Des Moines Register Editorial Board: It's time to accelerate the move away from coal
Excerpts from the editorial originally published in the Des Moines Register on Sunday, February 26, 2023
For many years, few people have seriously disputed the idea that burning coal for electricity has to stop, eventually. The argument these days is over the "eventually." In recognition of the severity of the effects of human-caused climate change, it’s time in Iowa to replace that word with a date, no later than 2035.
A year ago, MidAmerican Energy announced its Wind PRIME proposal, in which it would add over 2,000 megawatts of wind power (expanding current wind capacity by about 30%) and a smaller amount of solar energy. It also pledged to research other ways to reduce emissions, including carbon capture. Company officials said it would keep prices low and called it a major step forward in achieving several long-range MidAmerican targets, including having the ability to serve all customer demand through renewable energy and reaching “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
The Iowa Environmental Council, the Environmental Policy & Law Center and the Sierra Club argue that MidAmerican did not properly consider alternative mixes of technology for what became Wind PRIME. Moreover, the groups say, more aggressive investment in solar generation, electricity storage and earlier retirements of the company’s five coal plants would be better for the environment — and would not sacrifice MidAmerican’s reliability or cause customers’ or the company’s costs to spiral.
Regulators have to take reliability, the environment, prices and more into account in deciding whether Wind PRIME meets the ambiguous standard in Iowa law (very generally, that a utility’s plans be “reasonable”). Thousands of pages of depositions, studies, legal briefs and other documents will guide the Utilities Board on that question. But this editorial board is free to take a step back from the law to say that it’s time, probably past time, for utilities to put much greater urgency on abandoning coal — even if doing so also means taking some gambles on brownouts and blackouts, price volatility and newer technology.
Scientists have long known the health risks of emissions from power plants, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, carbon dioxide, mercury and other hazardous air pollutants. Adding new urgency to human risk arguments: Coal power is among the worst offenders for carbon dioxide emissions. Climate scientists expect the CO2 already in our atmosphere to intensify disastrous effects on humans and other life that we’re already seeing through extreme weather and disease — and not in the far future. Children of the 1960s have good odds to be around when global warming hits 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a figure that’s long been seen as a potentially critical threshold. Below it, scientists argue, we adapt to a changed world; above it, we scrap to survive in a transformed world.
We’ll echo a target that environmentalists have voiced: MidAmerican should turn off its coal plants no later than 2035. Customers and other Iowans should tell the company as much.