Too soon to consider recovery?

Even economists point the immediate focus to public health — and keep recovery in the wider view.

What is needed in a pandemic is for citizens to stay home, and for public policy to assure access to unemployment insurance and health care, and push support to the health system.

Economists such as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich are making these points — that limiting the spread of the coronavirus is the top priority to save lives.[1] When even economists are pressing the point about public health, our leaders should pay attention. Now is not the time to talk about being “open for business” prematurely, as President Trump once suggested we do by Easter.

That is not to say a public health spotlight precludes steps in the coming weeks and months to set up recovery when that can be the main focus.

Now, jobs remain in critical services in hospitals and electric stations, and some in construction. Factories where people stand next to each other on a production line have different social distancing from workers who build things in the open air. We could expand more of the latter jobs right now where the materials are at hand.

Good examples: Wind turbines and solar installations and the power lines that connect them to the electric grid. Right now we could be constructing clean energy facilities that can be producing electricity in six months or a year when we all want demand to expand. It is an opportune moment to think ahead and start replacing older coal production plants, which have their own health problems.

Public policy has a role here. Just before the Iowa legislators recessed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they passed — and Governor Kim Reynolds signed — a bill to stabilize the solar industry. It would do this by setting the price for the next seven years for the electricity that MidAmerican and Alliant buy from homeowners and businesses.[2]

Another step the Legislature could take is lifting the limit on the tax credit for businesses and homeowners when they install solar.

The annual amount that could be taken on the credit was not fully used in the first year, but in all years since 2013 installations exceeded the cap, now at $5 million per year, pushing installations completed later in the year to a waitlist.[3] The tax credit eventually comes but not until at least a year later. While an installation completed today will get a federal tax credit when taxes are filed in April 2021, the Iowa tax credit will not happen until 2022 or later.

Why make these Iowa investors wait? Extending the total amount eligible for the credit from $5 million to perhaps $20 million would further stimulate the construction of solar panels just when the economy needs the jobs.

There also is a federal role, as the amount of that credit for both solar and wind is phasing out. This would be a good time to stop the phaseout for the next several years. Tax credits of electric cars could also be enhanced.

COVID-19 has slammed the economy. We need to think about when we will recover but also how we will recover. Jobs in clean energy have been on a growth curve that can be re-established quickly. And these jobs are creating a new energy system that will help us with the next crisis, climate change.

Most agree we should follow science to confront the pandemic. We should also follow the science to prepare for the next crisis — climate change.

David Osterberg is an economist and lead environmental researcher at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. Contact: dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org.

A version of this column also ran in the April 1 Quad-City Times.

 

 

 

 

[1] MSNBC interview, March 17, 2020. https://www.msnbc.com/the-beat-with-ari/watch/-our-economy-is-shutting-down-clinton-wh-veteran-pushes-lives-over-dollars-in-covid-19-crisis-80868933847

[2] O. Kay Henderson. Iowa House and Senate give solar bill unanimous support. Radio Iowa March 4, 2020. https://www.radioiowa.com/2020/03/04/iowa-house-and-senate-give-solar-bill-unanimous-support/

[3] Iowa Department of Revenue. Solar Energy System Tax Credit Annual Report for 2019. https://www.legis.iowa.gov/docs/publications/DF/1126111.pdf

Tax cuts vs. clean energy

The Midwest, and especially Iowa, has invested in wind and solar power. Both wind and solar are under attack in the new plan.

Much is being written about the effects of the House Republican tax proposal on different states. By excluding or limiting deductions for state taxes, the proposed tax plan favors states with no income tax — which often is the tax most fair to all of a state’s residents.

Another way states will be affected differently is in energy development.

The Midwest, and especially Iowa, has invested in wind and solar power. There is a production tax credit for wind and an investment tax credit for solar. Both wind and solar are under attack in the new plan.

The wind tax credit already is scheduled to phase out over the next five years but the Republican plan would both speed up the date and cut the present amount of the tax credit. Authors of the bill may not succeed because of something obvious to everyone in Congress, and noted in one news report:

“A report released by Morgan Stanley last week said the Senate is unlikely to pass changes to the tax credit, noting that 85 percent of wind projects are in Republican jurisdictions.

“Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) issued a statement last week saying he’s working to block the proposed changes. He told reporters last year that he would fight to preserve the PTC, saying President Trump will ‘have to get a bill through Congress, and he’ll do it over my dead body.’”

As someone who ran against Senator Grassley in 1998, I can tell you we agree on this issue. Proponents of the tax plan claim wind has to get a reduced tax benefit so that taxes on business can be cut overall.

Oddly, they do not see the same need to rein in all tax credits for all energy industries. The state of Georgia where a two-unit nuclear plant is way over budget and way late being finished gets the benefit of extending a tax credit for its big utility company. I bet our Senator Grassley will point that out if and when the tax plan gets to the Senate.

The Trump Administration ignores climate change and wants to subsidize coal plants. But now the U.S. House tax plan would add to the problem of warming our atmosphere by helping to cut back on the cleanest, safest, cheapest new energy source.

It turns out the skewing of benefits to the wealthy, clearly evident in this plan, may not be the plan’s only problems.

David Osterberg, founder of the Iowa Policy Project

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

 

Osterberg to the Climate Marchers: State action works

State government can work to improve the economy of Iowa and at the same time reduce the effects of climate change.

David Osterberg — People’s Climate March Iowa 2017
David Osterberg
David Osterberg

I’m pleased to be the Master of Ceremonies at the People’s Climate March in Des Moines on April 29. The event begins at 1 p.m.

I plan to make the point that state government can work to improve the economy of Iowa and at the same time reduce the effects of climate change.

Way back in 1983, Democrats and Republicans together passed a law — signed by Governor Terry Branstad — that required the state’s investor-owned electric utilities to try renewable energy.

Utilities hated the idea and fought complying with the law for years. Yet now, 35 percent of the electricity generated in the state comes from wind power. Once we changed the direction that utility executives were looking, they found that renewables would work. They found that those who said that the intermittent nature of solar and wind could not be easily integrated into a production system. They were wrong.

The paper the Iowa Policy Project released March 30 shows that even though more than one-third of Iowa electricity comes from wind, our overall electric rates were lower in 2015 (latest data) than when the wind industry really got started in 1998.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IPP Co-founder David Osterberg was a member of the Iowa House of Representatives from 1983-94. Contact: dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

What I learned on the Great March for Climate Action

Wind energy is helping to mitigate climate disruption — and to support rural Iowa families.

photo of Ed Fallon, turbine
Climate March organizer Ed Fallon in wind country.

After a hard day of marching along gravel roads in Iowa, I set up my tent in the city park in Cumberland and walked a few more blocks to see what the small town had to offer.

I met a guy in the town bar with a Siemens logo stitched on his shirt and cap. That company makes wind turbine blades in Fort Madison, Iowa, and also does maintenance on some of the wind farms in the state.

Not only did I find out the size of the turbines in the nearby 193-turbine wind farm (2.3 Megawatts each) and how high they stood from the ground (260 feet up), but also the salary of guys who have to climb nearly 30 stories up inside the steel tubular towers to do maintenance. A technician salary starts at $24.50 per hour, which is very good money in rural Iowa. Crew members work hard and they get pretty well compensated.

Wind energy is helping to mitigate climate disruption. Close to 30 percent of all electricity generated in the state comes from wind power plants like the ones we passed by. The industry also supports a number of families in rural Iowa.

[To learn more about the Great March for Climate Action, click here]

IPP-osterberg-75Posted by David Osterberg, founder of the Iowa Policy Project

 

[See Des Moines Register story, August 8]

osterberg-walk-01

Investor-owned utilities must deal with climate change

Climate change is a reality and the investor-owned utility companies must adjust their business model to contend with it.

Editor’s Note: This post is excerpted from a statement by David Osterberg, founder of the Iowa Policy Project, to the Iowa Utilities Board, February 25, 2014, in docket NOI-2014-0001
Full statement submitted to IUB is here

The Iowa Utilities Board must recognize that this docket has implications for confronting climate change. To look narrowly and make a decision based only on what is best for the stockholders of Alliant or MidAmerican Energy would be the wrong choice. Climate change is a reality and the investor-owned utility companies must adjust their business model to contend with it. The question for the Board should be, “How does the state of Iowa procure more distributed electric generation installed in a way that gives the utilities a way to be part of the solution?”

First, there is no scientific debate about whether the climate is changing and whether humans are the main cause. In October 2013, 155 science and research staff at 36 Iowa colleges and universities signed a statement on the reality of climate change. As one of the signers I would like to submit the first paragraph and the last sentence of that statement:

“Our state has long held a proud tradition of helping to ‘feed the world.’ Our ability to do so is now increasingly threatened by rising greenhouse gas emissions and resulting climate change. Our climate has disrupted agricultural production profoundly during the past two years and is projected to become even more harmful in the coming decades as our climate continues to warm and change.”

Rather than being a vague threat lurking somewhere on the horizon, scientists from around the globe confidently stated in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that temperatures and rainfall patterns are shifting due to additions humans have made to the atmosphere by burning coal and oil. We who work in this area are alarmed at the lack of action to reduce the pollutants that are the root of this problem.

Children born today will spend their lives under climates that are different from those any generation of Americans has experienced. The same will be true for their children, and their grandchildren. Agriculture, the lifeblood of Iowa, is being threatened with more frequent droughts and floods. Switching to modern renewable power sources and becoming more efficient in how we use energy cannot roll back the clock, but it can help make these climate changes less extreme.

I applaud the Board for looking deeply into distributed electric generation such as wind and solar power. It is the solution to the biggest environmental problem in modern times.

IPP-osterberg-75David Osterberg is the founding director of the Iowa Policy Project, and a Professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health in the University of Iowa College of Public Health.

More information:

Information on January 2014 Notice of Inquiry by Iowa Utilities Board

Previous IPP publications:

IUB Inquiry is Opportunity to Find Acts in Cap-and-Trade Debate — July 2009
News release
IUB Notice of Inquiry

Proposals in Congress Do Provide Relief to Consumers — June 2009
Backgrounder
News release

Electric Rate Reform Could Spur Energy Savings, Help Low-Income IowansJune 2009
Full report
Executive summary

News release

Wind in your Facebook

Most of the “rich incentives” in Iowa’s economic development playbook do not incentivize anything that would not happen anyway. But Facebook shows clean energy does matter, something more companies should consider when choosing where to locate or to keep operations.

This item reported by The Des Moines Register’s Donnelle Eller came as a breath of fresh air to those concerned about the energy demands of big data centers coming to Iowa.

Reported Eller:

Facebook says it will begin operating its new data center in Altoona in early 2015 powered entirely by renewable energy that will come from a new wind project in Wellsburg, Ia. …

Iowa has become home to a growing number of massive data centers in recent years, first Google, followed by Microsoft and Facebook. Experts cite Iowa’s low energy costs — and rich incentives — for attracting the tech companies.

At IPP, our research has covered many areas of public policy, but two strong themes that have emerged are these:

  • Clean renewable energy such as wind and solar can enhance economic growth in our state; and
  • Economic development “incentives” must be designed to pay long-run dividends to the state to truly offer a public benefit.

Iowa won the bidding war with Nebraska not because we gave away more taxes but because we had more wind power. Facebook had a deal with environmental organizations to stop being a dirty energy hog so they came to a place where they could easily get wind power. And all that wind power in Iowa (24.5 percent of the total electricity generated last year was from wind) has not caused our overall electric rates to spike. So other companies like the Iowa environment as well. Clean energy seems to get us more high quality jobs.

Most of the “rich incentives” in Iowa’s economic development playbook do not incentivize anything that would not happen anyway because they are focused on tax breaks for companies that pay little or no taxes in the state to begin with, and in any event are such a small part of business costs that they have little bearing on location decisions.

But clean energy does matter. The promise of renewable energy, such as wind power, rests with the recognition that as we invest in new energy sources to meet demand of the future, we can do so in a way that does not harm our environment and keeps energy costs down over the long term.

In this case, Facebook is following a course, beyond giveaways, that more companies should consider when thinking about where to locate or keep operations.

IPP-osterberg-75 Posted by David Osterberg, Founding Director

Wind Power in Iowa: Lower Rates, Good Jobs

Iowa produces seven times as much wind power as U.S. average — and has lower electric rates.

Opponents of expanding renewable energy often claim that new, safe and clean electricity is all very nice but it just costs too much. Let’s look at the data. The Energy Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Energy keeps statistics on retail electric rates by state and for the nation as a whole. The graph below[i] compares the average retail rates (residential, commercial, industrial) in Iowa to the U.S. as a whole starting in 1998 when Iowa began to produce significant amounts of wind electricity. While there are many reasons why a particular state’s electric rates are high or low it is certainly fair to say that our rank as the leader in per-capita wind electricity production (24.5 percent of all electricity in 2011)[ii] has not caused our rates to shoot up dramatically. Even though Iowa produces seven times as much wind power as the U.S. average, its rates continue to be about 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour below the national average.

Basic RGB

Any discussion of prices for electricity must be qualified since the amount of wind electricity produced is not the same as the amount consumed in the state. States around Iowa have requirements that a percentage of electricity sold be from renewable energy. Iowa also has such a requirement and ours was the first in the nation, a fact the governor tends to emphasize, and the requirement was met long ago. Some wind electricity is certainly exported. Thus, while data on wind electricity consumption would be helpful, information is unavailable on what portion of electricity from each fuel source serves retail load and what is sold on the wholesale market. It should also be pointed out that selling at the wholesale level has some benefit to Iowa ratepayers.

 


[i] Energy Information Administration. October 1, 2012. Average Price by State Provider. http://www.eia.gov/electricity/data/state/

[ii]  American Wind Energy Association. “American wind power now generates over 10 percent of electricity in nine states.” Accessed March 15, 2013.  http://www.awea.org/newsroom/pressreleases/wind-generation-2012.cfm

Posted by David Osterberg & Heather Gibney