Solar power becomes issue in Iowa gov. race

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Hatch criticized Gov. Terry Branstad on Monday for giving up a $1 million solar energy grant, saying the governor is letting powerful utility companies write his energy policy.

Hatch said that he was concerned by the decision to return the U.S. Department of Energy grant, which was designed to make solar installation projects faster and less expensive through changes to rules related to permits, inspections and connecting to the grid. He said that solar power had tremendous potential, particularly after an Iowa Supreme Court decision this month is expected to lead to more installation projects across the state.

"This is something that is going to make an enormous impact on the economy of this state and he just turned a blind eye because the utility companies do not want this kind of source to be a reduction of their use of their utility-owned, corporate energy," Hatch said.

Branstad campaign spokesman Tommy Schultz dismissed the criticism, saying "Hatch can continue to bloviate from the sidelines" while Branstad promotes renewable energy. Branstad signed a bill in May that tripled the amount of tax credits for solar installation projects and has championed wind power and ethanol.

The Iowa Economic Development Authority announced in November that its energy office landed the three-year solar grant. A press release quoted Branstad as saying that "Iowa should be at the front of the pack" in solar energy.

The Associated Press reported last week that the Iowa Utility Association, which represents MidAmerican Energy and Alliant Energy, successfully lobbied administration officials to make key changes to the grant plan. The association's president, Mark Douglas, said that he was caught off guard by the grant announcement, and felt it was inappropriate for the Iowa Economic Development Authority to study unsettled solar policy and financing issues.

One month after the announcement, IEDA Director Debi Durham wrote a letter to Department of Energy solar analyst Joshua Huneycutt saying that she "was made aware of certain local developments that promise to impact the design and even the propriety of some of the work to be performed." She said it would be inappropriate to make policy recommendations that could be impacted by a pending Iowa Supreme Court case involving solar power, or to "undertake the work of the grant without greater participation by Iowa's investor-owned utilities."

She noted that the Iowa Environmental Council and the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities, which were subcontractors for the grant, had intervened in the case in which utilities were seeking to bar solar companies from selling energy directly customers. The court rejected the utilities' arguments July 11 and ruled that so-called power purchase agreements are legal, which is expected to make it affordable for schools, government agencies and nonprofits to install solar panels.

Durham's Dec. 5 letter, released under the public records law late Friday, added that it would be inappropriate to study issues that the Iowa Utilities Board was planning to investigate. The board, which regulates utilities, announced in January it is seeking public comment on issues relating to solar power generation and distribution.

In January, IEDA general counsel Rita Grimm inserted language about the "limitations" of solar and other changes sought by Douglas into a revised plan. Those changes were opposed by Huneycutt, who said they "seem to suggest a significant scaling back of the ambition of the award and a generally adverse/suspicious viewpoint towards solar, which is not acceptable." He also said it was essential to study policy, which every other grant team was doing.

After both sides couldn't agree, they terminated the grant in April. That decision was not announced.

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