Lawmakers might loosen reporting requirements for electrical utilities with coal plants

By: - January 26, 2023 5:36 pm

MidAmerican Energy (in yellow) and Alliant Energy, also known as Interstate Power and Light Company, (in purple) are the leading providers of electricity in Iowa. (Map courtesy of Iowa Utilities Board)

Two bills under consideration by the Iowa Senate would either lessen or strengthen the reporting requirements of electrical utilities with coal plants, but lawmakers have so far favored loosening the regulations.

One bill that would reduce reporting requirements has received preliminary approval by a Senate subcommittee. Another bill that would require more robust reporting — similar to what was required in Iowa more than two decades ago — did not get support this week.

Senate Study Bill 1043 would make it optional for utilities with coal plants to create or update multiyear plans to manage the emissions from their plants. Currently, they are required to submit such plans to the state every two years. The bill was recommended by a Senate Commerce subcommittee last week.

Representatives of the two largest utilities — Alliant Energy and MidAmerican Energy — said reduced regulation will lower their costs. Those who want more regulation argue that increased oversight is needed to keep costs to consumers low because the utilities operate as monopolies in Iowa.

Iowa residents do not have multiple choices for their electricity. Few states allow such competition.

Because of that, the Iowa Utilities Board regulates what utilities can charge for electricity and decides how much the utilities can increase their rates to compensate for infrastructure projects, such as new equipment to control air emissions.

Utility companies and their associations have indicated through their lobbyists that they support the Senate bill that received preliminary approval last week.

The other bill — Senate Study Bill 1059 — was tabled Wednesday for further consideration, although it was unclear when or if it will be discussed again.

It would reinstate a requirement for utilities to submit a so-called “integrated resource plan” next year and every two years thereafter.

“We think this is actually going in the opposite direction of the subcommittee that was held last Thursday, a bill that was voted out unanimously by Republicans and Democrats to reduce regulatory burdens on utilities, industry and, ultimately, consumers,” Matt Hinch, a lobbyist for MidAmerican Energy, said during this week’s subcommittee meeting.

The bill would require the plans to include comprehensive information about how the utilities intend to proceed, including the anticipated demand for electricity and how the utilities will meet that demand with their existing and future infrastructure.

“The intent behind the legislation is to get information to scrutinize and shut down our coal plants, which are incredibly important assets to reliability for our consumers,” Hinch said.

Hinch and others said electricity from coal is an important source of power during periods of less wind and sunshine.

Iowa is among the top states for wind energy, which accounts for at least 58% of the state’s annual electricity production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The Iowa Environmental Council, a prominent advocacy group that opposes coal plants because of their pollution, supports comprehensive plan requirements. Michael Schmidt, an attorney for the group, said the state’s current, fractured regulatory procedures for the utilities have stymied efforts to challenge the utilities’ plans.

“We’ve had issues where we’ve tried to bring something up and the (Iowa Utilities Board) says, ‘Well, that fits in this other process, not in this process.’ And so this integrated process lets the board review everything and take a more holistic look at what the utility plans to do and whether that’s reasonable,” Schmidt said.

The IEC has urged the expansion of wind, solar and battery technology to provide electricity to Iowans.

There are 43 states that have requirements for the integrated plans or allow competition among electrical utilities, said Bob Rafferty, a former state legislator and lobbyist for Future Energy Iowa, which promotes the bill.

“The vast majority of other states do currently have integrated resource planning requirements in their states, at least for the larger utilities, if not for the for all the utilities,” he said.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.