Community Solar Projects. Are they the key to reducing energy prices and energy needs?

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Common Misconception: Land for Food Vs. Land for Energy

Photo from qz.com: https://qz.com/1913868/why-agricultural-land-is-better-than-rooftops-for-solar-panels/

Currently Iowa is seeing a large number of solar programs and other renewable energy infrastructure coming into being. Two more cities have adopted the necessarily aggressive climate action plan of net zero carbon by 2050, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. Our East national grid MISO, (Midcontinent Independent System Operator), has seen more requests for new construction projects this year than ever before. But where does the new renewable infrastructure get built? More often than not, a solar field will be put onto land that was previously used for farming. This has caused a group of “not-in-my-backyard” lobbyists to push against any new plans by pitting the idea of using land for food, something Iowa is historically good at and known for, versus using land for energy, a relatively new concept on the scales we are seeing today.

But we must look a little deeper. Deep into the soil, to be exact. Our agricultural practices have been exploitative in manner for decades, leaving the soil in eroded, compact and in a less productive state every year.1 Iowa loses 5.5 tons of topsoil per acre per year due in large part to the erosive properties of farming practices here. If it weren’t for the fact that Iowa was a part of the Great Plains for millennia, where millions of large grazers and wildfires built up a layer of topsoil thicker than anywhere else on the planet, we would never have been able to survive this long treating the soil as badly as we have been.

“The Coggon project (a solar project in Cedar Rapids) would indeed take hundreds of acres out of agricultural production but planners have taken steps to preserve the land’s suitability for farming in case the area is reverted after the initial 35-year program timeline. They also commissioned an environmental review and agreed on measures to prevent degradation.”

Excerpt from ‘Not in my backyard’ lobby threatens to hold up climate action plans in Eastern Iowa, Staff Editorial, The Gazette

This is exactly why using farm land for solar power, and then reverting it back to farm land after it has had a chance to revive, is a great solution to our energy/food dilemma. A solar field has to be built with enough room between the rows of panels that a service truck can maneuver through them without damaging them. This means that there is plenty of room to grow native habitat that helps revive the soils nitrogen content, build up hummus, sequester carbon and support our local and migratory pollinator friends that need us so desperately right now, almost as much as we need them.

Plantings can improve the aesthetics as well as the food production capacity of solar farms. Photo courtesy of Prairie Restoration Inc.

For anyone who might be worried about taking land away from food production to turn it into a solar field, consider this: 57% of Iowa’s corn crop isn’t even grown for human consumption, indeed, it isn’t even grown for food.2 It’s grown to produce ethanol. Most ethanol produced is used to reduce the polluting power of gasoline. But with every major car manufacturer moving toward the production of more electric vehicles that will require electricity instead of gasoline, a solar field replacing a corn field is the perfect next step to meet future fuel needs. Our country is currently trying to carve a path to carbon neutrality by 2050 in order to preserve a better life for those who would come after us, so moving away from gasoline powered vehicles that emit climate-change inducing pollution is only rational. But if you need more reason to support transitioning some of our agricultural land to solar fields, how about this?

In order to keep up with American’s hunger for meat products, farmers have to raise a lot of livestock. But what do we feed the livestock? You guessed it. Lots of corn. Our pigs, poultry and cattle can eat a wide variety of plant material but 33% of Iowa’s corn is grown specifically to feed them. According to these numbers, only 10% of corn grown in Iowa is for human consumption at all. Of course, it’s even less than that because besides ethanol and animal feed, corn is used to make things like shampoo, toothpaste, chewing gum, crayons, paper and many other non-food items.3 This means that if you look at the corn fields right outside of town, the chances of that corn becoming food for you is extremely slim. According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans issued by the USDA, American diets are out of balance with more meat consumption and less fruit and vegetable consumption than required for optimal health. This means that transitioning away from growing food for livestock as well, is a step in the right direction.

Another reason that reducing the amount of land we use for food should not be considered a problem is 40% of the food we grow is wasted, it either doesn’t even make it off the farm, gets lost during production, is lost during distribution or retail, or at the consumer level when we purchase it but let it go to waste.5 (How many times have you bought a bag of oranges but only got around to eating half of it before it started turning?) Because of our obsession with beautiful, perfect produce, 33.7% of hand-harvested crops do not even make it off the farm.4 Because of modern agricultural practices that genetically modify or artificially breed plants to produce more food, we have been able to feed our entire population easily. People are indeed going hungry, but it isn’t for lack of something to eat, though that’s another social issue entirely. For now, we need to let farmers and solar companies work together to use the land in a way that makes the most sense, which just might be going solar. Consider contacting your local Planning and Zoning commissioners to let them know that you support farmers converting their land to solar fields because there are people out there spreading the misconception that we can’t afford to take farm land out of production, even though that is just wrong.

Food waste PDF from National Geographic
  1. https://iowastartingline.com/2017/08/14/iowas-black-gold-washing-away/#:~:text=The%20shocking%20estimates%20put%20the,inches%20of%20topsoil%20since%201850.
  2. https://www.sierraclub.org/iowa/blog/2021/10/planning-for-future-beyond-ethanol#:~:text=%E2%80%9CIowa%20leads%20the%20nation%20in,lower%20prices%20for%20the%20corn.
  3. https://www.iowacorn.org/media-page/corn-facts
  4. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921344919301296
  5. https://www.rubicon.com/blog/food-waste-facts/#:~:text=According%20to%20data%20from%20the,are%20lost%20at%20the%20consumer

Energy Efficiency That MPW Recommends

If you go onto Muscatine Power and Water’s website and search for information on energy efficiency you will eventually come to (this page). A huge list of options for residential, industrial or public customers can be found here. Let’s look a little closer at a few of the options that MPW recommends.

  1. Energy Efficient Windows and How to Choose the Right Ones. This link takes us to efficientwindows.org. This website seems modern and helpful, filled with tons of information on the topic of new and replacement windows. I opened up the Window Selection Tool on the home page to see how it works. First you input where you are in the country, then plug in how your windows are oriented around your home and if you get any shade from trees. After that it generates several options for you to choose from that looks like this.

A lot of this goes over my head, but I can tell that the best options are at the top with the options getting less efficient towards the bottom as those options lose their energy star ratings. At the very least, it helps people who don’t know about windows get started on their research and gives you things to ask an expert about. 7/10 Very helpful.

2. Under the Power Factor Correction section there is only one bullet point and it says ISU Industrial Assessment Center. This link leads to a broken WordPress page. Power factor correction, according to sunpower-UK.com means:  “a technique of increasing the power factor of a power supply. … This reduces the input RMS current and apparent input power, thereby increasing the power factor. The power factor correction shapes the input current in order to maximize the real power from the AC supply.”

This would have been an interesting thing to learn about if it pertained to Muscatine. 0/10 No info available, should remove section from mpw.org webpage.

3. Under the Energy Efficiency Building Practices section is an (Energy Cost Calculator). This link works! And it takes us to csgnetwork.com. Wow! Now this is amazing. This is designed to give an idea of the costs of various daily things we do in our homes. This calculator is generic in that it assumes averages for various appliances. The cost per KWH is found at the top, the default is the national U.S. average cost per KWH $0.1099 as of January 2011, but you can input whatever rate you pay per KWH found on your energy bill. MPW charges $0.093 for residential customers as of 2021.

According to this calculator, if I run a 20 minute shower once a day for a week, it would cost $7.94 for the energy to make that comfortable. That sounds very affordable. Running my radio for an hour costs about a cent. My TV for the same amount of time would cost about 4 cents. This calculator is very handy, user friendly and pretty fun to use. You can check how much energy would cost for you to run a load of laundry or leave the lights on all night.

Even more interesting is that this website has other calculators as well. An Electric Power Pollution Calculator will tell you how much pollution you generated with the energy you used for the month or year. Since the average household uses 800-900 KWHs of electricity and MPW uses mostly Western coal for power we get a result that looks like this.

Ouch. That does not look good. Coal is the worst source for power when it comes to pollutants like SO2, so when you opt into anything else, it cuts that pollution down considerably. This is why CLAM is so happy that MPW is committed to decommissioning their coal plants by 2030 for the most part. This website and link get a 5/10. It is informative and eye-opening but it doesn’t do anything to help MPW customers become more energy efficient, instead it blames the consumer for the pollution that their household generates even though the consumer has no control over the energy source used to generate that power.

4. Of course we have to talk about Energy Star products. They are the poster child of proper home appliances. The link provided by MPW takes us to https://www.energystar.gov/products. This covers the obvious appliances like refrigerators and washing machines but also the less obvious ones like heat pump water heaters and office equipment. Energy Star has seemingly everything on the topic of energy efficiency. They offer assistance in making sure that you have enough attic insulation as well as how to hire someone to install more if needed. Many things can improve for your home if appliances are upgraded to more efficient products. Not only could it be a little cheaper on the bill, it could also improve indoor air quality to upgrade things like refrigerators that utilize toxic gases that eventually leak out. Or investing in a smart thermostat that not only helps regulate temperatures in an eco friendly way but also reminds you when it’s time to change the air filters in your furnace. 9/10 everyone should know about Energy Star standards and products.

5. The last thing I will look closely at is the related topic of water conservation. http://www.niagaraconservation.com/

This link takes us to a website that brings together the ideas of water and energy conservation with water-efficient toilets. Niagara Conservation shares case studies that show how we are wasting the little remaining fresh water that we have left on Earth and why it doesn’t have to be like that. This is an extremely important point that I think is good to discuss in conjunction with energy conservation, as so much of what we do uses both at once. 8/10 Combines two needed conservation issues in one with a simple solution, albeit maybe a pricey one.

There seemed to be many links among the options on the MPW website that were broken, which is most unfortunate. However, there were still many good options to look through, even if they seemed to be arranged in a random order instead of in a way that would make sense to the average customer.

The Choose Green Program

Every citizen under the Muscatine Power & Water umbrella has the choice to be powered with wind and solar instead of coal. At 25, 50, or 100% of your energy supplied with renewables for an additional penny per kilowatt hour, this program is quite affordable. The average household spends another $8/month for the Choose Green Program.

Click the button to sign up for yourself or use the calculator MPW provides so you can calculate just how much to expect your bills will be.

Currently Muscatine has very little renewable energy utilization. About 6% of the energy MPW produces is with solar or wind, the rest is with coal, mostly sourced from Powder River Basin in Wyoming. The small percentage of renewables utilized by MPW is due in part to the fact that so few customers opt into the pay for play program. If you would like to see Muscatine invest more into renewables in the future then you should opt into the 25% green level of the Choose Green Program at least. This has been the only tool MPW uses to determine public interest in renewables for Muscatine. Because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put out deadlines for power plants to become more efficient or else pay hefty fines, our power plants would require $40 million in upgrades in order to stay operational. This means, of course, that they are set for decommission and replacement. This makes now the perfect time for MPW to invest in a green future with the majority of our energy coming from renewables that can be built up before the end of the decade. However, that is not the direction that MPW is going. They are planning to build more solar in city limits along the Grandview Ave corridor but they estimate that this addition with take their 6% green energy today and double it to 12% by 2030. Barely scraping into the double digits of green energy production when the state sits around 60% renewable energy generation is laughable. But the reason why the amount is still going to be so low is because Muscatine citizens have not paid into the Choose Green Program. MPW states that the lack of interest in renewables, shown through the poor participation in the Choose Green Program, leads them to believe that the small solar field is all that its customers want. That’s why CLAM would love to see so much request for participation in the program that Muscatine Power & Water can’t keep up and they have to consider building more solar ad wind farms to meet demand. Please help spread the word about the program and opt into the lowest setting at least, to add more incentive to invest in renewables.

The Muscatine Pollinator Project

Another banger of a program for Muscatine citizens. If you love pollinators and other bugs, or if you love native flowers and plants, or you have a boring yard that you want to beautify with color and longevity, this is the group for you. The fine folks of the pollinator project share important facts about what our native prairie plants could do to mitigate flooding, how important pollinators are to our food supply and much more. Every year they offer up for sale dozens of different species of native plants from the robust Turkey Foot to the late blooming Aromatic Aster and even edible and flowering trees like the Downy Serviceberry. (All fan favorites) Without this groups efforts to get native plants into the hands of the citizenry it isn’t farfetched to say that Muscatine would be a lot worse off. It’s not always obvious or easy for the regular citizen to know what is native to the area, or what’s a cultivar or not, or whether something is going to hurt local wildlife, so having a large selection of safe options to choose from every year is truly world changing.

Outdoor Recreation Spotlight: The Bike Trail

The City of Muscatine has more than 10 miles of paved and unpaved trails and walkways, as well as more than 20 parks with a combined 550 acres of land. This boon of outdoor recreation options for citizens offers countless biking or running routes from the Deep Lakes State Park to Weed Park and many in between. Add to this the scenic views from the river front, unobstructed by a barge terminal, makes travelling along the southern edge of the city a beautiful and peaceful experience. Is there a favorite view you found while travelling the public bike trails?

Recycling in Muscatine. Paper, plastic and…leftovers?

The Public Works of Muscatine picks up not only garbage but also recycling at the curb for the convenience of the citizens. Paper, plastics, metals and even glass can be picked up by the city for no additional charges. This single stream recycling system is super helpful for people who don’t like the idea of sorting recyclables. But when the recyclable items are removed from the trash what does that leave? The answer is: lots of scraps. Kitchen scraps, specifically, 40% of our landfills are made up of organic matter. Everything that’s scraped off the dinner plates, the bread heels no one will eat, the leftovers that never make the cut, produce that rots before it can be remembered, when these things end up in a landfill and get buried under the rest of the refuse, a dangerous chemical reaction occurs. When left out, this organic waste will break down via bacteria and sunlight and produce carbon dioxide and other simple compounds. But, it’s when this waste is buried, away from air and sunlight that the danger can occur. In an anaerobic environment organic matter will break down more slowly, but it does still break down…into methane. Methane is the reason for almost every dumpster or landfill fire because it is an extremely combustible and explosive compound. It is in fact, natural gas. It is also a leading cause of climate change as methane is about 80 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. And that’s why the city of Muscatine funded the MORC, Muscatine Organics Recycling Center. After years of research, trial and error and lots of grant writing, anyone in Muscatine can now take their food waste down to the recycling center and put it in the bright orange dumpster, keeping it out of the landfill forever! But then what? Something amazing, that’s what. The MORC takes the food waste from the citizens and puts it in a big vat filled with bacteria, very much reminiscent of a landfill, except these bacteria work for the city too! The methane produced by the bacteria inside these giant digesters is captured and then pumped back into the city pipelines to help power buildings for free, but that’s not all. The next step in the process is liquifying the captured methane and using it to power the Muscabus and other public vehicles like police cars and fire trucks. The sky’s the limit!


Clean Air Muscatine is working to improve the environment and thus the lives of the citizens and neighbors of Muscatine, Iowa through the advocacy of common sense moves toward a cleaner, healthier world.

We regularly attend the Board of Water, Electric and Communications meetings (Last Tuesdays at 5:30 pm at the MPW headquarters on Cedar St.) to stay up-to-date on the current situation and intentions of the local power sector. We also speak at the city council meetings (1st, 2nd, and 3rd Thursdays at 7pm, online and at city hall) occasionally to share insights and advertise the local programs that citizens need to be aware of.

Why do this?

  • Because if the people and corporations in power kept everyone’s best interests at heart at all times then we wouldn’t have to worry.
  • Because there are currently dozens of people solving the problems of today but are not being heard because of economic, social, and environmental injustice.

The future of the planet is not at stake. The planet will outlive us and continue on long after our species has gone extinct. However, our short lives on this planet are impacting everything that shares this planet with us and is negatively impacting the future of everything that will be born after us.

What can we do about it:

  • Sharing the insights of those who are progressing towards solutions instead of just continuing the status quo
  • Changing our own and encouraging others to change aspects of their life for the better
  • Listen to the youth who are living through a time that we can’t prepare them for
  • Recording the changes we see, both the good and the bad, for posterity

CLAM has been a part of Muscatine for over a decade now and has fought for the health of the citizenry against a corruption and won the largest settlement in Iowa history. (View this video explaining the hardship the South end community endured before CLAM pushed for this lawsuit) But we didn’t stop paying attention to the needs of the community and today another opportunity has arisen that could greatly benefit all Muscatinians and our neighbors or continue the status quo to the greatest benefit of the industrial executives and not the people. (Link to the blog)

We hope that you will join us on this journey. It will not be smooth, it will not be fair, it will not be easy. But before the United States put a man on the moon, President Kennedy said “We choose to go to the moon…not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” And truly, the difficulty of something has never mattered to the human race. We conquered every continent and populate everywhere habitable (and some places uninhabitable) because we can. If we choose to do something, even something that seems impossible today, we will make it possible and do it.

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