Connection Iowa: The Future of Telecom, Energy and Water Infrastructure

August 9, 2019 | Connecting Iowa

Predicting the future with certainty is an impossible task. But to those working in Iowa’s critical infrastructure industries — telecom, energy and water — getting close to a certainty is a necessity. Leaders in these businesses have to anticipate people’s needs to ensure the state’s most important systems work properly and effectively.

That’s easier said than done, of course, but industry leaders are constantly working toward the future, whether that be implementing renewable energy options, building out systems for lightning-quick 5G technology or upgrading aging wastewater systems.

Connecting Everything

The future of telecom will be defined by improved connectivity, speeds and capability. That’s according to Dustin Blythe, AT&T’s director of external affairs for Iowa and Nebraska. The result of those improvements will be a future consumed by the internet of things — a system of interconnected everyday assets.

The internet of things will include machines, packages and cars. And, yes, it might even include animals — a huge shift that could send waves through Iowa’s agriculture industry.

“Everything is going to be connected,” Blythe said. “I was talking to some agriculture people the other day, and they were talking about how every pig, every individual cattle, is going to be tracked. If you’re trying to sell products to Japan, for example, Japan has to know what went into it and where it’s been.”

Such an undertaking will put a strain on Iowa’s existing telecom infrastructure. But more capability is coming with the implementation of 5G. Shorthand for fifth-generation cellular data technology, 5G is much faster than its 4G LTE predecessor — about 20 times as fast, according to some reports. Download speeds reach as high as 20 gigabytes per second, meaning videos, apps and other downloads will be completed almost instantaneously.

5G implementation has been a slow process. Only a few metros areas around the United States have access, and there are only several capable devices. But despite the slow rollout, Blythe said Iowa has been forward thinking when it comes to telecom needs.

In 2015, the Legislature passed the Iowa Cell Siting Act, which created a uniform process for wireless companies interested in installing cell towers. In 2017, Iowa passed a bill creating framework and rules for small wireless facilities — also known as small cells — which are essential in the ongoing infrastructure build-out for 5G.

Small cells work like mini cell towers, with very limited ranges. If you’re walking in downtown Des Moines, your cellphone will connect to multiple small cells in a span of a few blocks. This will help increase speeds and capability without putting too much strain on big cell towers.

“Small cells free up cell towers for even more capacity,” Blythe said. “It’s going to bring connectivity closer to you, and make it faster.” But for many parts of rural Iowa, just reaching connectivity can be a struggle. According to the FCC’s 2018 Broadband Deployment Report, 77.4% of Iowa internet users can reach download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least

3 megabits per second — the agency’s baseline marker for broadband. Rural broadband has been a huge topic of discussion among Iowa lawmakers in recent years as well.

AT&T is out to change that, investing nearly $100 million in Iowa wired and wireless networks from 2016 to 2018. The company is currently in a 60-month build-out in coordination with FirstNet — a network built for first responders but also used commercially — that will see 211 new cell towers erected in rural areas. The completed project will cover more than 99% of Iowa’s rural population.

Blythe said 13 towers are completed as of mid-July, and he’s already noticed a difference. In his hometown of Wellsburg, near the Cedar Valley area, Blythe struggled to get service on his AT&T phone. More recently, his service has improved.

The build-out will give connectivity to rural communities, which can make a huge difference, particularly for farmers using precision GPS technology on their tractors, Blythe said.

“When you’re talking about that rural and urban divide, there will be one company out there,” he said. “That will help spread coverage to places that had little to no access before.”

Renewable Energy Options Continue to Surge

The discussion around renewable energy is not a new one. But historically, the argument for renewable energy has primarily been a moral or ethical case — more clean-burning fuel, preserving resources and combating climate change, among other reasons.

That’s starting to change.

More recently, the renewable energy discussion has turned to cost-effectiveness. According to a 2018 study from the International Renewable Energy Agency, renewable energy technologies will be competitive on price with fossil fuels by 2020.

Anecdotally, Iowa’s energy industry leaders are seeing the same thing.

“We’ve seen a very big transition in the past 10 years from fossil-fuel generation to renewables,” said Bill Cherrier, executive vice president and CEO of the Central Iowa Power Cooperative, which provides power to many smaller, rural-based cooperatives around the state. “It’s driven partly by member needs, but the biggest driver is economics. Renewables are much more cost- effective than they ever have been.”

Because renewable energy is becoming more cost-effective, the future of Iowa’s energy infrastructure is moving toward wind turbines and solar panels and away from coal and natural gas facilities.

CIPCO predicts it will receive 60% of its energy from carbon- free sources before 2028. MidAmerican Energy, which produces power for nearly 1.6 million customers in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and South Dakota, is aiming to provide 100% renewable energy to customers. In 2018, the company passed 50%.

“We kicked it off in 2016 because it was the right thing to do,” said Kathryn Kunert, vice president of economic connections and integration with MidAmerican Energy. “MidAmerican has a core principal of environmental respect. Our customers want it, and it’s an economic competitive advantage because it’s sustainable, green power at no additional cost [no raising rates].”

Wind energy is the popular renewable energy source in Iowa. In 2018, almost 4,700 wind turbines accounted for 34% of the state’s electricity, the second-highest share of wind energy for any state. Cherrier said wind will continue to be a huge energy provider in Iowa going forward, but solar could become an alternative as the technology improves and prices drop.

In the past decade, the cost to implement solar power has dropped by more than 70%. Just last December, CIPCO entered into an agreement with Clenara LLC to build an 850-acre solar farm south of Wapello. The facility, the largest solar project in Iowa, can generate 100 megawatts per hour — enough electricity to power more than 30,000 homes.

Cherrier said solar energy is the perfect complement to wind energy because of Iowa’s climate. Summers are hot and sunny, but sometimes lack the necessary breezes to move turbines. Winters are typically cloudy and provide plenty of wind.

“The generation of wind is not very big in the summer, but solar is,” Cherrier said. “Solar is actually very complementary to wind and our other resources. ... You will see solar scale dramatically in the next five to 10 years.”

Renewable energy also goes hand in hand with the country’s increased interest in electric vehicles. According to tracking website Inside EVs, 361,307 electric vehicles were sold in 2018, an 81% increase from 2017. And according to the International Energy Agency, electric vehicle ownership could increase to 125 million units by 2030.

That, of course, will have far-reaching implications on Iowa’s energy infrastructure. MidAmerican Energy is encouraging a car charging build-out by providing a $1,500 rebate to companies that invest in high-speed chargers. The company is also constructing chargers across its service territories.

“The future is here. It’s with us now,” Kunert said. “It’s important that we have the infrastructure to handle that need.”

CIPCO anticipates the need for chargers moving toward primary parking places, like homes, apartment parking lots or parking garages. There will also be a need for commercial vehicles to charge along the highway. But how electric vehicles will be used as battery life improves and usage increases is still very much in the air, Cherrier said.

What’s indisputable is that renewable energy and electric vehicles are becoming increasingly popular. That will have ramifications for energy infrastructure for years to come, which seems to be moving toward an all-around cleaner system.

“As we’re seeing global warming becoming a great concern, we can’t just eliminate coal and gas but then generate fossil fuels in vehicles,” Cherrier said. “The trends will go together. Renewable energy generation supporting electric vehicles.”

Iowa's Water Needs Investment

Iowa’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure needs are similar to the rest of the country: Improvements are needed, but they come at a steep cost. Randy Moore, president of Iowa  American Water, an investor-owned water and wastewater company in Davenport, said there’s a significant investment needed just to get water systems up to par.

According to the Iowa League of Cities, a group of more than 870 Iowa cities, an estimated $5.9 billion is needed statewide during the next 20 years to bring drinking water infrastructure to acceptable levels. An additional $3.7 billion is for wastewater infrastructure. In the American Society of Civil Engineers 2019 report, Iowa’s drinking water infrastructure was ranked a C, down from a C-plus in 2015. Wastewater was given a C-minus.

“With that big of a price tag, that puts smaller municipalities in dire straits to figure out funding and take care of the need,” Moore said. “A lot of old infrastructure is still in the ground and not designed to last, and they need to be replaced.”

Moore said the biggest need is replacing aging pipes. While many pipes are designed to last 50 to 75 years, some Iowa cities have infrastructure assets reaching more than 100 years old. Aging pipes can lead to service interruptions and hazards to customers. If the pipe is damaged, water pressure can drop and suck in debris around the structure, which can be toxic to customers.

The main question people in the industry are asking: Where will the money come from? There isn’t an easy answer.

Iowa American Water is a regulated company, so it follows certain rate structures, which can make it tough to invest heavily in infrastructure upgrades. Moore said the company works closely with the Iowa Utilities Board to ensure fairness on price for both the customers and the company.

The funding challenge is even more pronounced for municipal water suppliers. They rely on revenue from residents, and in small towns, that revenue just doesn’t cover infrastructure needs. It’s also easy to forget about water lines because they aren’t in front of people every day. They’re typically buried deep below the ground.

“It’s out of sight, out of mind,” Moore said. “[The city is] going to invest most of our money in getting the streets repaired because that’s what you see. [The city is] not going to put the money into the water pipe or the sewer line because you don’t see that.” Moore said water and wastewater providers need to work with the state and regulators to ensure proper funding. To an extent, Iowa has funds in place to address these issues. The Iowa Revolving Loan Fund has provided more than $3.5 billion since 1988 toward water and wastewater infrastructure, but that’s only a sliver of the funds needed to cover the cost.

In May, 18 Iowa communities received a combined $23.1 million in low-interest water quality loans from the Revolving Loan Fund. It targeted small cities like Woodward, Conrad and Grimes, and the money was earmarked for a variety of project types — water planning and design, sewer and treatment improvements, and more.

“Improving water quality in our communities is fundamental to our work in advancing Iowa’s high standard of living,” said Iowa Finance Authority Executive Director Debi Durham in a statement. “The most recent communities receiving State Revolving Fund loans are evidence that the program is an essential financing tool for communities of all sizes.”