Net-zero emissions by 2050? Controversial proposal could make Des Moines a leader of climate action

Shelby Fleig
Des Moines Register

A proposal to make Des Moines run completely on carbon-free energy within a decade is inspiring coordinated lobbying by residents and heated debate among city officials. 

Much of the discussion since Councilman Josh Mandelbaum introduced the draft resolution in October centers on MidAmerican Energy, the investor-owned utility that powers the capital city.

At a contentious public work session Dec. 7 with the council, MidAmerican and advocates, Councilman Joe Gatto said any climate resolution bearing Mandelbaum’s name creates an appearance of a conflict of interest given his career as a senior attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center. Councilwoman Linda Westergaard also said she would vote against the resolution in its current form.

Even Mayor Frank Cownie, who presides over the international group Local Governments for Sustainability and has committed to upholding the Paris Agreement on climate change, said he supports the resolution’s goals but sees room for improvement. 

"Quite frankly, I’d like to see something a little more understandable in a one-page document rather than four or five," the mayor told the Des Moines Register. "Because I think everybody needs to understand — I’m talking about everybody from residents to business to government — I think everyone needs to know what the goals are, what we’re doing and why we’re doing it."

Meanwhile, advocates are asking representatives to act with the urgency that scientists deem necessary to avoid the most dire effects of a warming climate.

The burning of fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas release greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, causing global temperatures to increase and sea levels to rise. Within three decades, climate change could wipe out some species, place more homes in floodplains and trigger longer, more intense heat waves, experts say.

"I think everyone, panelists and council members, agree that climate change is real, that human activity is a major cause of climate change, and that we have an urgent need to act to address climate change," Mandelbaum said at the virtual meeting.

As Iowa leads nation on wind, Des Moines could lead Iowa on renewables

A drafted resolution by Mandelbaum aims to establish a timeline for Des Moines to end its reliance on coal in favor of renewable energy sources, including wind and solar power.

His proposal, which could come up for a vote as soon as the next council meeting on Dec. 21, would update the city’s greenhouse gas emission goals to align with recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Two major goals would demand significant action in the next decade.

By 2030, the proposal says, the city should reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% from 2010 levels, and achieve 100%, 24/7 carbon-free electricity.

By 2050, the city should reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, it says.

Going fully carbon-free would improve air quality, benefit overall public health, help protect national security, attract climate-conscious companies and create local jobs, the proposal states. 

Its passage would also make Des Moines a leader of climate action, according to Jeremy Caron, the city’s sustainability program manager. He told city officials to think of the resolution as an investment in the fast-growing metro's future.

"Leading by example is what we do, whether that's on a list of best places to live, top-ranked city for affordability, a best city to pursue a STEM career, or best city for health and well-being," Caron said. "We can also be a best city for sustainable communities and renewable energy."

Wind turbines fill the horizon in O'Brien County Thursday, April 6, 2017.

While the United States is shifting from coal, with production estimates dropping by 103 million tons a year compared with 2019 estimates, progress is offset by large increases in projected oil and gas production, USA TODAY reports

In Iowa, wind usurped coal as the state’s largest energy source for the first time this year. Wind turbines power about 42% of Iowa's net energy generation, the highest share of any state, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Iowa is also the top producer of ethanol, a renewable fuel made from plant materials, primarily corn.

Last year, Des Moines City Council approved a benchmarking ordinance that requires owners of buildings larger than 25,000 square feet to submit annual reports on their electricity and water usage as part of the effort toward an already-established citywide goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 28% by 2025.

But the coronavirus pandemic and August's damaging derecho is stunting those efforts. The council voted this month to cancel penalties for property owners who didn’t report their 2019 data by the May 1 deadline.

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie and other local and state officials spoke outside the Iowa State Capitol during a news conference on June 1, 2020.

Cownie, who is serving his fifth term as mayor and has touted his environmental advocacy in his reelection campaigns, in recent years has helped revive the Des Moines Citizens' Task Force on Sustainability and attended international climate change summits, including at the United Nations.

He said Iowa’s current drought conditions, which recently forced the Raccoon River at Fleur Drive below 3 feet, and repeated flooding in recent years is "indicative of some changing climate issues and the amount of precipitation we’re getting on a regular basis here in the state of Iowa."

He said he is encouraged by engagement on the issue, especially from the business sector, and sees "great potential" in the ongoing attempts to establish new climate goals. 

"I obviously support 100% renewable, especially electricity, vision," Cownie said. "I think it’s important that we get there and work with our energy providers ... and I think we have to look at the specifics of every piece of it."

City's MidAmerican partnership at center of debate

The push to achieve around-the-clock carbon-free energy puts MidAmerican, the Des Moines-based subsidiary of Warren Buffett-owned Berkshire Hathaway Energy, at the center of debate.

During the city’s work session, Kathryn Kunert, MidAmerican’s vice president of economic connections and integration, told council members that advances toward a carbon-free system must be equally balanced with "affordability and reliability."

Mike Fehr, MidAmerican’s vice president of resource development, presented two paths for the utility to provide 100% carbon-free energy: Invest $8 billion to build out renewable energy sources and batteries, or pay up to $2 billion for small nuclear reactors and batteries.

Fehr said the options would mean a "carbon-free charge" for Des Moines customers. The charge would bump a current residential bill of $74 per month to $264 for the renewable sources and batteries path, or $111 for the small nuclear reactors and batteries option. The projected rate increases were higher yet for business and industrial customers, he said.

Michael Fehr, vice president of resource development at MidAmerican Energy.

Funding investments by raising customers’ rates is a move that needs approval from the Iowa Utilities Board through a lengthy legal process.

"We are a partner and have shown that partnership with the city for decades and certainly want to be at the table, but we have made a commitment to all of our customers to deliver energy that is reliable, affordable and sustainable," MidAmerican spokesperson Tina Hoffman told the Register. "... Some of what we showed (at the work session) was an effort to come to the table with the potential solutions that we have available to us today based on the technology that we have to work with today."

MidAmerican introduced wind energy in Iowa in 2004 and currently generates about 60% of its electricity from turbines. It predicts it will reach 83% by next year, and eventually will generate renewable energy equal to 100% of its customers’ annual usage with the completion of a $922 million wind energy project.

A used turbine blade is seen at one of MidAmerican Energy's wind farms on Oct. 30, 2019 in Walnut, Ia. Turbine towers can be recycled, but their six-ton blades are such a large composite of metal, wood, and fiberglass that they aren’t commercially viable to recycle. One landfill in the state currently accepts the blades — 3,600 of which are to be replaced in coming years.

Alliant Energy, the state’s other large investor-owned utility, is also increasingly shifting to renewables. It aims to eliminate all coal from its power generation system by 2040 and will close its Lansing coal-fired power plant in northeast Iowa over the next two years.

Mandelbaum’s draft floats the possibility of using city policy as leverage in future negotiations for MidAmerican's franchise agreement with the city, which will be up for renewal in 2022, according to Hoffman.

But the councilman says passing the resolution would cement the cities’ priorities and "put pressure on (MidAmerican) to help achieve it" even without changes to the agreement.

"We should be setting the goals and the vision — that’s part of what policymakers do," Mandelbaum told the Register. "We set goals and vision and then we work with partners to accomplish that. That’s what we need to do if we’re going to have meaningful climate action."

Advocates writing letters, making calls to support proposal

The Iowa Environmental Council is leading efforts to amplify public support for Mandelbaum’s resolution. The group recently sent council members a letter asking the City Council to "step up and become Iowa’s clean energy and climate leader."

The 40 signees were mostly local and regional environmental groups, but also included small businesses, neighborhood associations and large corporations including Kemin Industries, a global ingredient manufacturer founded and headquartered in Des Moines.

Heather Christensen, Kemin’s sustainability coordinator, who participated in the council work session as a panelist, said the company is in the process of installing a system of solar panels that will power much of its campus and be visible from East Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway.

"One thing that is important to us at Kemin is that (the city) continues to attract top talent and young professionals that want to make Des Moines their home," she told council members.

Kemin Industries in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017.

Jake Grobe, a climate justice organizer with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, is working to train residents on how to lobby their representatives to support the resolution. He hosted a virtual meeting Tuesday night where he encouraged dozens of attendees to share personal stories while communicating their climate change concerns.

Grobe says the most important aspect of the resolution is the emphasis on 100%, 24/7 carbon-free energy usage. To make that possible, he wants to see the city invest in community solar farms and ample battery storage.

"The city of Des Moines and MidAmerican could work together to make this happen and create thousands of good-paying, local jobs," he said in an interview. "They could ... ensure that nobody has to be in the dark for weeks when the next storm hits."

More:Microgrid power could restore outages faster. Here's how it helped one Iowa town during the derecho

At CCI’s virtual meeting, Katie Rock, a representative for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, said the resolution would give MidAmerican an "incentive to shift completely off of fossil fuels." 

MidAmerican operates five coal-fired power plants in Iowa, according to Hoffman, and has retired four others in the last six years. 

The Sierra Club contends it was pushed out as a panelist on the climate work session, saying in a news release last month that it was "removed from the meeting agenda at the request of MidAmerican."

Immediately following the two-hour work session, panelist Kerri Johannsen of the Iowa Environmental Council unplugged to spend time with her newborn daughter.

"We’re not walking away from this meeting giving up," Johannsen said of the work session, which for her illustrated "the huge amount of work we have to do for (my daughter's) future, the future of the city and the people who live here."

"We’re not even saying do this today at any cost or do this for the children," she said. "We’re saying do it for the children and because it makes sense from an economic standpoint."


Shelby Fleig covers Des Moines city government for the Register. Reach her at or 515-214-8933.