IEC's 2021 Condition of the State: The True Cost of Coal-Fired Power Generation in Iowa

posted on Wednesday, September 8, 2021 in Energy News

Recently published report details energy generation in Iowa, including growth in renewables and risks of fossil-fueled power generation

2021 Condition of the State ReportDES MOINES, IA -- Sept. 7, 2021 -- IEC has released the 2021 Iowa Electric Generation, Condition of the State report, which analyzes fossil-fueled generation compared to renewable generation, as well as risks posed by the state’s current energy generation mix that continues to rely on fossil-fueled generation. The report also explains the fallacy of utility claims of providing 100% clean energy to their customers.

The report starts by noting significant growth in renewable energy generation in Iowa. Iowa’s wind production surpassed coal generation for the first time in 2019; wind met 60% of Iowa’s power needs in 2020, making it the number one state in the nation for wind energy. Solar is on the rise and is poised to grow significantly in the coming years in Iowa, with utility-scale installations being planned around the state.

Iowa Generation Sources, 2021

Fossil-fueled generation (coal, natural gas) has declined more than 60% since 2008, moving the power sector from Iowa’s top greenhouse gas emissions source in 2008 into third place behind agriculture and direct fossil fuel use in homes, businesses, and industry in 2019. Although the report does show that power sector greenhouse gas emissions increased between 2016 and 2018, they have declined by 50% since 2018. 

Impacts to Iowans from Coal Generation


Unlike renewable generation, all fossil electricity generation impacts Iowa’s environment. Coal generation degrades Iowa’s air, drives climate change, and produces a substantial amount of solid waste that is landfilled every year in Iowa. In 2020, more than 160,000 tons of toxic fly ash was deposited in Iowa landfills from coal-fired generation. Fly ash includes lead, mercury, uranium, and other toxic substances, and threatens Iowa water quality.

Coal generation also produces significant air pollution due to the toxic chemicals released into Iowa’s skies, including mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and more. In 2020, Iowa’s coal plants released:

    • 58 pounds of mercury,

    • more than 17,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, and

    • nearly 10,000 tons of nitrogen oxides.

In fact, the health costs associated with the emissions from Iowa coal-fired power generation range from $64 to $145 million dollars each year in Iowa.

“Coal plant emissions are proven to significantly impact human health. When Iowa’s captive electric utility customers pay for their power, often led to believe it is generated from 100% clean sources, they are certainly not agreeing to pay with their health or their lives,” says Steve Guyer, IEC Energy and Climate Policy Specialist and report writer.

Climate Change

Of coal’s many environmental impacts, none are as harmful, long term, and irreversible as climate change. Consequences of climate change include rising temperatures and accelerating sea level rise, as well as growing risks of drought, heat waves, heavy rainfall from intensified storms, and species loss. 

We are already seeing impacts from climate change today in Iowa, costing businesses, farmers, local governments, and taxpayers billions of dollars. Just one event, the August 2020 derecho, damaged millions of acres of corn and soybeans, devastated the Cedar Rapids tree canopy, and crippled portions of the MidAmerican and Alliant electric system. The resulting damages to Iowans and Midwesterners totaled $11 billion.

In 2020, Iowa’s coal-fired power plants released more than 17.3 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, representing economic harm ranging from $884 million to $2.3 billion dollars. 

Crop Yields

Another potentially significant consequence of the continued use of coal is the negative impact on crop yields. A recent study looked at the increases in crop yields that occurred when coal plants shut down, which found that counties in the U.S. that experienced a coal plant closure in their immediate vicinity saw corn yields increase by more than 1% over the study period of 2005 to 2016.

In Iowa, coal generation could cause an average yield loss of as much as 330 million bushels statewide, valued at more than $1.8 trillion.

“Iowans are paying for unnecessary coal-fired power generation with their lives, health, and safety. And Iowa farmers are also paying a significant corn production penalty from unnecessary coal plant pollution,” says Kerri Johannsen of the Iowa Environmental Council.

Estimated Annual Corn Lost due to Operating Coal

The True Costs of Burning Coal in Iowa

Wind is already the lowest cost source of generation in Iowa and is dramatically less expensive than the true costs of the MidAmerican and Alliant coal plants. When account for the risks and impacts, it is clear that coal plants cannot compete on any measure. 

The threats to air quality and potential contamination of groundwater are known, quantifiable, and unnecessary. The direct damages to agricultural productivity are just beginning to be understood and the severe threats we face from climate change in our state are already evident and cannot be allowed to expand.

“Unfortunately, due to misleading utility marketing efforts, many Iowans believe we are already approaching 100% renewable energy. The truth is, we have a long way to go to achieve a true 100% renewable vision and, in the meantime, the continued use of coal generation has consequences that impact every Iowan,” says Guyer.

Right now, Iowa utilities are burning coal for profit at the cost of Iowans’ health and livelihoods, even as a switch to clean energy could reduce both pollution and costs for consumers while increasing farm income and productivity. 

  1. carbon pollution
  2. clean energy
  3. climate change
  4. coal
  5. renewable energy
  6. solar power
  7. wind power