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Minnesota Energy Reality Check

November 06, 2013 By Maria Brun, Graduate Research Fellow

Last week, Politico featured a story about how knowledge and interest in energy polls across Americans. As an energy wonk, it was disheartening (though not surprising) to read that most of us don’t know where our energy comes from or what influences energy prices. This, of course, hasn’t stopped us from having strong opinions on a range of topics from fracking, renewable energy, and energy security.

More precisely, the polls reveal that, like most every other topic, peoples’ views on energy are driven by sound bites, politics, and ideology - not reality. One of the largest knowledge gaps identified was understanding where our energy comes from and, though we have “clean energy instincts,” Americans don’t fully grasp the hurdles of adopting new energy technology to lower our dependence on fossil fuels.

Scanning local newspapers and blogs, it’s clear that Minnesotans are focused on coal and its contribution to the state’s environmental footprint. Sherco in particular, the large 3-unit coal plant in Sherburne County, has come under fire from Minnesotans and environmental groups as the nation’s 21st most polluting plant.

The Sierra Club along with other organizations went as far as demanding Xcel close the two units it owns (1 and 2) and replace them with clean energy alternatives. Fitting into the larger dialogue dubbed the “war on coal,” a greater movement to reduce coal fired energy production grew in strength. But could Minnesota discontinue using Sherco 1 and 2, the whole Sherco plant, or coal all together?

Using the most recent data available, Minnesota’s summer time net capacity – the total supply of electricity output measured during peak demand – is over 14,000 MW. As of 2010, renewable energy accounted for only 2,588 MW with wind alone supplying over 2,000 MW. By contrast, coal plants accounted for nearly 5,000 MW with natural gas and nuclear supplying another 6,500 MW.

And Sherco? At over 2,000 MW of generating capacity, the massive coal plant accounts for over 15% of Minnesota’s electricity capacity. Its three units alone supply 18 municipal utilities in the Southern Minnesota Municipal Utilities Agency and many of Xcel’s 1.2 million customers.

But it’s not just about capacity – coal and other base load plants run constantly and at a fairly constant output. Not only is this key to their profitability, but their dependability. Replacing these base load plants not only means replacing capacity to meet demand, but under our current system, means finding other predictable, dependable sources. Given their intermittent nature and our lack of ability to store electricity on a large scale, renewable energy technology just simply cannot stand in for coal and other base load generation plants.

Many climate scientists are coming to the same conclusion. As an alternative, these scientists have recently been supporting nucelar power as a viable option, requesting that environmentalists follow suit as other low or no carbon technologies cannot be adopted fast enough and at a large enough scale to cover demand and replace fossil fuel energy generation.

Unfortunately, nuclear generation has also received negative press locally from environmental and other public interest groups. At center of the controversy have been the large cost overruns associated with upgrades and repairs to the Monticello nucelar plant that led Xcel to request rate increases from the Public Utilities Commission and for what the Institute for Self-Reliance called a "two-faced talk on low carbon energy" when promoting nuclear as a clean option instead of solar.

But the numbers are clear - Minnesota has an energy demand that cannot currently be met by renewable energy technologies in the near term. Switching to intermittent technologies like wind and solar on a large scale is going to require a longer term transition from a centralized, base load dependent system to one that is decentralized and flexible. Fortunately, this transition is happening - policies like the solar standard and renewable energy standard are pushing Minnesota in the right direction, incrementally building clean energy capacity.

Lofty clean energy goals are by no means a pipe-dream in the long term. Indeed, long-term energy security and environmental viability depend on a strong commitment toward ending fossil fuel dependence. In the near future, however, our local conversations need to be rooted in reality, supporting incremental yet meaningful progress toward a cleaner energy portfolio through economically and infrastructurally feasible policies.

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2 Comments:

  • Brandon Sigrist says:

    November 13, 2013 at 8:57 am

    Ms. Brun’s article contains a lot of sense.  However, it ignores the demand side of this equation, placing Minnesota’s energy demand on an pedestal as if it were a law of physics.  The negative impacts of coal and nuclear power are real and immediate, and this conversation needs to include conservation and demand reduction measures as the least expensive, most effective, most ‘rooted in reality’ steps our state can take to move quickly from fossil fuel dependance.

  • Jim Mork says:

    November 13, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    Shutdown is not the only definition of progress. If Sherco’s generators burn LESS coal over time, it means the state is progressing in the right direction. A mix of renewables is an obvious part of the progress. Rooftop solar to provide power at the customer premise is, in my mind, the ideal evolutionary course.