Utility-scale solar development in Iowa would need mandate

Source: Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register • Posted: Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Iowa’s push for renewable energy has sparked a $10 billion investment in wind energy capacity, a new report shows. But what about solar?

Jonathan Weisgall, Berkshire Hathaway Energy’s vice president of legislative and regulatory affairs, said Iowa and other Midwestern states are unlikely to see large utilities invest in solar energy without setting standards that require it.

Weisgall said regulators must weigh costs more heavily than developing renewable resources when electric generation is added in the Midwest. And solar energy isn’t cost-competitive with wind.

For example, California wants 33 percent of its power supply to come from renewable sources, such as wind, solar and geothermal, by 2020. The standard is creating large investment in solar energy, including from Berkshire Hathaway Energy, the parent of MidAmerican Energy, the largest energy company in Iowa.

Berkshire Hathaway’s latest California solar project is the world’s largest at $2.5 billion. The state’s regulatory environment supports the added cost.

“As utilities bring new projects online in California … at the top of the list for regulators is energy efficiency, renewable energy,” Weisgall said. “In the Midwest, in the state we are regulated as a utility, cost is still the major factor.”

Weisgall was among wind industry leaders who fielded questions Monday about a new study, outlining the economic impact of wind.

America’s Power Plan, a coalition of industry, academia and energy experts, said $30 billion had been invested in wind generation in 12 Midwestern states since 1994. The projects power 17 million homes, according to the report, sponsored by the Energy Foundation, a clean energy advocacy group based in San Francisco.

Nathaniel Baer, energy program director at the Iowa Environmental Council, said a few Iowa utilities — such as Traer’s municipal utility and Farmers Electric Cooperative near Iowa City — are building solar capacity without solar mandates.

But Baer said setting standards can help drive renewable energy development. He points to legislation in the 1980s that helped build the state’s wind industry.

Weisgall said wind energy will provide nearly 40 percent of MidAmerican’s energy portfolio when the Des Moines-based utility finishes investing $1.9 billion in new wind projects.

“Wind is a great example of setting a goal and seeing what follows,” Baer said, adding that states also can reach solar goals through distributed energy generation — panels that power homes, businesses and farms in Iowa.

The Iowa Legislature agreed last month to triple tax credits for solar development to $4.5 million last month. The legislation is awaiting Gov. Terry Branstad’s signature.