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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Real vs. Mythic Energy Independence

November 16, 2012 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

There’s the right kind of energy independence and then there’s the wrong kind. Hurricane Sandy, rolling over the North American Atlantic seaboard, reminds us of the distinction. True energy independence is sustainable, responsible and forward looking. Pretend energy independence only exists to line big oil company pockets. Minnesotans, living in a non-oil producing state, recognize the difference.

Growing up on a southwestern Minnesota farm, we lost power once or twice every winter. Wet heavy snow was the culprit, straining power lines and periodically bringing some of them down. Our farm was, literally, at the end of a line snaking north through Cottonwood county.

While we waited for the Redwood Electric Cooperative’s crew to re-hang the line, my dad would hook the portable generator to our Farmall Model Super M. He’d plug the generator into the farm circuit, set the tractor’s throttle, and we’d have power. For the longest time, I thought he was doing it for our family’s immediate well-being. No, I later learned, it was really about keeping the swine farrowing barn warm.

That was my first intersection with contemporary Minnesota sustainability and energy independence. An early 1950s-era gas-powered Super M turning a generator is an energy solution, it’s just not sustainable.

A hundred and fifty years ago, every home, farm and business was energy independent. That means that every home, farm and business generated heat at the point of consumption. Coal or wood—or, in resource-strained circumstances, hay twists and corn cobs, fired the kitchen stove and basement furnace. Want it hotter? Add more wood. Soot deposits were a reminder of burning’s accumulating costs. Our forbearers didn’t use the terms global warming or climate change but they had ready proof of combustion’s by-products and risks.

Shortly after this moment, water became an important element in energy generation. Whether from waterfall-turned turbines or coal-fired, steam-driven ones, water helped create electricity. Centrally produced and widely distributed electricity rapidly changed daily life. It improved human productivity. It also slowly increased reliance on the centralized energy monopoly.

Rural electric cooperatives (RECs) began because city-based power utility companies wouldn’t run power lines into the country. It’s too expensive, the utilities insisted. Farmers and country people will never use enough electricity to make it worth the investment. So, rural people took matters into their own hands. With New Deal federal government assistance, REC’s sprang up, bringing electric power to the countryside.

The first rural electrification project was the Tennessee Valley Authority, passed in May 1933, just months into President Roosevelt’s administration. The 1936 Rural Electrification Act opened the flood gates by authorizing federal government lending to new RECs, funding initial capital investments. A year later, the Redwood Electrical Coop launched, the one that still supplies my family’s farm.

We’ve never had it so good. Yet, over time, evidence of our power generation strategy’s shortcomings, compromises and limitations, has mounted. Growing climate volatility—meaning that we’re experiencing more frequent and greater extremes; droughts are drier and longer while blizzards and hurricanes punch harder—raises the costs of storm damage and marketplace disruption. The solution is found in many places, all linked by sustainable energy strategies.

Whether from terrorists or storms, our utility infrastructure’s risk is a function of its success and efficiency. Centralized energy generation is easy to disrupt because it is centralized. Mitigating that risk requires improving the present system’s redundancy while also increasing investment in sustainable energy technologies combined with accelerating product efficiency and growing conservation. In other words, it’s not doing one thing but doing many simultaneously.

Minnesota needs energy independence policy that helps Minnesotans help themselves. Community energy sustainability solutions can be as simple as bulk solar panel purchasing, sharing a heat pump system on a micro-neighborhood scale, and intensive support of energy consumer education. We can’t assume that cheap power, invisibly delivered, will always be there.

Unrestricted oil drilling advocates conveniently fail to note that oil companies supply a global marketplace. Companies are not going to sell oil to only the US market at a lower price and for a smaller profit when it can sell the same product for more money outside of North America. It’s an example of how the energy independence message is subverted.

True energy independence comes from having ready consumer access to sustainable and affordable energy technology and solutions. Part of that involves integrating energy management expertise, something that utilities, for-profit and coops, have on-hand. The same practical spirit that led my father to have generator on hand for farm power-outage emergencies can drive Minnesota’s clean, sustainable energy investment strategy. It’s smart, it’s the right thing to do and, it’s overdue.

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