Iowa’s Next Energy Frontier: Harnessing the Sun

Iowa is a wind energy superpower, second only to Texas in total wind generation. The Hawkeye State generates enough wind energy to power nearly two million homes and employ more than 9,000 up and down the wind energy supply chain. 

But on Wednesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds called attention the next big clean energy job creator — solar power. Reynolds shed light on the state’s growing solar economy against the backdrop of Ideal Energy, a Fairfield-based solar company founded in 2009 by Navy veteran Troy Van Beek. Ideal Energy employs 30 full-time employees to design and install solar and battery storage across the Midwest.

Despite entrepreneurs like Van Beek, Iowa has yet to tap into the sun the way it has harnessed wind. It ranks in the nation’s bottom third of total solar installations, generating just enough to deliver clean, homegrown energy to 5,700 families and businesses. And there are just 536 Iowans in the solar workforce, placing the Hawkeye State in the bottom fifth of one of the nation’s fastest-growing workforces.

How can Iowa build its own multibillion-dollar, 21st century solar industry? With the right policies in place, Iowa could march up the ranks, putting people to work and creating homegrown electricity, just as it did with wind.

1.   Eliminate barriers to customer access. Homeowners and businesses that install rooftop solar systems must be fairly compensated for the value of the power they export to the electric grid. In addition, solar customers must not be subject to discriminatory fees, or subject to unwarranted and confusing rate designs. It’s up to state lawmakers and power regulators to ensure that solar customers are treated fairly.

2.   Allow all Iowans access to the benefits of solar. Iowa lawmakers can unlock the benefits of solar power for all customers, including those who rent or do not have suitable rooftop space. States from Minnesota to Maryland have created popular “community solar” policies, which allow customers to subscribe to a share of a local solar system, and capture the benefits of a lower electricity bill as a result. In fact, Minnesota has more than 40 community solar gardens up and running and another 180 in the design and construction phase.

3.   Create a target and stick to it. Iowa can create a solar goal and develop incentive mechanisms to achieve the target. Iowa jumpstarted its wind industry by setting targets and meeting them. The same approach will work with solar at every scale — rooftop, community and larger utility-scale projects. Neighboring Illinois will deploy roughly 3,000 MW of solar in this way, which is enough to power 11,000 homes.

The benefits of a robust solar industry are enormous. One in 10 new jobs created last year were in the solar industry, spurring local development in the clean energy economy all across the country. Solar energy is now among the cheapest sources of power, and rooftop solar further drives down the cost of maintaining the electric grid, resulting in lower power bills and a more reliable, resilient grid for everyone.

Clean renewable energy is poised to power our future, create jobs, reduce costs and drive economic development, but state policies must work to overcome the persistent barriers to growth. Iowa has done it before with wind. Now, it’s time to harness the sun. 

This article was originally published by Vote Solar and was republished with permission.

Photo courtesy of DOE SunShot

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Ed Smeloff leads Vote Solar's regulatory team working to transform the electric power system to be cleaner, smarter and more durable by integrating solar power and other clean energy technologies at all scales from rooftop to utility-scale power plant. Vote Solar is involved in regulatory activities in 12 states. Before joining Vote Solar he worked for SunPower Corp. as its director of utility and power plant sales. There he was responsible for the development of more than a gigawatt of solar power plants now in operation across the United States.

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