Editorial: Iowans can capitalize on biggest-ever climate-change law

Source: By Des Moines Register Editorial Board • Posted: Sunday, September 11, 2022

It would be an awful shame to get less than the full benefits the law makes possible. So governments and individuals should do what they can, too.

The White House’s Office of Management and Budget says the Inflation Reduction Act is “the most aggressive action to combat the climate crisis” the United States has ever taken, and it would be hard to disagree.

No matter the law’s shortcomings or unfortunate compromises, the cumulative effects on warming-causing emissions worldwide will be profound. We are better off now and in the future for President Joe Biden having signed the hard-won bill.

But it would be an awful shame to get less than the full benefits the law makes possible. Taking complete advantage of incentives and grants in the bill to transform energy production, from the macro view to the home heating and cooling micro level and everything in between, will require conscious action from utilities and other businesses, governments at all levels, regulators in particular, and individuals.

What might it look like for Iowa to make the most of the climate law’s provisions? Environmental advocates, in interviews last week, helped sketch out what pieces of the legislation are the most promising for our state and where work is most needed to turn words on a page into cleaner-energy reality.

Utilities need to accelerate their transitions to all-clean energy

The large and small utilities and rural cooperatives that generate and transmit much of the electricity in the state have new tools for turning away from pollution related to fossil fuels.

The law erases concerns that vital tax credits for building out wind and solar production would expire, said Josh Mandelbaum, a senior attorney in Des Moines with the Environmental Law & Policy Center. The government will be less picky about the precise nature of clean energy production being built, and the law also encourages investment in battery storage.

MidAmerican Energy is in the midst of redoing its cost analysis for its previously announced Wind PRIME initiative to account for the law. A clean-energy project can see in the neighborhood of 30% savings from such incentives, said Katie Rock, campaign representative in Iowa for Beyond Coal, which is affiliated with the Sierra Club.

“I think the IRA is going to make it hard to say no to clean energy,” she said. But building capacity through renewable energy isn’t enough; coal plants need to be shut down expeditiously, too. Rock and Mandelbaum said they’re both pushing MidAmerican to rethink its schedule for keeping those plants running for decades. The Iowa Utilities Board also weighs in on such matters.

Rock also highlighted the importance of smaller-scale transitions. The Inflation Reduction Act offers incentives to rural cooperatives and municipal utilities “that didn’t exist before,” she said. “I think it offers a real opportunity for our rural areas to own their energy and even develop it close to where they live.”

Under the Paris climate agreement, the United States was supposed to reduce its 2005-level emissions by about half by 2030. It was well short of reaching that mark before the Inflation Reduction Act. But modelers say that the law could mean missing the target by only about 20%, instead of as much as 50% before the law — and that additional steps could mean achieving the goal by 2030.

Rock encouraged Iowans to tell their representatives in local, county and state government that they want to see local action on these kinds of climate needs.

“We really don’t have a lot of time to carry the baton as far as we can on climate, and we really can get this right through the IRA,” she said. “We really can.”

People’s choices matter, and governments can smooth the way

Most Iowa families spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars a year for the energy to manage their indoor temperatures. Businesses incur those costs too. The opportunities to save them money stretch far beyond how the electricity and natural gas they connect to is produced.

Energy-efficiency provisions are prevalent in the law, Mandelbaum said, including rebates for high-efficiency appliances and newer technologies such as heat pumps.

“Taking advantage of those programs, some of that, I think, is going to require state action and state coordination. And I view that as a really significant climate opportunity,” he said.

Seizing that opportunity would be a welcome reversal from the state Legislature’s action in 2018 to junk efficiency programs that were working well, said Mandelbaum and state Sen. Joe Bolkcom, an Iowa City Democrat.

“Iowa has been going in the other direction,” said Bolkcom, who is retiring from the Legislature. His day job is with the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa. “Republicans and Governor Reynolds since 2017 have made it harder for Iowans to save energy and save money.”

It has never made much sense, in the big picture, that living paycheck to paycheck has meant lower-income families are mostly unable to invest in upgrades such as better insulation or more efficient equipment that saves energy and money and combats climate change. The law takes some steps toward addressing that — small steps; the Climate Justice Alliance said in a statement that “the Inflation Reduction Act is not a climate justice bill.” Iowa’s executive and legislative branches should examine how they can give some additional push toward making upgrades more universally affordable.

Everybody I spoke to emphasized dollars-and-cents consequences, not just for prospective costs for adapting to warming, but for savings in the present and the chance to support jobs in clean energy and transitioning. “The question is, will Iowa’s civic leaders and power brokers lean into this tremendous economic development opportunity for the state?” Laurie Williams, a Sierra Club senior attorney, wrote in an email.

Pete De Kock, assistant city manager in Clive, said his family added a solar installation through a local program and has recouped several thousand dollars of the cost through rebates and other incentives. Now, in the summer months, their utility bills include only some tiny fees.

“For my wife and I, we recognize the scale of the issue, the planetary scale, but we also are optimistic people who are hopeful about our future and the future for our kids. And because of that we were even more confident about going forward with the opportunity to put solar on the roof,” he said. A similar program, Grow Solar Polk County, is still seeking residents interested in participating.

De Kock said the Inflation Reduction Act could help people realize that they don’t need to think of themselves as “early adopters” to seriously consider things like energy upgrades and electric vehicles.

“I think this legislation now makes those types of practices so much more normative for everybody and attainable for more people as well,” he said.

Wind, solar, electric vehicles are just the beginning

One place where some experts have seen the Inflation Reduction Act fall short is in its provisions for agriculture. Incentives for carbon capture and storage are one thing. But if such projects mostly serve the goal of growing corn for ethanol, then the law is encouraging backward-looking behavior that we already know damages the environment in ways beyond emissions. Better investments would go toward solving problems related to electric-vehicle infrastructure and costs.

More:Opinion: Kim Reynolds needs to listen to the people, not the money, on carbon pipelines

“There is really no stick here; it is all carrot,” Silvia Secchi, a University of Iowa professor, told the Washington Post, criticizing parts of the law that incentivize voluntary practices with nebulous benefits.

This is not even close to a comprehensive accounting of what’s in the law. Making the most of it will require time-consuming study, and state government should devote resources to that task.

The dangers of warming are urgent and apparent

The utility of these huge shifts in how we live and work is anything but theoretical. Scientists broadly agree on the evidence that Earth is warming, that human activity is significantly responsible, and that the more frequent occurrence of weather catastrophes is one consequence of global warming.

Last week, the federal government unveiled a Climate Mapping for Resilience and Adaptation tool that lets users examine, down to the census tract level, predictions for the likelihood of extreme heat and severe weather events under various warming scenarios. Bolkcom, giving one example, pointed to a portion of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that says that by the middle of this century — less than 30 years from now — Des Moines could have 35 days a year when the temperature reaches at least 95 degrees, up from an average of five to six in the past 30 years. Bolkcom also put it more succinctly: “extreme weather roulette.”

These wholesale changes in energy production are the way to go to save money and lives. Industry executives, policymakers and the rest of us can all contribute to making it happen quickly and efficiently.

— Lucas Grundmeier, on behalf of the Register editorial board

This editorial is the opinion of the Des Moines Register’s editorial board: Carol Hunter, executive editor; Lucas Grundmeier, opinion editor; Rachelle Chase, opinion columnist; and Richard Doak and Rox Laird, editorial board members.

Want more opinions? Read other perspectives with our free newsletter, follow us on Facebook or visit us at DesMoinesRegister.com/opinion. Respond to any opinion by submitting a Letter to the Editor at DesMoinesRegister.com/letters.