Iowa energy companies moving toward more natural gas


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A greener future — thanks to natural gas?

Justin Foss of Alliant Energy said that's exactly what's happening.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Iowa produces approximately 5 percent of its energy via natural gas. That ranks it as the third largest source of energy, after coal and nuclear, and just ahead of wind.

"Coal, historically was the cheapest fuel source here in Iowa and across America," Foss said. "But thanks to new regulations and new technologies, this is all changing."

Foss noted Alliant Energy, which provides power to much of northern Iowa along with Minnesota and Wisconsin, has converted two of its coal-fired power plants to natural gas, and it has plans for more in the future. New environmental regulations being implemented by the Environmental Protection Agency are helping drive this change, he said, making coal a less attractive fuel source.

"We either bear the brunt of these regulation changes, pass them on to our users, or we look somewhere else," he said.

Foss said nuclear energy's high output is offset by a heavy cost of upkeep — often millions of dollars. Natural gas, he said, lacks many of those costs.

"Technology is allowing us to extract more gas here in America," he said, "while demand from industry is dropping due to the recession. It's a perfect storm."

This "perfect storm" has resulted in a massive drop in gas prices — nearly 50 percent over the last eight months, according to the Natural Gas Futures Price Index.

Craig Walter, administrative director with Iowa Natural Gas association, said natural gas is used by most Iowans for heating homes and businesses because of its cheapness and efficiency.

"[Americans] are all realists about what renewable energy can supply, and it's not a 24/7 energy source," Walter said. "Coal is, and we have a lot of coal. Oil is, but we have to import a lot of our oil, and it's costing us billions and billions of dollars do that. Gas can as well, and it's cheaper and cleaner than the alternatives."

Some local environmental advocates acknowledged natural gas burns cleaner than its alternatives, though this is offset by its production process.

"If they're using natural or traditional extraction methods for gas, that's great," said former Iowa City Sierra Club head Mike Carberry. "The concern is if they're using fracking."

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has opened up new shale-gas reserves and raised some concerns about the chemicals used in the process.

"Recall the movie Gasland, where they were able to light drinking water on fire?" Carberry said. "And now they're talking about opening Iowa for fracking, so we really have to ask what are the consequences of this? You have to take a look at the total lifecycle of the product — how much carbon dioxide is released when you extract the gas, transport the gas, or build the plant."

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