The city is exploring several strategies to cut emissions, but will depend on its investor-owned utility to achieve much of its ambitious new clean energy goal.
As Des Moines leaders begin drafting plans for achieving the city’s ambitious new clean energy goals, one challenge looms above all: getting buy-in from the city’s investor-owned utility.
Iowa’s most populous city passed a resolution last month calling for a transition to 100% carbon-free electricity community-wide by 2035. Officials are exploring several strategies, including solar panels on city buildings and an expanded energy benchmarking program for buildings, but none will get Des Moines to its goal without changes to the electricity mix it receives from MidAmerican Energy.
MidAmerican has made major investments in wind farms in recent years and expects to soon offset 100% of its electricity sales with wind power. However, it continues to burn coal and natural gas for baseload power and has not announced plans to phase out those power plants.
Company officials told the City Council in December that shifting to 100% renewable energy with storage would more than triple average residential electric bills from $74 to $264, an estimate that City Councilor Josh Mandelbaum thinks was an attempt “to scare us away.”
The utility has since said that it “welcomes the challenge” of helping Des Moines meet its clean energy goals, but experts on city-utility relationships say local governments seeking changes need to look for leverage.
“Cities should always go into these situations thinking, ‘What power do we have to compel action?’” said John Farrell, director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which published a toolkit this month for cities trying to get utilities on board with clean energy goals.
Investor-owned utilities can be particularly reluctant, Farrell said, because they operate within “a market structure that rewards them for certain behavior, and it often