SIOUX CITY -- Dolf Ivener offers a dire warning for Iowa lawmakers intent on raising costs for solar panel users.
"It will destroy my industry," said Ivener, a Sioux City businessman who installs solar panels for smaller users. "They're going to show that the legislature is in the palm of MidAmerican (Energy's) hand. So that if you are going to spend that money for a solar system, what would make you believe that next year they're not going to come out and say, 'Well, no net metering at all'?"
MidAmerican, which serves a large area of western Iowa, and other rate-regulated utilities would be allowed to charge solar customers for their use of the electric grid and and put the revenues toward infrastructure maintenance, under a bill approved by the Senate last week. The bill, Senate File 583, passed 28-19 vote with mostly Republican support.
A similar bill, House File 669, has passed a House committee and is awaiting full debate in the chamber. It would permit rate-regulated utilities to charge solar panel owners $330 a year.
Current customers would be grandfathered in, so they would see no rate change.
Proponents of the legislation point out Rural Electric Cooperative and municipal utility solar customers share in the infrastructure cost, but solar customers of the rate-regulated utilities do not.
Don Kass, a member of the Plymouth County Board of Supervisors, favors the legislation. He isn't fond of the various incentives given to solar panel owners, such as tax credits.
"The so-called green energy movement, while commendable, also has to be couched in reality," Kass said. "When you get this far north, things like solar don't work as well as they do, say, in Florida."
But Ivener and others point out that solar power has becoming increasingly popular in rural Iowa as farmers and other small businesses look to reduce their electric costs.
Ivener’s solar business, called Hog Power Energy, focuses on installing solar panels on hog confinements. He also has developed systems to power irrigation systems.
The firm has also completed solar roof arrays on a host of commercial and residential buildings in Sioux City and other area cities.
Statehouse Democrats proposed an amendment excluding farmers from the new solar fees, but it was defeated with most Republicans voting against it.
Solar panels are commonly promoted as a cost-effective energy solution due in large part to "net metering," which allows the owners of solar systems to sell electricity back to the grid during times of high power production. Those who oppose the legislation say it would tilt the economics of net metering to such a degree that solar would be less economically viable.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, as of the fourth quarter of 2018, Iowans had installed 96 megawatts of solar capabilities, enough to power 10,138 homes. The state gets roughly 0.14 percent percent of its electricity from solar, and solar is believed to support 844 jobs in the state.
For its part, MidAmerican has been a major backer of the legislation. In February, the utility company released a statement saying the current system shifts the costs of solar panels from the owners of the panels to other customers.
"Growth is possible when policies allow all customers to benefit from renewable energy. If this legislation can fix the cost-shift, then solar energy can have an even brighter future in Iowa, just like wind has experienced in the past decade," Adam Wright, MidAmerican Energy president and CEO, said in the statement. "Common sense legislation focused on keeping costs low and affordable for everyone provides the best opportunity to grow solar in Iowa."
Ivener said the utility would prefer not to give solar panel owners credit for their electricity via net metering; the credit given to those customers is higher than what MidAmerican pays for electricity wholesale.
Solar panel owners, Ivener said, pay for infrastructure as it is, just as all other power customers do.
"I already pay $10 on my electric bill for infrastructure," he said. "Explain that to me, what was that $10 for?"
Meanwhile, Paul Rekow, a member of the Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association and a renewable energy advocate, said the legislation is just an attempt to do an end-run around the Iowa Utilities Board, which he says should be in charge of these policy decisions.
"The for-profit utilities in Iowa are regulated by the Iowa Utilities Board. This should not be a legislative issue, it's a Utilities Board issue," Rekow said.
"What they're trying to do is, they're trying to circumvent the Utilities Board. They went to the Utilities Board two years ago trying to get some changes, the Utilities Board said, 'No, we don't have enough information right now, we need to do a three-year study. At the end of that three years, we'll come back and look at the rates.' That three-year study period is not up, they're in the middle of the second year."
DES MOINES --- Iowa’s fields are filled with rows upon rows of corn and soybeans.
Maybe make a little room for hemp.
A new crop may be available to Iowa farmers next year, as some state lawmakers are designing a program for growing industrial hemp.
“I think there’s potential for an alternative crop for Iowa farmers,” said Tim Kapucian, a Republican state senator and farmer from Keystone.
Industrial hemp is plant member of the cannabis family. The plant’s seeds and stalks have myriad commercial uses, including in building materials, paper, textiles, oils and food.
For decades it was illegal to grow hemp, a cousin to marijuana, even though hemp has only tiny traces of the psychoactive element that gives marijuana users the high effect. Marijuana has 4 percent to 7 percent of the psychoactive substance tetrahydrocannabinol; hemp has between just .1 percent and .4 percent of THC.
The federal government in 2014 allowed states to create industrial hemp pilot programs, but the real movement came this past year when, in the farm bill, the federal government legalized hemp as an agricultural product and gave states the ability to create their own, unique industrial hemp programs.
With that federal blessing, Iowa lawmakers, some of whom had been proposing industrial hemp pilot programs in previous years, have escalated their efforts this year.
Iowa is one of just seven states without an industrial hemp program, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The federal government must approve any plan created by the state.
“It was three and a half years ago we had our first interim hearings on this, brought people in from across Iowa and the country, basically,” said Kevin Kinney, a Democratic state senator, farmer and retired deputy sheriff from Oxford. “It’s something that, maybe with the way commodity prices are, it just gives farmers another alternative. Especially the small farmers.”
Among myriad applications, industrial hemp can be used for:
Advocates for industrial hemp often had to push through the misconception that hemp and marijuana are more closely related, or that hemp could be used as a recreational drug. The federal government’s move to decriminalize hemp in the 2018 farm bill helped overcome that hurdle and get more state lawmakers on board with a hemp program.
“I think we’ve got a good shot this year especially because the feds had it in the farm bill,” Kapucian said. “That was the impetus to actually get it kicked up and rolling.”
Lawmakers said they are being careful to design a program that would specifically allow for the growth of industrial hemp and not marijuana, and provide punishments for anyone who might attempt to cross that line.
“I think there’s an opportunity for some farmers out there to do this, but with that opportunity I think there’s also opportunity for some people to try to game the system, especially early on,” said Jarad Klein, a Republican state representative and farmer from Keota. “I think after the first few years we will have gotten a lot of the people that are looking to cause problems out of the way. They’ll realize this isn’t a get out of jail free card.”
Advocates say industrial hemp could be a new supplementary option for Iowa farms, where corn and soybeans are the dominant commodities. Some of those farmers already are expressing interest, lawmakers said.
“I’m getting contacted by multiple farmers, big and small. So it’s something I think people are looking at just to see if it’s a viable alternative to their operations,” Kinney said. “It’s an alternative.”
Even advocates of the program in the Iowa Legislature are stressing that, should a program be approved, farmers should not expect hemp to be a miracle crop that will provide a huge financial boost. They are urging caution, even including in the proposal a limit on 40 acres per farmer.
“We don’t want people thinking this is going to be a crop that can save their farm,” Klein said. “I don’t want farmers out there thinking this is the next best thing, that this is going to generate all this money.”
Kapucian said he thinks a new hemp program could be similar to how ethanol, the corn-based fuel that is now blended into the nation’s fuel supply, got its start in Iowa.
“It’s going to be a steep learning curve,” Kapucian said. “And like anything else, there’s going to be some failures along with some success stories.”
Klein compared hemp’s potential to the influx of solar energy in his area of the state. He said if a program is passed, participation likely would be scant at first, but could grow if a few farmers are successful.
“I think at the very peak of this we’re talking maybe 15,000 acres. ... That would be a very, very extreme end. I think initially we’re talking a few hundred acres,” Klein said. “It just takes time for some of this to get adopted. ... This could be one of those things (that eventually grows), but somebody’s got to jump in and take risk.”
Companies that would process industrial hemp have already expressed interest in setting up shop in Iowa if a program is approved, lawmakers said. Kapucian said he has been contacted by businesses from Nebraska, Kentucky and one run by a former Iowan living in Texas.
“I’m very happy that we’ve been contacted by people from different states that are really interested in the processing part of it,” Kapucian said. “That’s always been one of my concerns, that we grow the processing along with the production so we don’t end up with some people with a bunch of product out there with no place to go with it.”
Bills have been introduced and are making their way through the approval process in both the Iowa Senate and Iowa House. Lawmakers said they are optimistic they can make Senate File 279 and House File 733 similar and get a bill passed by both chambers and sent to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk for her approval before this year’s session ends, likely in April or May.
“I hope it passes and I hope it opens up new markets. One of the things I’ve been looking at is trying to find things to stimulate economic growth in rural areas,” Kinney said. “I’m optimistic with how this is proceeding at this point.”