EPA Carbon Standards and Iowa: Breezing Past Proposed Goals

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This post is co-presented with NRDC MAP Energy Policy Fellow and native Iowan Katharine McCormick.

The Des Moines Register’s editorial board applauded the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for proposing the first standards for carbon pollution from existing power plants. They got it right: the proposal offers an opportunity for Iowa to continue to grow its booming wind sector and implement solar and energy efficiency to a greater extent, creating a more affordable, more independent, and cleaner electric system.   In fact, Iowa is already on a path to meet the emissions reduction target set by EPA.

EPA has proposed a flexible, system-wide approach, in which the agency sets the targets but each state develops a plan to comply based on its own local resources and economy. The EPA target is calculated by assuming a specific path to reduce carbon pollution – the same path it applies to each state’s energy mix – but Iowa can reach the target any way it chooses. The state can take initiative, be creative, and make decisions based on its views of cost, reliability, and environmental benefits.

Iowa’s target is modest and easily achievable, requiring a reduction of only 16% in its carbon emission rate by 2030. (The rate is the amount of carbon emitted per each unit of power produced.) Iowa can easily meet this target by taking advantage of existing clean, local resources and reducing demand through energy efficiency programs.

As seen below, the state has already made strides in reducing carbon emissions. In fact, Iowa is on track to meet the target before the standard is even in effect. This is due in large part to the progress Iowa has made in recent years: a 22% decrease in the emission rate since 1990, with the bulk of that reduction since 2005. It also suggests that the state could be given a more ambitious standard and achieve even greater reductions in carbon pollution. 








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EPA developed its emission reduction target for each state by applying four basic tools to the state’s current energy system: improvements at existing coal plants, increased use of natural gas plants that already exist or are under construction, a relatively low deployment of renewables, and reduced energy demand through efficiency programs. The agency based its assumption of the deployment of renewables on a regional average of existing state goals: 15% by 2030. However, even today Iowa outpaces that regional average by 12 percentage points, showing that the EPA target is based on conservative assumptions on the opportunity for clean energy. 

In fact, Iowa is the nation’s leader in wind generation, with 27% of the state’s electricity now coming from wind turbines. MidAmerican Energy, owned by Berkshire Hathaway, has announced plans to invest an additional $1.9 billion by 2016, adding 1050 MW of wind to the state and increasing wind’s share in the utility’s energy portfolio to 40%.

Alliant, or Interstate Power & Light, another major utility in the state, says they are also well-positioned to comply with the rule. Four old, coal-burning electric generating units from three utilities in the state will be retired by 2016; much of this capacity will be replaced with wind power and efficiency --  zero emission and low cost energy resources.

Renewables and efficiency bring benefits beyond the electricity provided.  Wind energy was a factor in drawing companies like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft to locate their data centers in Iowa rather than in our more coal-dependent neighbor states. Governor Branstad attributed the drastic employment gains in Lee County partly to turbine manufacturing growth in the state. And, when the wind industry came to Newton, Iowa, it gave new purpose to skilled workers left behind when an appliance manufacturer left (see video below).

Iowa is making a lot of progress in other clean energy industries, too. In May, Governor Branstad signed into law a bill renewing and tripling a state solar tax credit. That bill passed with strongly bipartisan, near-unanimous support, with votes of 88-4 in the House and 46-0 in the Iowa Senate. In fact, by blanketing the roofs of eligible homes, warehouses, schools, banks, and more, the state could meet 20% of its electricity needs.

Energy efficiency also holds promise for the state. By including increased levels of energy efficiency in its state plan, Iowa could both spur the creation of more than 2,500 jobs and save homes an average of $6/month on their electricity bills. Innovative programs and technologies, like the smart meters piloted in Dubuque, will also reduce carbon pollution. 

MidAmerican and Allliant will invest over $900 million over the next five years in efficiency programs in Iowa. With even more emphasis on energy efficiency, we can waste less energy, save money, and create jobs – results that every Iowan can get behind.

All of this goes to show that the Des Moines Register was certainly correct in seeing opportunities for Iowa – and the Earth – in EPA’s proposed standards for carbon pollution.


Turbines in a field outside of Williams, Iowa image by Bill Whittaker via WikiCommons.