Iowa State worked with utilities to uproot key energy center

By RYAN J. FOLEY Features Associated Press

Iowa State University officials worked with utilities lobbyists for weeks to draft a law uprooting the state's renewable energy research center, giving the industry cover to avoid allegations of a "power grab," newly released emails show.

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Iowa State announced in March that it would support transferring the 27-year-old Iowa Energy Center to the executive branch, even though no legislation to accomplish the change had been introduced. The announcement stunned supporters of the university-based center, which was directed to cancel its search for a new director even though it had "excellent candidates" and pull back several loans, emails show.

Lawmakers in April approved a bill transferring the center to the Iowa Economic Development Authority, giving it a more industry-friendly mission and eliminating its funding source in 2022. The move was a victory for Iowa's gas and electric utilities, which fund the center through an assessment on their revenues and have questioned some of the center's research on solar energy.

The center has been a national leader in energy efficiency and alternative energy research, promoting biofuels, wind and solar and savings at government buildings. But powerful utilities had increasingly questioned the center's direction and management, making it a political headache for Iowa State administrators.

The university released emails about the plan in response to a request from Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Dubuque. They reveal that Iowa State lobbyist Kristin Failor discussed legislation that was being drafted in secret on Feb. 24 with lobbyists representing MidAmerican Energy and rural electric cooperatives.

"I got confirmation from both of them that we all want this to be amicable and supportive and they (in no way) want this to look like a power grab because we did something wrong," Failor wrote to Iowa State vice president for research Sarah Nusser.

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In another, Failor wrote that utilities "are on board with the optics" of cooperation, adding: "It is to their benefit if the narrative stays that way."

Nusser told the center's interim director Mufit Akinc on Feb. 26 that the transfer was "highly likely" to happen even though details weren't available. She said the university was "starting to do some quiet planning" but not ready to notify the center's dozen employees, who would face layoffs.

On March 2, Failor told a university official that she and a MidAmerican lobbyist agreed that introducing a bill before that month's funnel deadline "would create more harm than good if we didn't have answers for the media and staff." They decided a better strategy would be to attach the plan to a spending bill, which could be made public and passed at session's end.

After The Associated Press started inquiring about the transfer, Failor wrote to university officials March 6 that utilities lobbyists contacted her to make sure Iowa State remained publicly supportive because "they will be the ones taking the heat on this if it goes astray." She added that she assured a "testy" Sen. Joe Bolkcom that the transfer wasn't an industry takeover but "best for the future of the program."

Iowa State later confirmed to AP that day it supported transferring the center to the economic development agency. The announcement outraged center advisory board member Gary Steinke, who complained to Nusser that he wasn't consulted and felt "used, hoodwinked, betrayed, and embarrassed, specifically by you."

Nusser wrote to Failor: "I'm guessing Gary sees a conspiracy with industry and is concerned about the educational and research programs, as are we. The cost-match programs are vital to our educational and research institutions."

Iowa State officials spent weeks discussing the plan's language. But the measure passed by lawmakers in April ultimately ended the center's $4.4 million annual funding source in 2022 — over the objection of the school's board.

The Board of Regents in May asked Gov. Terry Branstad to veto the funding cutoff, saying it would "unnecessarily interrupt" many research projects. But Branstad signed the measure, which sets the transfer for Oct. 1.