D.M. climate proposal triggers hot council debate

By: - December 7, 2020 2:01 pm
Iowa is one of the nation's top producers of wind energy. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Wind turbines frame an Iowa sunset. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

A proposed Des Moines city resolution aimed at running Des Moines homes and businesses on 100% renewable energy ran into opposition from some council members on Monday and prompted a warning from MidAmerican Energy that such a move could result in sharply higher electricity bills.

Josh Mandelbaum is a member of the Des Moines City Council. (Photo courtesy of city of Des Moines)

The council had asked City Manager Scott Sanders to bring a proposed resolution to the council later this month, but that seemed unlikely Monday after a work session that featured pointed accusations and debate between Councilman Josh Mandelbaum, who supports the measure, and Councilman Joe Gatto, who accused Mandelbaum of a conflict of interests.

Mandelbaum is senior attorney for the Environmental Law & Policy Center’s Des Moines office. The nonprofit organization supports renewable energy, aggressive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and the retirement of coal plants. 

“I think clearly we know where you stand on this, being this is your day job,” said Gatto, running the work session as mayor pro tem after Mayor Frank Cownie left the online meeting early. 

“You’re lobbyists for environmental reasons,” Gatto told Mandelbaum. “You won’t be writing any resolution that I’ll be agreeing to just because of the appearance of any conflict. That’s not to say that I disagree with you in any way, but you’ve got to be very careful. You are walking a very thin line, and you’re taking us all — as council members and your colleagues — down a path where there is an appearance of a conflict.”

Joe Gatto is a Des Moines city councilman. (Photo courtesy of the city.)

Mandelbaum said his role in the resolution is appropriate. “I disagree with your assessment,” Mandelbaum told Gatto. 

A proposed resolution would build on the the city’s years of work, supported by Cownie, to encourage renewable energy, conservation and efficiency in city buildings and at businesses. The city earlier launched an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions around Des Moines. 

Mandelbaum’s proposal envisions electricity users in the city getting all their power from carbon-free sources by 2030, a goal that aligns well with Cownie’s longtime campaign for similar advances. 

Linda Westergaard is a Des Moines city councilwoman. (Photo courtesy of the city)

In Des Moines, the only way to achieve that goal is through MidAmerican Energy, the investor-owned utility that provides nearly all of the power in the city. On its own, MidAmerican has amassed one of the largest shares of wind power of any investor-owned utility in the country and it is pursuing solar energy, battery storage and a network of charging stations for electric vehicles.

MidAmerican is a powerful political force in Iowa, and also a major investor in community projects. This was the second straight meeting that several Des Moines council members said they wanted to make sure the utility was happy with whatever the council passes. 

For MidAmerican, the question is how to keep reliable service with relatively low rates, company officials said.

On Monday, MidAmerican raised the prospect of small modular nuclear power stations to help meet the no-emissions goal while keeping some electricity costs well below average. In 2013, the utility scrapped plans for a full-scale nuclear plant in Iowa.

Mike Fehr, MidAmerican’s vice president for resource development, told council members the modular nuclear power would make meeting Mandelbaum’s proposal less expensive, but still would bring sharp increases in monthly bills for residents and businesses. Without nuclear, the increase could be as higher, he said. 

The city’s proposed resolution could more than triple power bills for homeowners, while quintupling monthly bills for commercial and industrial operations, Fehr said. 

Gatto said costs need to be considered. “It’s important to have this be affordable,” Gatto said. “I believe we better take a close look and make sure we are doing the right thing not only for the environment (but also) the people of the city.”

Later in the meeting, Gatto added: “We all want to get better at this. We need to move forward.”

Councilwoman Linda Westergaard said the city’s “benchmarking” ordinance requiring larger businesses to track greenhouse gas emissions, but not necessarily to make improvements, comes with possible fines for those that don’t complete the inventory. 

“There is a difference between fining people and helping people,” Westergaard said.  

When Mandelbaum attempted to ask council members to confirm they agreed with a few basic elements of the proposed resolution, both Gatto and Westergaard objected.

“I don’t think it is appropriate to ask us questions right now,” said Westergaard. “I am not going to support the resolution you brought through. I want to continue to work with MidAmerican as our partner to make our city more energy-wise.”

When Mandelbaum asked MidAmerican if it could meet its renewable energy goal without retiring any more coal plants, Gatto said: “This isn’t a call to call out MidAmerican on its coal plants that aren’t in the city of Des Moines and we don’t have any control over.” 

Des Moines residents use power generated by coal plants around the state, Mandelbaum noted.

Mandelbaum noted that the push for renewable energy also has created many jobs. The city’s resolution would fit in with the Biden administration’s commitment to emissions reductions, which will mean significant federal aid, he added. 

Representatives of the Iowa Environmental Council also appeared at Monday’s meeting to support changes in the city’s approach to energy. 

Kerri Johannsen is energy program director for the Iowa Environmental Council. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Environmental Council)

Kerri Johannsen, the IEC’s energy program director, praised MidAmerican’s gains in renewable energy. However, she noted that the utility could reach its eventual goal of producing enough power from renewables to meet normal consumer demand, and still increase emissions if it keeps coal plants as a backup.

The council would like to see the coal plants shut down, “not tomorrow, but over time,” Johannsen said. 

Wind power now exceeds coal power in MidAmerican’s portfolio, Johanssen noted. “This shift way from coal is impressive,” she added.

The development of wind turbines that can produce energy at less cost than than coal plants has changed the industry, Johannsen said. “It is now in many cases cheaper to build renewable than to continue to operate existing coal plants,” she added.

Kathyrn Kunert, MidAmerican’s vice president for economic connections and integration, said the utility expects to produce the equivalent of 83% of customer’s power demand from renewable sources this year, and 90% next year. The utility began to install massive amounts of wind power after producing 6.1% of customers’ power demand from renewables in 2013. 

Kunert noted that MidAmerican has retired four coal units over the past six years. She said for now the utility needs the remaining coal plants to avoid rolling blackouts and can’t close them, “but we will get there.”

Mandelbaum said decades ago few would have imagined MidAmerican would become a national leader in renewable energy, with electricity prices 31% below the national average for similar utilities. “MidAmerican is a well-run utility,” Mandelbaum said. “They are capable of doing things that others don’t think are possible.”

Connie Boesen is a member of the Des Moines City Council. (Photo courtesy of city of Des Moines)

Councilwoman Connie Boesen said the city needs to review its policies. “We all know we need to do more,” Boesen said. “In some form, we need to update and get more current as far as what our city goals are. But I know we have to work with our partners.”

Councilman Bill Gray said, “I sense a great partnership in the making.”

Jeremy Caron, the city’s sustainability program manager, opened the meeting by saying the next three to five years will be critical in addressing climate change. “It could take decades or longer to see these trends reversed,” Caron said of a mixture of warming temperatures and more severe weather events. “I encourage us to look at how we can do more good, and less bad.”

Caron said the city sets “bold but achievable goals” it will help attract workers and encourage projects by Google and other supporters of renewable energy, giving the city a reputation as sustainable.

Gatto said the city should continue the discussion, but he doesn’t expect a proposed resolution to be ready by the end of the year.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.