D.M. council eyes citywide conversion to 100% renewable energy

By: - January 12, 2021 10:37 am

President Joe Biden will arrive at the U.N. Climate Conference without a deal on his environmental agenda. (Image courtesy of NASA)

Des Moines homes and businesses would run entirely on renewable energy by 2035 under a resolution approved unanimously by the Des Moines City Council this week. 

Environmentalists, council members and Mayor Frank Cownie welcomed the goal. Des Moines joins a list of 170 cities around the country attempting to use renewable energy to power everything. 

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

“This is something we can do in part because our utility, MidAmerican Energy, has invested in a significant amount of wind (energy) already,” said Councilman Josh Mandelbaum, who introduced the resolution. “They’re a leader in renewable energy.”

Environmental groups welcomed the action.

“That means no coal, no fracked gas, and no fossil fuels in the electricity delivered to Des Moines residents by 2035,” said Kerri Johannsen, energy program director for the nonprofit Iowa Environmental Council. “This goal puts us on the right path to address the challenges of climate change. It is both aggressive and achievable and will help Des Moines attract and retain sustainability-minded businesses and residents.”

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

David Courard-Hauri, a Drake University environmental science professor who follows climate issues, supported the resolution but suggested setting the deadline five years earlier. “What we found is that the cost for goals such as this tend to be much lower than originally anticipated as technology has consistently moved far ahead of where we think it’s going to be,” Courard-Hauri told the council.

Renewable energy projects create jobs and attract businesses and residents to the areas, he added. 

MidAmerican Energy is pursuing a goal to produce all power from renewable sources such as wind and solar. But officials have noted the utility can’t idle coal and gas plants as fast as some would like. 

To do so now, before technology catches up with the need to store and more easily transmit renewable energy, would leave the area without the relatively cheap, reliable power it now has, the utility has said. 

The resolution drafted by Mandelbaum, who works for the nonprofit Environmental Law & Policy Center, came to the council without one big stick. Mandelbaum had discussed using the city’s franchise agreement with MidAmerican as leverage to push for faster action, but City Manager Scott Sanders and some council members resisted that idea at a recent council workshop

Frank Cownie is mayor of Des Moines. (Photo courtesy of city of Des Moines)

Cownie has pushed for the city to reduce carbon emissions for years. He attended international climate summits and met with actor Robert Redford to discuss cities’ roles in reducing greenhouse gases. Cownie pledged to honor the goals of the Paris Agreement even after President Donald Trump withdrew U.S. support for the international climate pact. President-elect Joe Biden has said he plans to rejoin the Paris efforts.

Des Moines has changed many of its own operations to save power and water over the years, and is developing a long-term plan to do more. A city ordinance requires businesses of a certain size to inventory their greenhouse gas emissions and water use. 

“We’ve seen time and time again how local governments have the burden of dealing with extreme and more frequent events caused by weather and climate change,” Cownie told the council Monday. “We need to play a pivotal role in sustainability, mitigation and adaptation. I believe that this greenhouse gas emission reduction goal is a huge step in that direction.”

Jordan Oster, who works on energy issues for the environmental council, said more than 600 residents and 40 Des Moines-based businesses had endorsed the Des Moines resolution. Sierra Club, which also supports 100% clean energy programs, has mapped U.S. cities making the commitment. 

The resolution calls for the city to work with MidAmerican and other parties to meet the goal. 

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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.