D.M. councilman pushes MidAmerican Energy to shelve coal plants

Iowa is one of the nation's top producers of wind energy. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

MidAmerican Energy would be pressured to retire its remaining coal plants under a new energy plan being considered by the Des Moines City Council.

Council member Josh Mandelbaum, senior attorney for the nonprofit Environmental Law & Policy Center’s Des Moines office, is pushing for all electricity users in the city to get all their power from carbon-free sources by 2030. Mayor Frank Cownie has supported similar goals. 

Basically, that means persuading MidAmerican Energy to close its remaining six coal-fired power plants, Mandelbaum said. The utility could reduce carbon emissions by switching to natural gas or installing more wind and power generation, as it has in recent years, he added. Burning natural gas emits less carbon than burning coal.

It’s unclear if the rest of the seven-member council will support Mandelbaum’s proposal. Mandelbaum said the council plans a work session on the issue in early December. He expects amendments to his proposed resolution. 

The proposal also would commit the city to a 45% cut in greenhouse gas emissions from 2010 levels by 2030. The city would have to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, aligning with the goals of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane trap heat, warming the globe.

Resolutions seldom have a legal bite, but this one might at least have baby teeth. Mandelbaum said MidAmerican Energy’s franchise agreement with the city expires in 2022, giving the city a way to negotiate. 

He added, however, that there are cities where franchise agreements have expired and utilities just kept operating under the old rules.

City Manager Scott Sanders has not embraced the idea of using the franchise agreement and discussions of franchise fees and access to city rights of way as leverage. At the Oct. 19 City Council meeting, Sanders said, “We would like to keep that very separate.” 

MidAmerican Energy spokesman Geoff Greenwood said the utility will continue to look for carbon-free energy sources, but still has to use coal and natural gas to meet demand. MidAmerican has the largest wind fleet of any rate-regulated utility, generating renewable energy equal to 61% of customers’ usage last year and expects to reach 83% by the end of this year, he added.  

“While renewable energy is a larger piece of the pie than ever before, we continue to rely on traditional fuel types to ensure our customers have energy when and where they need it,” Greenwood said. “When the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine, it is still essential that we maintain a diverse generating portfolio so we can provide our customers — families, farms, businesses and our largest industrial users — with a reliable energy source.

“We will continue to adopt technologies as they evolve to be proven and cost-effective and will adjust our generating fleet in a balanced fashion. For example, as we’ve added more and more wind, we’ve retired four coal units since 2015, and converted another to natural gas,” Greenwood added.

Greenwood said MidAmerican has been a “long-standing partner” of the city “in delivering reliable, affordable and increasingly renewable energy to its citizens.”

Adding renewable energy and energy efficiency work to the mix “will keep us on our steady march to a carbon-free future that benefits all customers, keeps their rates low and the service highly reliable,” Greenwood added.

Mandelbaum said it’s time for the city to take steps toward a bigger, bolder climate plan.

“We started taking steps to pass the policies that we know would need to be a part of achieving any significant emissions reductions,” Mandelbaum said. The city has committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 28% before 2025. 

The city also has eyed direct investments in clean energy, agreements to buy and development solar energy, an electric-vehicle charging network, and using electric vehicles for the city and public transportation.

“We know it’s a problem that is bigger than an environmental problem. We know it’s the challenge of our time,” Mandelbaum said as he unveiled the proposal at the Oct. 19 council meeting.

“We know that local governments have played a leadership role in addressing climate change, communities around the country and around the state have adopted climate action plans and have begun implementing policies that will achieve meaningful emission reductions,” Mandelbaum said.

Des Moines also is developing a broad climate action plan, expected to be completed next year. 

The city has worked to reduce its own emissions, and launched a local greenhouse gas inventory. The mayor has endorsed the terms of the Paris Agreement, but the council  hasn’t. 

The October meeting showed signs that Mandelbaum may have a challenging political landscape for his proposal.

Several on the council appeared eager at the October council meeting to make sure MidAmerican has its say as the resolution is molded. 

Council member Joe Gatto said he wants MidAmerican involved “from the beginning to the end” of the discussion on the resolution.

Council member Linda Westergaard said she wanted to make sure the public, including MidAmerican, understood the council has not backed Mandelbaum’s plan.

“I just want to make it clear we are not voting on this resolution, we are just receiving and filing and we will have a workshop,” Westergaard said. “I think of MidAmerican as our partner, and they need to be at the table and be part of the presentations.”  

Cownie said it will be important for MidAmerican, one of the nation’s leaders in wind energy, to commit to even more renewable energy. “All of us want to work closely with MidAmerican, who’s our distributed energy provider, to get them to work toward 100% carbon-free energy for the city of Des Moines,” Cownie said.