Could new technologies enable utilities to build and operate smaller power generation sources located closer to end users throughout Iowa? It's a broad question the state's utility regulator has begun looking into, and it's now seeking input from a wide range of Iowa power users and producers.


The Iowa Utilities Board today announced that it has opened a fact-finding "notice of inquiry proceeding" to gather information related to policy and technical issues associated with the potential widespread use of distributed generation.


In reviewing five-year energy plans for MidAmerican Energy Co. and Alliant Energy Corp. recently, "the Board recognized  that the debate over whether rate-regulated utilities should have an incentive-based renewable energy program is part of a larger debate regarding distributed generation in general," according to the order.


It's the first time the state agency has conducted an inquiry related to distributed generation. The utilities board has not taken any particular positions as it begins to gather information, according to its press release.


The move toward distributed energy technologies -- comparable to the shift seen in past decades from large mainframe computers to the computing power of millions of interconnected personal computers and servers -- is playing an increasingly important role in the U.S. energy portfolio, according to a primer published by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Distributed energy can be used to meet baseload power, peaking power, backup power, remote power and power quality, as well as cooling and heating needs.


Distributed energy "encompasses a wide range of technologies, including wind turbines, solar power, fuel cells, microturbines, reciprocating engines, load reduction technologies, and battery storage systems," according to the primer.  


In December, the Iowa Utilities Board informed the state's rate-regulated utilities, MidAmerican Energy Co. and Alliant Energy Corp., that it would be conducting the inquiry.


In addition to Iowa utilities, the board said it is seeking broad participation from "other state agencies, local government and non-governmental organizations, environmental groups, renewable energy trade associations, industrials, and any others with an interest in these issues to contribute in this process."


Comments may be submitted by Feb. 25 via the Iowa Utilities Board's electronic filing system, . Questions regarding the inquiry docket may be addressed to Brenda Biddle, .