Partnership Journalism•April 8, 2022
Still rare in Iowa, electric car powers Des Moines family’s home during blackouts
By Ayurella Horn-Muller (Climate Central) and Amber Alexander (NBC WHO 13 Des Moines)
Kerri Johannsen was less than a week from giving birth to her second child when a derecho wielding winds up to 100 mph swept through Iowa. Johannsen’s power went out for four days. “It was hot,” she said. “We were just trying to manage.”
The Des Moines household was among 480,000 in Iowa that lost power during the 2020 wind storm. Propelling severe rain and tornadoes through the Midwest, the storm caused $11 billion in damage, lashing infrastructure, homes and farms from Nebraska to Wisconsin.
While neighbors remained powerless, Johannsen was able to run the refrigerator, fans and lights thanks to a novel solution. Instead of a diesel generator, she connected a power inverter to a Nissan Leaf and funneled electricity from it into her house.
Kerri Johannsen. Credit: Randy Schumacher, NBC WHO 13 Des Moines
Power outages are occurring more frequently for more American communities as fires, storms and other climate disasters intensify with rising temperatures. Scientists are still investigating the relationships between derechos and climate change.
“The derecho hit our neighborhood pretty hard,” said Johannsen, whose work as the Energy Program Director with the Iowa Environmental Council helped her recognize the value of electric cars.
She drives one of only 1,889 registered electric vehicles in Polk County. “We were able to get the critical things that we needed during that time because we had all of this backup power sitting in our garage,” she said.
While Johannsen is embracing the benefits of going electric, the approach remains unusual across Iowa, where 8,370 electric and hybrid vehicles are on the roads — representing one in 500 vehicles. In California, which leads the rest of the country in market adoption, nearly one in 20 of all registered vehicles are hybrids or electric.
Iowa leads the U.S. in production of wind energy, generating the most wind energy per square mile. Yet many state legislators oppose the electric vehicle movement — pushing ethanol over electrified transport. This is saddling electric vehicle makers and proponents with legislative barriers and fees that discourage investment.
Transportation is the largest national source of heat-trapping pollution each year, and three-quarters of those emissions come from combustion engines in cars, trains, trucks and buses. The health consequences of tailpipe pollution include respiratory and cardiovascular conditions like reduced lung function and asthma.
Rising temperatures are fueling storms, droughts and flooding through Iowa. In a state where one in five work in the agricultural industry, crop production is threatened. A 2021 Columbia University study indicated rising temperatures and drying conditions could cost some counties in western Iowa up to $90 million in annual revenues from declining corn and soy production during the second half of the century.
Some officials and organizations in Des Moines and across the state are working to boost electric vehicle adoption. What they want is to get fossil-fuel burning engines off the roads — reducing Iowa’s carbon footprint, boosting local economies and ridding the air of traffic pollution, which disproportionately harms frontline communities.
Cleaning the air of combustion engine pollution could avoid about 500 premature deaths and save $1 billion in healthcare costs in Iowa under a national push to achieve 'net zero' climate emissions by 2050, according to Princeton University modeling.
“Gasoline in our engines or burning diesel in our engines absolutely contributes to a dangerous mix of air pollution,” said Laura Kate Bender, national assistant vice president of healthy air at the American Lung Association. “Someone in every family is at increased risk of harm.”
Frontline communities living near freeways and industrial facilities endure the gravest risks. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 72 million people live within 200 meters of freight truck routes. Most are people of color with lower incomes.
“It is very clear that racist policies like redlining have left a legacy of people of color living with a higher burden of air pollution from sources nearby,” Bender said. “Driving a nationwide transition to zero-emission vehicles is absolutely key if we're going to protect public health.”
Iowa slow to embrace electric vehicles
While other states like California, Washington and New York are expanding charging infrastructure, passing electric vehicle mandates and offering incentives to electric fleets, a strong biofuel-growing sector has slowed any rush in Iowa toward gasoline-free vehicles.
Iowa is consistently ranked among the worst U.S. states to own or buy electric vehicles. It is also one of the states with the lowest number of electric vehicles registered and electric charging stations added during the past four years.
Iowa’s electrification roadblocks have been erected by its Republican-controlled state legislature. Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) has repeatedly criticized electric vehicles; last year, Reynolds called the Biden administration’s goal to have electric vehicles make up 50% of new car sales by 2030 ‘short-sighted.’
“The Biden administration has focused all its efforts on electric vehicles and is actively attempting to eliminate gas-powered cars,” Reynolds said in her 2022 Condition of the State Address in January. “That’s a mistake, especially as China works to lock up the precious metals that make EV batteries.”
Electric vehicle owners avoid gas taxes, and Iowa charges them higher registration fees than gasoline engine owners — a cost that has increased steadily each year since 2020 to $130 per vehicle today. In 2021, Iowa’s legislature passed a law that prohibits direct sale of electric vehicles by manufacturers.
Several Iowa legislators remain opposed to investing in electrifying transportation because of what electrification of vehicles across the U.S. would mean for sales of ethanol, which gas companies blend into their product to comply with federal law. Last year, five Iowa representatives wrote a letter to President Biden criticizing his push for electric vehicles and lack of investments in biofuel.
In 2021, Iowa produced 4.4 billion gallons of ethanol, which increases overall emissions of heat-trapping pollution from the transportation sector. Iowa is the country’s leading ethanol producer, accounting for nearly 30 percent of national production.
According to Yale University economics professor Kenneth Gillingham, the lack of electric vehicle adoption momentum in a state where wind turbines generate 60% of the state’s electricity is a missed opportunity to run vehicles in the state on a clean energy source.
Electric vehicles also create in-state economic activity and offer fuel savings for consumers. According to data from the U.S. Department of Energy, an electric vehicle driver's lifetime fuel costs in Iowa are an average $7,860 cheaper than combustion engine vehicles.
“There’s a very real local economic impact from switching from gasoline vehicles to electric vehicles,” said Gillingham, whose research has focused on alternative energy adoption in transportation. “More money is in consumers' pockets, and that money is more often spent in local communities in your own state than if you're spending the money in gasoline stations where the bulk of the profits go elsewhere.”
Kerri Johannsen's husband and the couple's Nissan Leaf. Credit: Randy Schumacher, NBC WHO 13 Des Moines
A 2019 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative report found that the battery and fuel production for electric motors are more emissions-intensive than combustion engines. These production and recycling challenges can diminish the climate and environmental friendliness of an electric engine.
Gillingham co-authored a 2021 study that considered carbon pricing, life cycle assessments, and energy systems modeling when analyzing electric vehicle supply chains. The paper concluded that the total indirect emissions from electric vehicles will be far lower than indirect emissions from fossil fuel-powered vehicles.
While electric grids and batteries need to be substantially cleaned up before electric vehicles can be emissions-free, Gillingham said his research shows electric vehicles are already better for the environment than fossil-fueled cars.
“In just a few years, we're going to be finding that electric vehicles not only are better from the direct (tailpipe) emissions perspective but also indirect emissions,” Gillingham said.
Iowa's Electric Vehicle Promise
Des Moines city councilperson Josh Mandelbaum sees the small number of electric vehicles registered in Iowa’s capital as an opportunity for growth. Last year, Des Moines was the first American city to announce a goal of reaching 24/7 carbon-free electricity by 2035. Under this ambitious climate goal, consumption of electricity by the city will be matched by the production of clean energy at all times.
Mandelbaum deems transportation emissions ‘the next big challenge.’
“We've started transitioning our vehicle fleet,” said Mandelbaum. “Another piece that we've done is we've started adding electric vehicle charging to city parking lots in city facilities.”
A 2020 pilot program operated by the Des Moines Regional Transit in partnership with MidAmerican launched the state’s first battery-electric bus. Since its launch, the number of electric vehicles in the city fleet has increased to 18 in a fleet of 150 buses.
“I've had an electric vehicle for three years now,” Mandelbaum said. “And I pretty much only charge my vehicle during city council meetings, because there's an EV charging [station] at the city parking lot.”
Des Moines currently has 28 total public charging ports — about 10 percent of the total across the state. Mandelbaum says there's an opportunity to be ‘doing more’. The federal administration is encouraging expansion of charging infrastructure — in February, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced Iowa will receive more than $51 million to deploy electric charging stations.
Industry innovation means it will also be increasingly simple to use electric vehicles as batteries. General Motors and California utility Pacific Gas & Electric recently announced plans for a pilot program to test home-powering by way of electric motors, which follows the release of Ford’s new 2022 electric pickup truck that automatically powers a household: ‘if the lights go out.’
Working for the Iowa Environmental Council to try to transition Iowa from fossil fuels to 100% clean energy, Johannsen, who used her car to power appliances after the 2020 derecho, says a lack of incentives and disproportionate taxes on electric vehicles is slowing their adoption in Iowa.
“Unfortunately, there are some Iowa laws that are not quite equitable in terms of how EVs are taxed and the fees that are paid by EV owners,” she said.
Johannsen says her family invested in the inverter they hooked up to their electric vehicle to power their home in the wake of Des Moines's flash flood, which left more than 1,500 properties damaged and nearly 20,000 households without power. The flooding killed one person and impacted thousands of others in Des Moines.
“Fortunately or unfortunately, our preparations were informed by the summer flooding of 2018 when we lost power and almost lost everything in our basement,” Johannsen said. “Our neighbors did lose a lot. A lot of people in Des Moines did in that flood, and so we have prepared.”
This story was produced through a partnership between NBC WHO 13 Des Moines and Climate Central, a non-advocacy science and news group.