Scientists urge Iowa to strengthen electric grid as climate change drives more extreme storms
Pointing to the derecho that left more than 500,000 Iowans without power last year, scientists said Wednesday the state needs to strengthen its electric grid so it's more resilient to the extreme weather events that climate change is bringing.
Nearly 225 Iowa scientists signed a climate statement, urging utilities and transmission providers to harden and expand the state's electric grid, saying the threats to the power system will continue as the planet warms.
"Climate change is powerfully upon us," the climate statement says. "In the Midwest it has increased the frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation, floods, droughts and extreme heat, all of which create environments that threaten grid reliability and resilience at a time when increasing electrification will make infrastructure performance ever more critical."
Jim McCalley, an Iowa State University engineering professor, said the electrical infrastructure wasn't designed to withstand the intense storms and other hazards Iowa now is experiencing.
McCalley and other scientists who spoke with reporters in an online news conference pointed to the August 2020 derecho, rolling blackouts in Iowa as extreme February cold devastated the Texas power grid, and wildfires in the western U.S. as examples of the impact climate change will have on residents.
The derecho swept with little warning through the middle third of Iowa, flattening thousands of acres of corn and soybeans and destroying homes, businesses and vehicles.
"The loss of power left people in the dark without air conditioning, refrigeration, access to food, phone chargers and life-sustaining medical equipment,” said Dave Courard-Hauri, a Drake University professor of environmental science and sustainability. “This was a potentially deadly combination for many vulnerable and low-income Iowans.”
The National Weather Service labeled the event the most destructive thunderstorm in U.S history, causing $11 billion in damage. Iowa lost 7.2 million trees in the storm, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and it took weeks to restore electric power in some sections of the state.
Gene Takle, an ISU emeritus professor of agronomy, said the storms "have revealed new and disturbing challenges for electric grid reliability."
"We don’t know when, where or in what form such an extreme event could occur again," Takle said. "But a widespread protracted power outage has happened once in Iowa, and the continuing accumulation of heat and moisture in the atmosphere, due to increases in greenhouse gases, is increasing the likelihood of such an event recurring."
McCalley said the storms make it "easier and easier" for utilities and transmission providers to "make the case" for increase investments in the Iowa and other Midwest electric grids.
The ISU engineer professor said Iowa utilities and transmission providers are doing a good job at adopting renewable energy to reduce greenhouse emissions and "are eager to enhance and strengthen the infrastructure."
Both MidAmerican Energy and Alliant Energy, Iowa's largest power providers, said Wednesday they have invested heavily in renewable energy and in strengthening the resiliency of their electric grids.
Tina Hoffman, MidAmerican Energy's spokeswoman, said in an email that investing in transmission assets "is a key component in continuing MidAmerican’s efforts to reach the ultimate goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions."
The Des Moines company has said it's invested $13 billion in developing wind energy since 2004 and 84% of the electricity its customers needed last year came from the renewable energy.
Alliant's Morgan Hawk said the utility has a diverse energy mix, including wind, solar, natural gas and battery storage. "Our accelerated sustainability goals include eliminating all coal from our generation fleet by 2040 and aspiring to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity we generate by 2050," said Hawk, Alliant's spokesman, in an email.
Iowa's renewable energy adoption is important as the nation moves to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. Iowa received nearly 60% of its power last year from wind, the highest percentage nationally, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
But President Joe Biden has set an even more ambitious goal: to cut in half greenhouse gas pollution by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050. As part of that effort, Biden wants of all new cars and trucks sold have zero emissions by 2030, and automobile manufacturers are pledging to convert some or all of their fleets to electric propulsion.
More electric transmission capacity is needed, McCalley said, to continue the growth of wind, solar and other renewable energy in Iowa and to support the added power demand, especially as consumers move to electric vehicles.
McCalley acknowledged that opposition in rural Iowa has prevented some transmission projects from moving forward.
It's important to listen to concerns, he said, but added that "there is no form of energy supply" that is without drawbacks. "Everything has its negatives," he said.
"It's well understood ... that the transmission capacity we currently have is insufficient to build out the resources that we need to get a zero-carbon footprint," McCalley said.
Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8457.