Officials from city-owned utilities and the state’s Rural Electic Cooperatives are urging legislators to pass a bill that the state’s largest privately-owned utility is seeking.

It’s a bill that may eventually lead to higher electric rates for MidAmerican customers, to help finance a new nuclear power facility. Independence Power and Light general manager Darrel Wenzel, the current president of the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities, says as new federal rules make coal-fired electric plants more expensive to operate, MidAmerican’s plan is the “best option” to meet rising consumer demand for electricity.

“And in my opinion, it behooves the rate-payers to pay a little more now and avoid paying a lot more later,” Wenzel says. 

Greg Fritz, C.E.O. of the North Iowa Municipal Electric Cooperative Association in Humboldt, says his association would consider investing in MidAmerican’s nuclear plant. 

 “We are a partner with MidAmerican in two, coal-fired power plants right now and also some transmission facilities and we have a comfort level with them because we’ve found them to be good operators…They’re in charge of those projects and we feel they’re spending our money in a prudent manner,” Fritz says. “We also see a benefit to the state of Iowa. Construction jobs would be here when a plant would be built. There would be long-term, permanent jobs, property taxes — all of those things that go with construction of a major facility like this.”

Timothy Coonan of the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives suggests the state’s other utilities would line up to invest. “One of the things we have learned is that if you own your own generation, you have a lot more control over what it’s going to cost to provide power to your member-consumers,” Coonan says. 

Jim Krieg, general manager of Cedar Falls Utilities, says his company has a diversified portfolio, but would consider investing in a new nuclear plant in Iowa.

“We own a lot of coal generation. We own gas turbines.  We have interest, partnerships in solar energy. We have wind turbines. We own ’em, run ’em, operate ’em, but we know that we need baseload generation as we go forward also,” Krieg says. “And we believe the nuclear option is something that we need to look at.”

The utility officials spoke during a senate subcommittee hearing on the bill earlier today. Nearly 200 people crowded into the meeting room and none of those given a chance to speak raised concerns about the problems unfolding at nuclear power plants in Japan. Instead, all the concerns were about the costs that would be borne by MidAmerican customers. Wally Taylor, a Cedar Rapids attorney, spoke on behalf of the Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club.

“The high costs of MidAmerican’s nuclear power will be borne by the customer and the taxpayer. MidAmerican is privatizing the profits and socializing the costs,” Taylor said. “This bill amounts to a preemptive bail-out for MidAmerican.”

One speaker, John Laitner of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, suggested there’s be no need for a new nuclear power plant if there were greater efforts to reduce energy use in Iowa.

“Making the right investments, bringing in the right design team, the right builders, there is a huge opportunity for ways we haven’t explored because we haven’t asked these questions before,” Laitner said. 

A committee in the Iowa House has approved the bill.  A subcommittee in the Senate is still considering it. The bill must be brought up for debate in the full House or Senate this week, or it’ll be dead for the year.