David Osterberg


A tax on sunlight would not have sat well with our great leaders of the past. Consider President Teddy Roosevelt, who went after trusts and monopolies because he knew they used their huge size to strangle other businesses.

Over a century later, Iowa could use that kind of leadership. Monopoly electric companies are attempting to strangle small businesses. They are given monopoly status — and guaranteed profits — because of the public benefit of efficiencies in the large-scale production and distribution of power.

In exchange, Iowans are protected against abuse of that power because utilities are regulated by a state agency, the Iowa Utilities Board.

Utilities now are attacking that check on their power by going directly to the Legislature to kill small-scale competitors — small solar energy generators — that not only do not threaten them, but help the utilities.

Small customers who could not operate a coal plant can put up solar panels. Public policy currently promotes this, and MidAmerican Energy  — for one — feels threatened. Even though only 750 of their 770,000 customers have solar panels on their property, MidAmerican wants this market to itself.

MidAmerican’s approach is a job-killer for solar contractors, suppliers and a few manufacturers in the state.

The legislation — promoted with dark money-funded TV ads from undisclosed sources — would strip those small competitors of most of their market, reducing or even removing the financial benefits to people who chose to install solar panels.

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The plan is effectively a tax on sunlight. Some don't like that term, but in any event, it greatly reduces the incentive to freely generate electricity from a source nobody owns: the sun.

Customers with solar panels sometimes produce more electricity than they use — often at the highest-demand times, during the middle of a sunny day in the summer when electric costs are at their highest. They reduce utilities’ need to buy extra power at those high costs.

Currently, these customers are compensated for the excess energy they provide back to the grid at the same price they pay the electric monopoly. In contrast, MidAmerican’s legislative bills, HF 669 and SF 583, could charge extra fees, or cut compensation, to homeowners and businesses that have clean energy systems. This would make most solar projects cost-prohibitive.

The dark-money ads ignore the fact that already, clean-energy customers pay a fixed, mandatory and regulated fee each month. All customers do. IUB regulators appointed by the governor determine the fair fee to be paid by all customers for lines, transformers and billing expenses.

The utility strong-arming is not new. Last year, both MidAmerican and Alliant Energy successfully bypassed the IUB by dismantling Iowa’s energy-efficiency requirements that rewarded customer purchases of more efficient refrigerators or light bulbs, or added insulation. Those programs ended last month.

Solar energy gives citizens control over part of their lives. Teddy Roosevelt would protect their freedom, not only to stop utilities’ bullying, but to enhance a pro-environment energy strategy and both boost and maintain local small businesses that make it work.

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David Osterberg is the lead energy and environment researcher at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project, which he co-founded in 2001. He is a former six-term state representative from Mount Vernon and is professor emeritus of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa.


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