

Josh Mandelbaum is a senior attorney with ELPC, based in Des Moines. Josh’s practice focus is clean energy and clean water.

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