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Column

Solar is good for Iowa

HSB185: You may have seen TV ads or online discussion about a bill in the Commerce committee that concerns solar energy. Iowa is a leader in the development and use of renewable energy, of which solar-generated power is a growing part. Solar power is good for the environment and good for the bottom line of Iowans who have invested their own resources in their homes and businesses by installing solar panels.

House Study Bill 185 passed out of the House Commerce Committee and imposes additional costs on new solar installations, essentially having a negative impact on “net metering.” Net metering credits solar energy system owners for electricity they add to the power grid.

Iowa’s investor-owned utilities claim solar users aren’t paying their fair share of costs associated with keeping the electric grid up and running. But the utilities have not currently produced evidence, data or study showing they are subsidizing solar customers. In fact, when energy users invest their own resources in a solar array, it is money other utility customers won’t have to pay for additional generation capacity, which could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and could come from more polluting sources.

If the utilities levy extra costs on new solar customers, it could make those installations less attractive from an economic standpoint for those customers. This would drastically reduce the growing solar industry in Iowa. Many solar installers are located in rural Iowa, serving farmers and rural residents. Solar installation firms provide employment in areas where jobs are badly needed. In many cases, solar installation is all these companies do. If they go away, so do the jobs.

Beyond the economics, there is a larger question: What is our energy future? Iowa should be encouraging the cutting edge technology of distributed solar energy. Solar increases grid capacity, and reduces the need for bigger transformers and substations. Solar produces peak power during hot, sunny afternoons and early evenings, when the demand is greatest, reducing wear and tear on the electric grid.

Solar improves the “quality” of electric power. Some electric power is now transmitted over long distances. Distributed solar energy stays close to “home.” Electricity generated by a customer’s solar array may help the restaurant next door, or the bank down the street.

The solar industry in Iowa is in its early stages. Only 0.1 percent of MidAmerican’s total customers have installed solar, generating about the same amount or energy as six wind turbines. That’s not very much. The truth is we just don’t know anything about the financial impact of small solar installations on the power grid.

MidAmerican and Alliant are two years into a three-year net metering pilot project under the Iowa Utilities Board. The study is exploring whether changes to net metering are necessary. I think it makes sense to see what the study shows.

This week was funnel week; policy bills have to be voted out of committee by this time to still have a chance to become new legislation this year. To see the status of any bill, please go to www.iowa.leg.gov. Please feel free to reach out to me if you have concerns about any legislation.

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