MidAmerican proposes adding enough wind, solar generation to meet all of Iowa customers’ power needs

Source: By Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register • Posted: Thursday, January 20, 2022

Wind turbines are part of a MidAmerican Energy project near Pomeroy in northwest Iowa.

MidAmerican Energy said Wednesday that it’s seeking to invest $3.9 billion to develop more wind and solar energy, and explore new technologies that will push the company closer to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

The Des Moines-based utility generated nearly 88% of the power used by its Iowa customers from renewable sources in 2021. In a filing with the Iowa Utilities Board, it proposes building 2,042 megawatts of wind and 50 megawatts of solar generation.

The filing said the projects would push MidAmerican’s wind generation to 9,300 megawatts and solar capacity to nearly 200 megawatts. In a statement, it said the wind initiative alone would enable it to provide renewable energy equal to its Iowa customers’ annual usage.

The company, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, also proposes studying emerging technologies, including energy storage, the use of small, modular nuclear reactors and employing carbon capture to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its remaining coal-fired plants.

Three companies are proposing to build pipelines across Iowa that would capture carbon dioxide at Iowa ethanol and fertilizer plants, use pressure to liquefy it, then sequester it deep underground at locations in North Dakota and Illinois. MidAmerica said Wednesday that it must investigate whether carbon capture is “technically and economically feasible” before it can consider using it.

If the company’s Wind Prime plan is approved, it plans to complete construction by late 2024.

Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a statement that MidAmerican’s research into “emerging clean-energy technologies will help Iowa meet the growing demand for a sustainable economy.”

Iowa generated nearly 60% of its electricity from wind in 2020, the highest percentage for any state nationally, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Reynolds said MidAmerican’s Wind Prime “is a commitment and investment on a whole new level” that cements the state’s “clean-energy leadership for many years to come.”

MORE: Iowa, a leader in wind energy, will see a burst of solar development in coming months. But opposition is emerging.

MidAmerican said it has invested $14 billion in renewable energy since 2004. But as wind farms have grown across the state, they have attracted lawsuits and moratoriums over noise, health concerns and visual blight. The growing number of solar projects also has started to spark opposition, with rural residents concerned about loss of Iowa farmland and, especially for young farmers, the rapidly rising cost of the land that remains.

In 2021, utilities proposed solar projects that were expected to consume thousands of acres.

MidAmerican Energy said it hasn’t determined where the new wind and solar projects would be built. Last year, the utility said it was interested in developing solar projects in Webster and Adair counties and near Sioux City, Waterloo, Iowa City and Hampton.

MidAmerican said coal and natural gas-fired plants would “remain a necessary part of the portfolio to ensure reliability for customers,” but that the company’s proposed projects and its existing renewable energy portfolio would cut its carbon dioxide emissions nearly 14 million metric tons, or about 75%, from 2005 levels.

“As MidAmerican continues to progress toward delivering 100% renewable energy to our customers, we are also preparing to meet an important milestone of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions,” MidAmerican CEO Kelcey Brown said in a statement.

The project “will position us and our customers for a sustainable future, while ensuring we continue to deliver affordable and reliable energy,” Brown said.

Kerri Johannsen, the Iowa Environmental Council’s energy program director, said the group welcomes MidAmerican’s “aggressive deployment of renewables.”

“On the whole, however, we continue to question any discussion of MidAmerican’s 100% clean energy plan when this announcement does not mention any reduction in fossil-fuel generation,” Johannsen said in an email.

A consultant’s analysis for the environmental group showed MidAmerican Energy could “meet all its reliability requirements” and save between $1.2 billion and $5 billion by retiring all its coal plants by 2030 and replacing them with available wind and solar technologies, she said.

Johannsen said the group wants to see more details about how MidAmerican will address affordability when looking at new technologies. “Zero carbon is the bar that must be met,” she said, “but it’s important to keep in mind that customers ultimately pay for all of this.”

MidAmerican said in its Iowa Utilities Board filing that it expects the project’s revenue will “substantially offset its costs, depending on the energy market price assumptions.”

Wind energy supporters say the projects help rural Iowa: Farmers reap cash from leasing their land for wind turbines, counties receive more in taxes and state leaders and environmental activists alike laud the clean power and jobs the projects have provided.

MidAmerican said Wind Prime would generate roughly $24 million annually in local property tax payments on wind turbines and solar facilities, as well as more than $21 million in annual landowner easement payments.

It also said the initiative would create more than 1,100 full-time jobs during the construction and another 125 for ongoing operations and maintenance.

Wind Prime would be the company’s 13th renewable energy generation project. While “wind is an essential component,” it said, “the project also includes solar energy generation and the examination of new clean energy technologies that will be an important part of the net-zero transition.”

Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at deller@registermedia.com or 515-284-8457.