Gov. Branstad taps new chair for Iowa Utilities Board

Source: By Ryan J. Foley, Associated Press • Posted: Thursday, March 12, 2015


IOWA CITY, Ia. — Gov. Terry Branstad is installing a new chair of the Iowa Utilities Board, weeks after hearing complaints from the state’s largest energy company about a wind power ruling.

Branstad’s appointment of Iowa Finance Authority official Geri Huser to chair the three-member board starting April 30 caught observers by surprise.

The shakeup comes one month after the board disappointed MidAmerican Energy by ordering it to return $2 million to customers as part of a $280 million wind project that had been publicly praised by Branstad. It also comes as the board considers whether to approve two controversial projects: a transmission line that would send wind energy from northwest Iowa to Illinois and a pipeline to transport crude oil across the state.

Huser, a former Democratic lawmaker from Altoona known as business friendly, will replace attorney Sheila Tipton. Many observers had expected Branstad to reappoint Tipton, whom he’d named to the panel two years ago to fill a vacancy. The change, included among dozens of appointments made last week, also demotes Elizabeth Jacobs, another Branstad appointee who has been chair since 2011 and will remain on the board.

MidAmerican vice president Dave Caris said executives recently met with Branstad to criticize the board’s decision to require that MidAmerican pay $2 million annually to electric customers as part of a project to add 67 turbines in Adams and O’Brien counties. He said the company told Branstad that the decision wasn’t “a balanced outcome,” unlike eight prior wind projects approved by the board.

MidAmerican didn’t lobby for personnel changes, but looks “forward to working with a new board,” he said.

“Governor Branstad has a record of appointing really qualified people and Geri fits that category,” Caris said.

Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers confirmed the governor’s Feb. 9 meeting with MidAmerican.

Centers didn’t explain why Jacobs was removed as chair, but said that Huser has impressed the governor with her career in public service. Huser, a Branstad appointee since 2011 after losing re-election, will be an asset to the board, he said. Her appointment is subject to Senate confirmation.

MidAmerican, which owns more wind-powered generation capacity than any other U.S. rate-regulated utility, has helped make Iowa a national leader for wind energy. Branstad has often praised the company’s wind power, which has helped the state land data centers from tech companies Facebook, Microsoft and Google and well-paying manufacturing jobs.

In October, Branstad appeared with the company at a news conference to tout its latest wind expansion. The board approved the project, but ordered MidAmerican to pay the $2 million annual credit to customers.

The board rejected MidAmerican’s request for rehearing Feb. 6, saying the rewards of the project were “skewed too much towards MidAmerican” without the extra payment. The board said it would continue supporting wind projects but they must “provide customers benefits commensurate with the risk that customers will be bearing.”

The order modified a settlement that MidAmerican had negotiated with the Office of Consumer Advocate. Caris said that settlement was fair, and the change “disrupts a carefully-drawn balance.” Still, the company accepted the decision and will begin construction this spring.

Darrell Hanson, a Republican who served on the board from 2007 to 2013, said it would be “really surprising” if MidAmerican’s complaints prompted the board shakeup, saying “$2 million is a rounding error” for MidAmerican and the case is over.

“When they met with the governor, what were they expecting to get out of it if it wasn’t a change on the board?” Hanson said. “They went to that extent for $2 million a year? OK.”

Tipton’s removal will have an immediate impact on the process for considering the Rock Island Clean Line, a proposed 500-mile transmission line to carry electricity from wind turbines in northwest Iowa to Illinois customers. Hailed by wind energy backers, the $2 billion project is encountering opposition from farmers who worry the board will approve eminent domain.

Tipton had previously represented the company before joining the board, and has recused herself from the project. Branstad believes it’s best to have three voting members on the board, Centers said. The governor has praised the project’s development potential but says the board will make the decision.