One of my neighbors, an electrician by trade, wrote that he “thinks that solar and wind are like vitamins. Good for supplement, but no replacement for baseload.” And there we have the challenge of making a world without carbon fuels. For those of us who opposed the construction of new coal fired power plants in Iowa, the road ahead is not as clear that the path we walked to raise awareness of our issues with coal power. The work of challenging coal power plants in Iowa and determining what will be our “baseload” remains unfinished.
The proponents of the Marshalltown and Waterloo plants abandoned their plans more because of economic conditions than because of the noise we raised to call attention to them. These proposals will be back in some form, when economic conditions are more favorable, when the regulatory environment stabilizes, or when legislators can be persuaded to change the rules. It was easy to say that the capital investment in wind energy is about the same as for coal generated electricity, kilowatt per kilowatt. It is something else to find venture capitalists and energy companies who would be willing to make large scale investments in alternative energy.
We helped stop the two coal plants but the fulcrum for our lever was the combination of a deteriorating economy and an uncertainty regarding changes in the regulatory environment. Our work is only beginning.
If energy independence will be based on a large scale solution, closely regulated by the government, then the electrical grid will need re-making. The idea of a “smart grid” enabled to use sources of energy that are smaller in scale or intermittent in nature has been discussed. Whether or not the grid is “smart,” the folks I have met who work for the rural electrical cooperatives see the change in electricity sourcing from a small number of points to widespread wind farms as costly because of the improvements needed in the grid. Consumers are all about costs and the unrecognized cost of grid improvements may be an obstacle to full expansion of wind energy. Re-building the electrical grid is discussed, but there is a cost to be borne for the large scale construction requirements, and that cost would be paid by consumers. We consumers hate to pay more.
For those of us concerned about carbon dioxide emissions, the current coal power generating plants need to be phased out. Natural gas power generating plants are similar to coal from the standpoint of carbon dioxide emissions, thus equally pernicious. Nuclear power has been discussed, and the cost per kilowatt of electricity is much higher than the cost of either coal or wind energy. There is also the question of what to do with the radioactive waste. For these reasons and others, nuclear is a non-starter.
So what is a citizen to do?
We must continue down the path towards energy independence, and not relent to the naysayers. Of immediate concern are the energy efficiency savings standards bills (HSB 150 and SSB 1191), now in committee in the legislature. Without advocacy, these bills may not make it through the funnel, so contact your party leadership to encourage them to move these bills. The cost per kilowatt for energy gained through efficiency is substantially less than generating or importing new power. If we don’t get this done in 2009 we must return to the legislature next year. If you live in rural Iowa, attend the meetings of your rural electric cooperative and consider election to the board. Getting involved is a citizen’s best defense. Park your car for one day of the week and walk or ride a bike. Whatever we do, remain committed for a long struggle for carbon free, energy independence in Iowa. It will be worth the trip.
~Paul Deaton is a native Iowan living in rural Johnson County. E-mail Paul Deaton