Coal use losing ground
During the picture perfect summer weekend of September 9-10, along the bank of the of the Mississippi at St. Paul’s Harriet Island Park, it was hard to imagine that at the opposite end of the country southerners were dealing with a hurricane and storm crisis. At the 28th Annual Energy Fair, sponsored by Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA), speakers, workshops and exhibits addressed issues closely related to what Floridians and Texans had been dealing with over the past couple of weeks: climate change.
The featured speaker on Sunday was Michael Noble, executive director of Fresh Energy (https://fresh-energy.org), and “a 30-year energy leader, well-known for shaping and driving the major public policy innovations that are speeding Minnesota and the Midwest’s transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy,” according to his bio.
“Right now, we are literally at the inflection point where big changes need to be coming much faster than they are coming now, growing new industries and new technologies very rapidly, replacing the technology of the past,” Noble said.
Over the last decade in Minnesota, coal’s contribution to the electric supply dropped from two-thirds to under 40 percent last year, according to the speaker. He attributed the progress to grassroots advocates working to close coal-fired power plants, putting pressure on companies to address air pollutants. Over that 10-year span Minnesota’s energy production from wind and solar grew from five percent to approximately 22 percent in 2016.
Nationally, 257 coal plants have been closed, and closing just five more will mean that half the U.S.’ coal-fired power plants will have been retired. In that same 10 years, 16 of Minnesota’s 20 plants have either been closed or have dates to close.
“They are no longer asking can we afford to do energy efficiency renewable energy. They are asking can we afford not to.”
Though the current storm crisis offers bleak possibilities, after presenting information on reducing our carbon footprint, Noble asked an audience member, “So is there room for hope?” He focused the remainder of his talk on “electrifying our economy,” using changes at Xcel Energy as a source of optimism.
Over the summer, Xcel Energy got permission to build or purchase 2.5 billion dollars worth of power from new wind farms. There were seven proposals from a total of 30 submissions. “All of those power plants — all 30 bids — were under 2.2 cents a kilowatt hour,” said Noble. “So wind power is so cheap now that a brand new wind farm produces energy cheaper than any power plant that Xcel owns.” Currently 57,000 Minnesotans are working in the clean energy sector.
Over the past 35 years (1980-2015), though the technologies for making cars more efficient improved, the sale of bigger vehicles went up as well, causing the average miles per gallon to remain fairly stagnant at 26. However, the 22 electric cars that are currently available for sale in Minnesota get a gas equivalent of 80-135 miles per gallon. Noble advocates for power companies allowing people to buy wind power in the middle of the night at a cheaper rate, what he calls rate design.
“Let’s design the rates in a way that encourage people to use energy when it is abundant and clean,” Noble says. “What family does not want to buy gasoline equivalent at 50 cents a gallon, that’s stable in price as far as the eye can see, that has no carbon pollution, and doesn’t have to come from tar sands oil? This isn’t a crazy idea, this is a practical idea.”
He also highlighted that electric cars are cheaper to maintain, comparing a 2017 Chevy Bolt’s annual maintenance budget of approximately $255 per year, to a 2017 Volkswagen Golf at over $600 a year.
On Saturday, one of the workshops at the Energy Fair covered how to purchase an electric car for under $10,000, most of which are only three years old and can be powered with renewable wind energy at 50 cents per gallon/equivalent. “That’s not an advocacy position, that’s economically true,” said the speaker. “So don’t let anybody say these cars are for rich people; these cars are for all people. Electric cars are for everybody.”
Much of the fossil fuel consumption, however, comes from heavy industry, making electrifying the trucking industry a priority. In 2019, Noble said, Cummins Inc. will be releasing a heavy duty electric truck with the capability of hauling a 22 ton trailer around town, and Tesla will be announcing an 18 wheeler than can haul across the country.
“I always tease my friends in the electric companies, [asking] ‘What part of Exxon mobile market shares don’t you not want?’ I’m here to help you get their business. The last time I checked they were one of the biggest companies in the world, and you have a perfect opportunity to take their whole business and make it your business.”
Countries around the world are setting dates on when to end the sale of internal combustible engine products. This includes Scotland in 2032, India in 2030, and France and England in 2040. Though China has not yet set a date, they recently announced that they are currently working to decide on one.
Noble acknowledges that reducing carbon in buildings is a challenge. He advocates for requiring all new buildings development have zero to near zero carbon solutions. And he recommends that existing buildings include the cost to heat and cool in purchase, lease and rental agreements, just as cars are sold with information on miles per gallon.
However, the only way to get a building to reduce carbon to zero is by eliminating heating and cooling them with natural gas. Noble suggests piggybacking on the processes already in place of delivering fuel, much like propane is delivered, to homes to heat and cool rooms and water.
“We can convert these homes to run on electricity, both space heat and water heat,” explained Noble. “So batteries in the basement and batteries in the garage are great for renewable energy…because the problem with renewable energy isn’t whether we can afford it, because remember…[all the Xcel Energy bids] were for 2.2 cents a kilowatt. The challenge is how much can the grid handle.”
Though he says there are a lot of people working to get individuals off the grid, his goal is to get Xcel Energy off the grid, and he doesn’t see it as a losing battle. According to Xcel Energy’s 2030 plan, they have a goal of reducing their carbon footprint by 60 percent from 2005 to 2030. But they are currently working on a 2032 plan that has to be submitted to the public utilities commission by January of 2019. Their goals are based on their current knowledge that wind and solar power are the cheapest plants to build and operate.
“They are no longer asking can we afford to do energy efficiency renewable energy,” said Noble. “They are asking can we afford not to.” The 2032 plan includes getting rid of all the coal and nuclear plants over the next 15 years.
Fresh Energy will have a breakfast fundraising event on October 4 at 7:30 am at University of St. Thomas. Noble invited anyone who is interested in supporting their efforts.
“We are obviously right now expecting no leadership from the federal government,” he said. “All the rest of us have to work together…
“Can we commit to each other today that the day that this hurricane hits Florida is a tipping point for us — that we’re going to align our politics, our public policy, our priorities, our personal lives, our fasting growing industries, our innovative spirit, the public will, our electric companies…behind climate solutions, bold action toward real global solutions…
“And work toward an all electric economy, powered by solar and wind and the technologies of the future?”
Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader response to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vickie Evans-Nash is a contributing writer and former editor in chief at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.