A row of wind turbines sit in a field.
The Iowa environmental council wants the state to close its coal-fired plants in favor of more clean energy investment. Credit: Jim Hammer / Flickr

Iowa’s investor-owned utilities should speed up the retirement of coal plants because neither needs that power to meet demand, the Iowa Environmental Council said in a new analysis.

The council’s energy and climate policy specialist, Steve Guyer, also said at a webinar Wednesday that power generated with hydrogen, and battery storage of electricity from various sources, will help Iowa build on its wind, solar and other renewable energy sources. Iowa is one of the nation’s leaders in wind energy production.

“Batteries are going to play a key role in our future move to renewables,” Guyer said. And hydrogen fuel cells could help utilities as they transition out of coal and into more renewable energy, he added. 

Guyer outlined an analysis that showed, in the council’s view, that the utilities have proven they can meet demand without using any power from remaining coal plants. The growth in wind and solar energy, and the lower cost of that power, has made renewable energy a better choice, he added.

Environmental groups sue for review of coal plant emissions

The comments came after the council, a nonprofit coalition of environmental groups, joined the Environmental Law & Policy Center and Sierra Club in a Polk County District court lawsuit challenging an Iowa Utilities Board ruling. The board turned aside the groups’ efforts to get MidAmerican Energy Co. to review its coal plant emissions and efficiencies under board rules. The utilities board, a state panel, recently declared the request was outside the scope of the case the board was considering. 

Guyer said MidAmerican’s Port Neal coal units south of Sioux City are particularly inefficient and should be shut down. The council maintains that closing the northern Port Neal plant by the end of 2022 would lower the cost of energy by as much as 10%. Closing the southern unit in that same time frame would lower costs by 23% over the next decade, the council analysis found.

Sierra Club agreed. “Operating the Neal plants, which MidAmerican does not need to meet demand, has forced customers to pay millions in unnecessary costs,” Katie Rock, who works on the club’s anti-coal campaign, said in a statement. 

“While the market and high operating costs are driving other utilities to retire their coal plants, MidAmerican is sticking to coal to put money in the pockets of shareholders, no matter what it costs their ratepayers. Iowans deserve better,” she added.

Utilities board spokesman Don Tormey declined to comment.

Both MidAmerican and Alliant have greatly increased their wind and solar resources, and plan to continue, they have said. Guyer displayed graphics Wednesday showing the utilities’ increased reliance on renewables, and the downturn in generation by burning coal and natural gas. 

When MidAmerican, which still operates six coal plants, was challenged on the coal issue in November, spokesman Geoff Greenwood noted the utility has retired four coal units since 2015 and converted a fifth to burn natural gas. 

On Wednesday, MidAmerican spokesperson Tina Hoffman said: “After this winter’s extreme cold and the warm weather we are seeing now, ensuring we can offer our customers reliable service — in addition to affordable and sustainable energy — is our responsibility. Maintaining a diverse fuel mix allows us to do that. The IUB’s support of MidAmerican’s filing is recognition that the environmental controls in place at our thermal facilities are both reasonable and cost effective. We believe the court will uphold the board’s decision.”

Mayuri Farlinger, Alliant’s operations director, said the utilities long-range plans call for “thoughtful planning for the transition of our generation fleet to ensure ongoing availability of reliable services.”

“This includes increasing the use of renewable resources, such as solar, adding more battery storage and building out our connected energy network,” Farlinger said. “It also includes discontinuing coal generation in Lansing by the end of 2022 while transitioning Burlington Generating Station to natural gas this year. Final timing of Lansing’s retirement is subject to the MISO (Midcontinent Independent System Operator Inc.) retirement process.”

 Alliant’s plans call for eliminating coal-burning by 2040.

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