IOWA CITY - Iowa State University is backing a plan to transfer control of the state's top energy research center to Gov. Terry Branstad's administration, a move that critics said could jeopardize its independence and align it too closely with the interests of public utilities.
Iowa State, which has managed the Iowa Energy Center since its creation in 1990, said that it's working on a "smooth transfer" of the center to the Iowa Economic Development Authority.
Environmentalists criticized the move, saying it would allow gas and electric utilities to heavily influence the research agenda. The center has been the subject of a power struggle in recent years in which utility representatives have sought more control over its priorities, budget and personnel.
"This was a decision made by the utilities and Iowa State University, one which we are supportive of," Branstad spokesman Ben Hammes said. The state's two largest utilities, MidAmerican and Alliant, confirmed that they support the plan, which remains secret.
The move would require legislation because a 1990 law established the center at Iowa State. No bill has been introduced and key lawmakers said they were unaware of the idea. Nonetheless, the university is treating it as a done deal, stunning some members of the center's advisory council.
"As a member of the advisory council, I am surprised and offended that this is the way that I have to find out," said Gary Steinke, president of the Iowa Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. "It's amazing to me that they would want to move the center to a state agency. It makes no sense."
The university suspended a search for a center director to replace Mark Petri, a prominent researcher who left for the University of Illinois last year after facing criticism and scrutiny. The advisory council had planned to soon interview finalists but ISU vice president for research Sarah Nusser told members Friday that the search was on hold indefinitely. She added that "no new initiatives, calls for proposals, or agreements will be initiated."
Steinke questioned Iowa State's authority to pause center activities given that no transfer legislation has been made public, let alone approved.
ISU said the center has been a leader in promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy research, saying the transfer would give it a "new and expanded role."
The center, which receives $4 million annually from a tax on gas and electric utilities, has promoted ethanol, wind and solar energy and worked to cut energy usage at public buildings. The center awards grants to researchers and loans to homeowners and businesses that adopt on-site solar and wind production.
A state energy plan unveiled by Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds in December called for the center to collaborate more closely with the Energy Office of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, which provides technical and financial assistance to the private sector. It said the two entities have "opportunities for improved coordination, clarification of roles, and alignment of initiatives."
But critics of the transfer noted that the economic development agency has close ties to utilities. The authority in 2014 surrendered a $1 million federal grant meant to spread solar energy adoption after utility lobbyists complained about the program. It then began meeting with their representatives to discuss grant proposals and fired the head of the energy office.
David Osterberg, a former Democratic lawmaker who helped write the 1990 law, said the Legislature established the center at Iowa State so that it would be insulated from executive branch politics.
"This seems to be exactly the wrong thing to do," he said. "Powerful forces are going to have an easier time getting inside the Iowa Economic Development Authority than they are at Iowa State."