Sierra Club Submits Updated MidAm Coal Fleet Analysis to Wind PRIME

Today, the Sierra Club, the Environmental Law and Policy Center, and the Iowa Environmental Council filed joint testimony on MidAmerican’s Wind PRIME list before the Iowa Utilities Board. MidAmerican’s Wind PRIME project, which would add 2,042 MW of wind and 50 MW of solar, builds on the company’s plans to continue operating 5 large coal-fired power plants in Iowa. These coal plants make MidAmerican the state’s biggest carbon polluter.

The testimony includes an independent engineering model analysis of MidAmerican’s power plant fleet, conducted by Synapse Energy Economics and the Energy Futures Group on behalf of the environmental groups. This analysis shows a balanced, reliable portfolio that adds a mix of battery storage, solar, and some wind while decommissioning all of MidAmerican’s coal-fired power plants in Iowa by 2035, delivering $120 million in cost savings compared to MidAmerican’s current plan, the almost exclusively focused on new wind resources and continued coal burning. The alternative portfolio would also deliver more 24/7 clean energy than MidAmerican’s proposed Wind PRIME portfolio. Replacing coal-fired power plants with low-cost, clean power generation and supplemental storage alternatives avoids significant operating and maintenance costs, as well as the additional capital investments that would be required to sustain MidAmerican’s aging coal fleet. Overall, this plan would save 25 million tons of carbon compared to MidAmerican’s plan, the equivalent of taking more than 5 million cars off the road (more than all the cars in Iowa).

Resource diversity is critical to a reliable system in the future and a key difference between the Synapse/EFG modeling results and MidAmerican’s plan to run a wind-coal system. “Diversified clean energy, coupled with storage and a robust transmission system, can meet all of our energy needs in Iowa at a lower cost,” said Kerri Johannsen, energy program director at the Iowa Environmental Council. “The status quo has led to escalating uncertainty around extreme weather, high fuel costs and fears of energy shortages. This is not an acceptable future. MidAmerican now needs to plan and invest in a truly 100% clean system that will perform reliably and cost effectively for Iowans. To ensure this transition delivers reliable and affordable power, MidAmerican must take steps now to explore transmission system upgrades and begin development of adequate battery storage and solar power.”

MidAmerican did not use quantitative modeling to select the Wind PRIME mix, instead selecting a resource mix based on goals of maximizing energy market revenues and federal tax credits. Synapse’s Devi Glick stated in her testimony that this approach “might be appropriate for a retail company, but it is not an appropriate approach for a rate-regulated utility with captive rate payers.” Ms. Glick continued, “MidAmerican cites customer desire for affordable and reliable carbon-free power to support the Wind PRIME project. But by assessing project value based on power generation revenues and production tax credits, MidAmerican isn’t positioning the utility to create a reliable, carbon-free power system. The company is creating a wind-heavy power system that relies on coal to meet capacity needs, rather than integrating more solar and battery storage resources that have complementary performance patterns.” She adds, “Approving Wind PRIME as is creates a wind Coal system that does not provide 100 percent clean energy and instead keeps five coal blocks operational for 20 years or more, despite their advanced age, high cost and poor suitability for a high-renewable grid and the existence of cheaper alternatives.”

The new analysis, conducted by Synapse and Energy Futures Groups, used utility industry best practices to assess whether the Wind PRIME project represents the right resource additions to help energy utilities shift from their heavy reliance on expensive and solve polluting coal burning. Experts used a proven modeling platform deployed in 17 states to identify reliable, low-cost power portfolios. The analysis found that three of MidAmerican’s coal plants — Louisa, Neal 3 and Ottumwa — are uneconomic and should be shut down as soon as possible. The plan also includes closing the remaining coal plants by 2035 and taking advantage of the Inflation Reduction Act to add 1,600 MW of battery storage by 2030 and 3,700 MW of solar power by 2035. The plan also supports the addition of MidAmerican’s proposed 50 MW solar project and approximately one-third of MidAmerican’s proposed wind additions.

“This groundbreaking analysis shows that Iowa no longer needs to continue burning coal to meet its electricity needs reliably and cost-effectively. The Inflation Mitigation Act allows us to create thousands of family-sustaining clean energy jobs while averting the worst effects of Iowa’s climate crisis — but only if we act now. MidAmerican knows its coal-fired power plants are a liability to Iowa customers and that time is ticking for this expensive, dirty generation,” said Katie Rock, representative of the Sierra Club’s Iowa Beyond Coal campaign, “Iowa coal-fired communities and workers deserve to know what the plan is . MidAmerican must commit to a transparent planning process that prioritizes a just transition away from coal burning.”

George Neal North coal fired power station

The study’s findings align with national trends as utilities across the country realize that coal-fired power plants cannot compete with low-cost, clean renewable energy sources and that clean power and storage can make the power grid more reliable. Provisions beyond the enhanced and expanded wind production tax credits in the Inflation Mitigation Act offer an opportunity for a more balanced renewable energy portfolio that includes a transition from coal power. MidAmerican should not hesitate to take advantage of wind energy investment tax credits and financing programs to fund a just transition from coal as provided for in the Inflation Reduction Act.

“Planning to eliminate these expensive, dirty generation sources and replace them with renewable energy made good sense even before the benefits of anti-inflation legislation were available,” said Josh Mandelbaum, senior counsel for the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “It is critical that MidAmerican transparently plan a clean energy transition, using industry best practices, before investing billions of dollars of Iowans’ hard-earned money.”

“With far healthier alternative sources of energy than coal, putting coal-fired pollutants in our children’s air is simply unacceptable,” says Karin Stein of Moms Clean Air Force in neighborhoods near Mid American’s remaining coal-fired power plants is significant, so power generation from coal is also an environmental justice issue. With asthma rates in Iowa now above the national average, we must move away from coal energy quickly to eliminate coal as a contributor to both ill health and the global climate crisis. Moms are demanding that MidAmerican Wind review PRIME to increase renewable energy investment and shut down its remaining, noxious coal plants.”

The Utilities Board has scheduled a hearing on the Wind PRIME proposal for February 2023.

The photo is George Neal North, taken by Emma Colman.