Fact Checker: Are MidAmerican Coal Plants “Unnecessary” in Iowa?

The pile of coal outside the MidAmerican Energy plant in Council Bluffs. (Jeff Bundy/Omaha World-Herald)

Renewable energy is one of the fastest growing energy sources in the United States, in part due to shifting consumer priorities as concerns about climate change continue to rise.

Energy providers have changed their business models to push renewable sources in recent years, but for some advocacy groups this effort is not growing fast enough.

In an April Fool’s Day ad that began airing in Iowa earlier this month, an Iowa environmental group called on Des Moines-based MidAmerican Energy Company to shut down its power plants. coal in Iowa over the next decade.

The group funding the ad is the Iowa Environmental Council, an advocacy coalition of individuals, businesses, nonprofits, and local government agencies, including solid waste authorities and storage tips.

The group is also part of the larger Clean Up MidAm coalition which leads the campaign calling on MidAmerican to shut down its coal burning facilities. Other coalition members include the Environmental Law and Policy Center, Sierra Club, Clean Energy Districts of Iowa, and Iowa Interfaith Power and Light.

A few members of that coalition also filed a lawsuit against the Iowa Utilities Board last year for failing to consider closing MidAmerican coal plants when approving the company’s annual emissions and budget plans. .

We’re going to check out three statements made in the 30-second ad.

Analysis

“While touting a vision of 100% renewable energy, they secretly operate one of the largest coal fleets in the country.”

MidAmerican Energy operates five coal-fired power plants in Iowa.

Units produced annually vary between these plants – ranging from 584.1 megawatts at George Neal North in Sergeant Bluff and 922.5 megawatts at Water Scott 4 in Council Bluffs, according to the US Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration.

In total, these plants created 3,740 megawatts of coal-fired electricity. That places MidAmerican 16th among the 188 utilities that operate coal-fired plants in the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration.

These plants aren’t exactly a secret, as the ad describes.

However, it is true that MidAmerican has gone to great lengths over the years to tout its goals of providing 100% of its energy to customers from renewable energy. The company said on its website that 83.6% of Iowa customers receive their energy needs from wind and other renewable sources.

Earlier this year, the company also announced a $3.9 billion investment to further develop wind and solar power generation by the end of 2024.

But according to the environmental groups behind the ad, which provided the Fact Checker with input, the energy company’s ads about renewable energy efforts “do not contain ‘asterisk on MidAmerican’s continued operation of these five Iowa coal plants with no retirement date’.

However, a company spokesperson told Axios last year that MidAmerican plans to shut down its five Iowa-based coal plants by 2049. Additionally, the same spokesperson told Iowa Public Radio that the company had retired four “coal units” between 2015 and 2020.

This request is worth a B.

“This coal production is all surplus and not needed to serve Iowa customers.”

The group’s supply pointed to federal regulatory filings that showed the company declared more than 26.5 million megawatt hours to MidAmerican customers in 2020.

Data from these deposits show that energy generated from sources other than coal – including wind, nuclear and methane – was sufficient to meet consumer demand that year.

Therefore, the 7.2 million megawatt hours of power generated by coal in 2020 was excess, Iowa environmental groups argued.

MidAmerican seems to agree that these sources can meet the need, based on its 100% renewable claims. But in the meantime, the company said it “will continue to use its natural gas, nuclear and coal-fired power plants to provide reliable electric service even in low winds,” according to a 2018 advertisement in the Des Moines Register. .

The data seems to indicate that MidAmerican could operate without the help of coal-fired power plants, but this does not support the claim that coal generation is “surplus” or “unnecessary” given that the company relies on these. power plants to maintain a reliable power system in Iowa. This request gets a D.

“The people of Iowa are being forced to pay $1.2 billion to run MidAmerican’s coal plants so Warren Buffett can make more money.”

This part of the announcement refers to MidAmerican’s parent company, Berkshire Hathaway, a multi-billion dollar conglomerate holding company owned by Warren Buffett.

The Clean Up MidAm Coalition pointed to a December 2021 analysis from Synapse Energy — which was commissioned by the Iowa Environmental Council with the Sierra Club and the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

The analysis, which used available federal data, indicates that removing existing coal-fired power plants from Midamerican in Iowa over the next 10 years and replacing those power sources with solar or wind power would allow taxpayers to save “about $1.2 billion by 2040”.

The researchers came to this conclusion by studying the ongoing operating costs of MidAmerican coal-fired plants, such as the cost of maintaining aging coal-fired plants. Comparing this to the projected costs in the 100% renewable power generation scenario in Iowa, the analysis concluded that the difference was nearly $1.2 billion.

Other reports have shown that the cost of wind and solar energy is competitive with the cost of coal, nuclear and other non-renewable sources. Lazard’s annual levelized cost of energy shows that renewables fell below the cost of coal in 2018 and continued to fall in 2019, according to Forbes.

The group also pointed to a 2020 report from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which showed MidAmerican sold about 11.2 million megawatt hours to other utilities. That’s about 29% of its total energy generated that year, earning the company $124.3 million in revenue, according to the report.

The environmental groups behind the ad have the data to back up that particular $1.2 billion figure, and other sources agree that renewables cost less than coal. However, this statement fails to recognize the time and investment required to build renewable energy infrastructure, which MidAmerican has made strides towards in recent years.

This statement is worth a B.

Conclusion

International climate leaders have designated climate change a global emergency, and it’s no surprise that much of that effort has focused on ending coal-fired power plants. Scientists say coal-fired power plants are the biggest contributor to climate change, accounting for 30% of all global carbon dioxide emissions and accounting for more than 70% of greenhouse gas emissions from the global electricity sector.

At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, around 40 countries pledged to phase out coal-fired power plants in the near future. However, some of the countries with the world’s largest coal production – including the United States – have not signed the pledge.

The Biden administration has joined the Paris Agreement and taken other steps to address the climate crisis in the United States, but without steps to specifically roll back coal plants. So groups like the Iowa Environmental Council have taken direct aim at companies operating these plants nationwide.

The 30-second ad that aired in Iowa this week lacks key context for its claims about MidAmerican, but also has the data to back up the financial impact of continuing coal operations.

Claims in the environmental group’s ad garnered two Bs and a D, which averages out to a C.

Criteria

The Fact Checker team verifies statements made by an Iowa political candidate or office holder or national candidate/office holder about Iowa, or in advertisements that appear in our marketplace.

Claims must be independently verifiable. We assign statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.

If you spot a claim that you think needs checking, email us at [email protected]

The members of the Fact Checker team are Elijah Decious, Erin Jordan, Marissa Payne and Michaela Ramm. This fact checker was researched and written by Michaela Ramm.

Virginia C. Taylor