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Iowa Energy Center begins new era at IEDA


The Iowa Energy Center decided in July to help Iowa State University researchers look into ways to avoid peak power problems at Iowa poultry facilities. 

A private firm will be looking into how ratepayers in small communities without sewer service would benefit from getting hooked to a system. 

Another grant will help ISU look at was to build carbon in soils while sweeping the element from the atmosphere, where it drives climate change. 

The main point: The Iowa Energy Center is up and running. It is not, as some thought after a dust-up involving its operations under Iowa State University’s umbrella, kaput. The scaled-back and refined center now is part of the Iowa Economic Development Authority. 

The board chairman is Tim Whipple, general counsel for the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities.

“There’s been a lot of confusion,” Whipple said in an interview. “Some people thought [the center] was repealed or shut down. We’re open and ready for business.

“It’s taken a while to get there, because some of the things that we needed to do were legal in nature. We had to transfer all the records and sort through the information we got from Iowa State about their programs and how they were constructed,” Whipple said. “We had to create new infrastructure for the programs as we moved over to state government. Not only did we have to go through rulemaking for the programs, we thought we would take really engage stakeholders and design them from the ground up.

“We still have programs. We have an alternative energy revolving loan program that we migrated funds over from Iowa State for that is going to operate pretty closely to how Iowa State operated it. The requirements for that are laid down in the Iowa Code. 

“We still wanted to run a grant program, but we wanted to take a fresh look at how we do those grants. So we did two sets of administrative rules — one to operate the revolving loan program and one to operate the grants,” he added.

The loans are no-interest financing, as set by state law. But there were changes.

“We’ve changed some of the terms,” Whipple said. “Some of the loans were long-term loans and we wanted the money to not be tied up for so long. For example, everyone wants a 0% loan for 20 years if they can get it, right? We’re now going to start looking at your payback period. If the project is going to pay for itself in seven or 10 years, then that’s when we want our funds repaid, too.”

That way, Whipple said, less of the money is obligated at one time, and will be available for others.

On the grant side, many of the changes have been about the process, Whipple said. 

“These are for research projects into renewable energy. Iowa State always did that,” he said. “A lot of the recipients were departments at Iowa State. The center was housed at Iowa State, and they would make grants. A number of them were to the renewable fuels research area, things like that. 

“What we’re now going to be doing is retooling these programs so that they’re focused on the seven key areas of the state’s energy plan. We’re going to be looking at things like rural and underserved areas, we’re going to be looking at workforce, we’re going to be looking at grid resiliency, and there’s a handful of others.” 

That is part of an overall shift at the center. 

“We’ve got a new mission for the center, which is to focus on those seven key focus areas. And then we wanted to redesign both the grant and loan programs so that the projects that they fund are clearly advancing the goals of the energy plan.”

That is a change, in Whipple’s view. “I would characterize some of what the energy center had done in its earlier days as a little bit hodgepodge, you know, things funded here and there in ad hoc fashion. It’s nice to have a plan and carry it through.

“The loan program tends to focus on bigger projects like solar, wind, biomass, big-figure financing projects,” Whipple said. “The grant programs will continue to be focused on research projects in the area of energy, which is more than appropriate. We still need that kind of research.”

The 2018 annual report showed $7 million in loans, and loans receivable of $10 million. The 23 active grants added up to $2.6 million. All but three of the grants end at the end of this year. The others end in 2020 or 2021.

One thing that hasn’t changed: the board’s makeup. There were criticisms under the previous version that utilities had too much of a say, but the center is established and set up under state law. The 13 members of the volunteer board include Debi Durham, director of IEDA and the Iowa Finance Authority, as well as representatives of ISU, the Iowa Department of Transportation, Central College, the Iowa Utilities Board, the University of Northern Iowa, the University of Iowa, the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities, Iowa Lakes Community College, Iowa Lakes Electric Cooperative, the Iowa Utility Association and the Iowa Office of Consumer Advocate. 

Whipple is hoping that the board will make sure all the state universities get a chance at aid. “We need to move the money around and make sure that projects at UNI and Iowa are funded at a comparable level to projects at Iowa State. There is good work going on at all three of our regents institutions that we want to support.”

The staff of the Iowa Energy Office supports the work of the energy center. Brian Selinger is the lead staffer at that part of IEDA. 

The center runs off 0.1% of the gross revenues of Iowa gas and electric utilities. 

Whipple said the state’s energy plan will inform much of what happens in coming months. “It lays out what we need to do in regards to grid resiliency and making sure we have enough people in energy careers.”

Overall, the transition to IEDA has brought new excitement at the energy center, he added.

“I think there really is a lot of excitement to begin this project anew and to reintroduce it to the business community, and to reintroduce it to the academic community, to put economic developments, marketing expertise behind it, to put the [IEDA] administrative and legal and policy experience all behind it. It’s going to work well, and I think it was unfortunate that people’s motives were questioned,” Whipple said. 

Some, including the nonprofit Iowa Environmental Council, questioned whether the move to IEDA would make the energy center a more political operation. 

Kerri Johannsen, the council’s energy program director, said her organization hasn’t had much contact with the energy center since it moved to IEDA. 

“We certainly had concerns about the center moving from the relative independence of Iowa State University into an executive branch agency potentially more influenced by the politics of the moment,” Johannsen said. “To date we have not flagged any major issues with the transition. I do think that IEDA did an admirable job of getting programs up and running quickly after the Legislature moved the center in 2017. 

“My biggest concern now is with the funding sunset date of July 1, 2022, that the Legislature also put in place. It is clear that the importance of energy for our economy and environment will only become more important, not less, in the coming decades and research and deployment of new energy technologies will be critical to the transition away from fossil fuels.” 

Legislators passed a bill, supported by utilities, that phases out the funding for the grant programs over a few years, but the revolving loans will continue, Whipple said. There may be discussion of alternate funding for the grants, he added. 

The loans, and the center, will continue.

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