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Published on June 12th, 2017 | by Tina Casey

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When You’ve Lost Iowa: Wind-Loving Heartland State Says “Buh-Bye, Coal”

June 12th, 2017 by  


Clean tech fans know Iowa as one of the epicenters of US wind energy development, but the state still leans heavily on coal for power generation. Well, not for long. Newly minted Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds took office on an energy innovation platform and it looks like she wants the state to ditch coal, clean or not.

To paraphrase James Comey, Iowa is a really big deal because the state plays a pivotal if ofttimes resented role in determining the future occupants of the White House. If Reynolds is still Governor in 2020 she will be in the catbird seat when the presidential candidates come calling, and they better come calling with binders full of clean energy plans.

The Kim Reynolds Energy Platform

Reynolds, a Republican, is the former Iowa Lieutenant Governor. She gained her new position this year when Governor Terry Brandstad was tapped for US Ambassador to China (for the record, the Des Moines Register is among those questioning if “Governor” is a constitutionally accurate title in this situation but whatever).

The linkage of wind-friendly Brandstad with China is  a significant development all on its own considering China’s newly acquired bragging rights to global clean energy leadership (see Paris, Trump withdraws prematurely), but let’s set that aside for now and focus on Reynolds.

The governor’s post is up for grabs on Election Day this November, so if Reynolds wants to seek a full term she needs to hit the ground running.

Reynolds has already seized the clean energy pole position. Upon taking up the reins as Governor, she outlined four key issues. “Energy innovation” was one of those issues. After a hearty shoutout to the state’s agriculture stakeholders and biofuel production, Reynolds zeroed in on wind energy:

…those fields are filled with untapped potential. Our energy plan will help us continue to lead the way in wind energy and renewable fuels. Working together, we can have the most innovative energy policy in the country.

The whole speech contains nary a word about bringing coal jobs back to the state. That’s not a particularly big surprise. There are recoverable reserves in the state but coal mining has not been going on there since the 1990’s.

Iowa Hearts Coal…

Making Iowa “the most innovative energy policy in the country” is a pretty tall order, considering that as of last year, Iowa still topped the national average in terms of coal power generation by a wide margin.

Last year coal nailed down only 30.4% for power generation in the US, but it coal was up in the 47% area in Iowa.

That’s not a good look, though it does represent a huge transition from Iowa’s coal picture just eight years ago in 2008, when coal snared a whopping 76% of electricity generation in Iowa.

Legendary investor Warren Buffet can snare a lot of credit for the state’s recent growth in wind energy development.

Iowa’s wind-friendly legislative environment has also been carefully nurtured along by US Senator Chuck Grassley since the 1990’s, and he’s not to happy with the anti-renewables position of the President and his supporters.

Still, a March 17 update from the US Energy Information Agency provides a few more details indicating that the shift out of coal could be a tough row to hoe:

Iowa is home to about 1% of the nation’s population, but the state consumes more coal for electricity generation than 28 other states. In 2015, that level of consumption made Iowa the 11th largest per capita consumer of coal for power generation.

…But It Loves Wind Even More

In the latest development, last week Reynolds took a mini-tour around the state dubbed “Building a Better Iowa.”

One highlight was a visit to the University of Iowa, where the Governor was reportedly impressed by the school’s plans for going coal free by 2025.

The school also plans to get 40% of its energy from renewables by 2020, primarily from biofuel.

Here’s the economic case for ditching coal from UI:

“Transitioning off coal to locally sourced biomass is cost-competitive and provides maximum economic value to the state by providing jobs to the local economy and taking advantage of Iowa’s outstanding agricultural producers…”

As for Reynolds’s plans for Iowa, during her tenure as Lieutenant Governor she headed up the team that produced the state’s first Energy Plan under the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

Aimed at long term economic growth, the Iowa Energy Plan was released last December. It focuses on seven key areas, none of which involve growth for coal:

Expanding energy workforce development

Research and development

Rural and underserved areas

Natural gas

Biomass

Alternative fuel vehicles

Grid modernization

Here’s Where It Gets Interesting

One key element in the plan is leveraging the state’s research institutions for biofuels and energy storage, and here’s where it gets interesting.

CleanTechnica has been tracking the thoughts and doings of Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who pays lip service to the Trump pro-coal rhetoric every now and then, while merrily tooting the horn for wind and solar.

Perry’s clean tech happy talk is so frequent and consistent, it’s almost like he’s positioning himself to make another run for President.

I know, right? Perry carries some social conservative baggage from his stint as Governor of Texas. If he has national political ambitions in the works, a solid clean tech track record provides a handy way to deflect that conversation into an area upon which more and more voters are coming to agree (Paris, much?).

Speaking of women, along with championing renewables Perry has been leveraging his position to publicize women in STEM. After all, what better way to impress Governor Reynolds, whose “signature issue” as Lieutenant Governor was this:

Her signature issue has been boosting student interest and achievement in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), a policy area seen as foundational to the administration’s approach to both education and economic development.

And so, we get this perfect circle: Rick Perry, renewable energy, women, Iowa’s first female Governor, and the Iowa caucuses — which are practically right around the corner.

Look out for Reynolds, though. She may have presidential aspirations of her own.

Image: via University of Iowa.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



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