While Iowa could require 35-199 GW of additional installed wind capacity to meet net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, land use ordinances and regulatory hurdles leave the door open for natural gas to play a role in decarbonizing, according to estimates.

Iowa Wind

As of 2020, wind comprised about 57% of Iowa’s electricity supply, according to researchers with Clear Path,. The nonprofit focuses on advancing policies to cut emissions in the energy and industrial sectors. 

In order to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the state would need to see a “massive infrastructure build-out over the next 28 years,” said Clear Path’s Spencer Nelson, managing director of research.

Standing in the way of such a buildout are county-level restrictions on new wind development that were enacted over the last three years, according to the report. More than 75% of land in Iowa could accommodate wind development. However, between 49% and 77% of the counties that could support projects have adopted ordinances blocking development. 

“Not all net-zero pathways that have been modeled are actually feasible,” Nelson said. “Policies that support technology-neutral decarbonization and either the reuse or optimization of existing infrastructure and rights of way are essential.”

Clear Path researchers analyzed local regulations concerning turbine minimum distances from roads and buildings alongside net-zero scenarios from Princeton University’s Net-Zero America Project (NZAP). 

Clear Path’s findings demonstrate “how challenging a clean energy transition would be if we put all our eggs into one basket,” said Clear Path CEO Rich Powerll. “We should focus on a clean energy portfolio approach that includes wind and solar, and other baseload clean energy assets like nuclear energy as well as coal and gas with carbon capture.”

With the local ordinances currently in place, Clear Path estimated that Princeton’s high electrification with limits on renewable additions scenario would be the most plausible net-zero pathway.

Under this scenario, Iowa’s installed natural gas generating capacity would shoot from nearly 3.5 GW in 2020 to 10.2 GW by 2050, according to the NZAP report. 

Clear Path researchers told NGI that “it is possible to reach net-zero using natural gas.” However, they stressed that carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) systems are “crucial for keeping natural gas in the mix with a low emissions future.”

“Natural gas capacity exists in every region of the country for reliability purposes in NZAP’s analysis, and is one of the last fuels to be decarbonized due to its lower carbon content,” researchers said. 

In addition, they emphasized the importance of supporting CCUS technology, as well as carbon dioxide storage and transportation network development, to enable stakeholders to focus on reducing emissions.

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“Market mechanisms that properly value the peaking and load-following attributes of natural gas in a resource mix with increasing penetrations of variable renewable energy will be critical to maintaining system reliability,” researchers said. 

While wind development in Iowa may be constrained under current local laws, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds in April signed House File 555 (HF-555), which blocks local governments from regulating natural gas services by public utilities.

The most plausible NZAP pathway for Iowa calls for a complete reduction of natural gas use in the residential sector. However, HF-555, as it stands now, could block local laws such as those in Washington, DC, which recently voted to ban the use of fossil fuels, including natural gas, in new construction by the end of 2026.