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Helping the U of M Energy Transition Lab Understand Energy

A few weeks ago, I wrote an opinion editorial to the Star Tribune about how the Polar Vortex reemphasized the need for reliable forms of electricity in our state. My article was the most widely read opinion piece on the Strib’s website for two days, which prompted three employees of the University of Minnesota’s Energy Transition Lab (ETL) to write a reply.

Their reply claimed I used confusing statistics to misrepresent the role renewables play in our system, but I contest that the statistics I used should not be confusing, especially for members the university’s Energy Transition Lab. So, to clear up any confusion, I’ve written this reply to their article. I address their arguments point-by-point, and I am confident readers will see that our arguments have more merit.

“Last week was a tough one for Minnesotans. Exceptionally cold weather tested our infrastructure and revealed some of our vulnerabilities and strengths.

In “Cold snap shows reliable energy sources are critical” (Feb. 1), Isaac Orr, a policy fellow of the Center of the American Experiment, seized on the cold weather to push for a return to coal and a rejection of renewables. He supported his claim with a confusing mix of statistics that mischaracterize where our energy comes from and how renewables work.”

For starters, the title of my article was actually, “Bitter Cold Shows Reliable Energy Sources Are Critical,” but not getting the name of the article I wrote correct isn’t really important.

What is important is understanding that the statistics I used were real-time data from the Midcontinent Independent Systems Operator (MISO), which is in charge of the grid in 15 states, including Minnesota. These statistics,which are visualized in the map below, clearly show the wind wasn’t blowing during the polar vortex, and wind was only utilizing about 24 percent of its installed capacity.

As a result, most of our electricity came from reliable sources of energy. On January 30, 45 percent of the electricity on MISO came from coal, 13 percent from nuclear, and natural gas accounted for 26 percent of our power generation. Some faculty at the U have accused me of cherry-picking this data, but I will address that in greater detail below.

ELT continues:

“Facing an onslaught of climate and economic changes, we need good information about our energy system to keep our citizens warm and safe and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

In a cold climate, we need two kinds of energy: electricity and heating. Electricity powers our lights, electronics and anything that plugs into the wall. In Minnesota, we get that energy from a mix of sources, including coal, nuclear, natural gas and renewables like wind and hydro.

In contrast, heating for most Minnesotans comes from natural gas that is burned in a home furnace.

Orr switches back and forth between the roles played by these two energy types, suggesting that heating your home has something to do with coal plants or wind turbines. For most of us, it doesn’t.”

People do need reliable information about our energy system, which is why this back and forth will be instructive.

Natural gas is the primary heating fuel in Minnesota, heating approximately 66 percent of Minnesota’s homes, but electricity heats 17 percent of Minnesota homes, which equates to about 366,000 housing units. This means there is a direct correlation between having reliable electricity and heating your home for nearly a fifth of Minnesota families.

Furthermore, there is another correlation: if the wind isn’t blowing, we need to burn more natural gas for electricity generation, and therefore, less natural gas is available for home heating.

And during the polar vortex, the wind simply didn’t blow. The figure below is from Wood McKenzie, which is one of the most respected firms in the energy space. It shows wind output plummeting along with the temperatures, so I wasn’t cherry-picking convenient data. When temperatures were lowest and electricity demand was highest, the wind simply didn’t show up to work.

This isn’t to say the wind never shows up to work, but would you hire a babysitter that only shows up once in a while, or would you find one that shows up on time, every time? I think we all know the answer to that question.

“Any worries we had about shortages of natural gas to heat our homes during the cold blast did not have anything to do with power from wind or solar.

We have been adding renewables to energy production in Minnesota over the past several years, up to 25 percent in 2018. These sources generate power when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining, and there are proven strategies for connecting them together to build a reliable electricity system.”

This is probably true. The shortages we experienced were most likely due to a lack of pipeline infrastructure, but the jury is still out on that. Xcel Energy will probably have to submit a report to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission explaining the gas “brownout.” Given the hostility leveled at pipelines by Governor Walz and environmental activists, good luck getting adequate pipelines built.

However, the “proven strategies” for ensuring reliability is using more natural gas for electricity generation, so increasing our reliance on wind, solar, and natural gas exposes us to greater risk of shortages due to lack of electricity generation from wind and solar.

“Germany, for instance, currently has 40 percent renewable electricity in its grid and plans to go to 80 percent by 2050. Electric outages there amount to 12 minutes per year, which makes that country’s security of supply among the world’s highest.”

This statement is incredibly worrisome. If the point of adding renewables to the system is to reduce CO2 emissions, as the authors do in the beginning of their article, then following Germany’s lead will be incredibly counterproductive. The graph below shows German Co2 emissions have been essentially flat since 2009, even though the amount of renewables on the grid has increased significantly.

As a result, Germany is expected to miss their greenhouse gas reduction targets by a wide margin. 

Why has “Climate leader” Germany failed so spectacularly to meet its climate goals? Because it has promised to phase out nuclear power before it phases out coal. In fact, Germany uses more coal than Minnesota, and this will likely continue into the future as Germany shuts down their nuclear plants. Germany also bans fracking for natural gas, so their options for generating electricity during periods when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining boil down to importing natural gas from Norway and Russia, or burning more German coal.

Meanwhile, German electricity prices have skyrocketed due to overbuilding renewable energy. In fact, electricity prices in Germany are the highest in Europe, and nearly three times higher than we pay in the United States. I think it is safe to say that this is not the energy transition Minnesotans want, and the University Energy Transition Lab needs to understand that Germany is not an example of what to do, it is an example of what not to do.

The ETL article continued:

Additionally, cold snaps like the polar vortex are usually quite sunny and breezy, generating power even though the temperature is low. To wit: A solar array connected to a battery recently installed by Connexus Energy generated 147 percent more power than average on Jan. 30, when it was colder than 20 below at noon. In fact, Connexus’ solar and battery storage system performed so well that during the coldest part of the polar vortex, it provided power to reduce peak demand and helped reduce strain on the electric grid.

Sure, sometimes these cold snaps are sunny, but they aren’t necessarily sunny. This means the grid will have to be geared to run in case we have a polar vortex that isn’t sunny, or when it is nighttime. Furthermore, claims of relative output are problematic because what if the Connexus solar plus battery installation generally doesn’t produce very much electricity?

Furthermore, electric car batteries lose 40 percent of their charge at 20 above zero, and they assuredly perform worse at 20 below.

There is one crossover between electricity and heating in Minnesota: Natural gas can be used in both processes. Orr suggests a conflict there, but it is not as problematic as he implies.

Less than 11 percent of the natural gas consumed in Minnesota is burned in an electricity power plant. And when we rely more on renewables instead of natural gas for electricity production, that leaves more natural gas for home heating use. We also can make both electricity and heat in energy-efficient combined heat-and-power plants, as we do at the University of Minnesota and in downtown St. Paul’s Ever-Green Energy plant.

Navigating Minnesota through an energy transition to a cleaner, reliable energy system is not easy, and there are many paths to get there. So far our transition has been going well: Electricity prices are stable and the lights have stayed on. Our leading power company in Minnesota, Xcel Energy, expects to be able to reliably push renewables even further in the coming years.

Our changing climate will bring more weather extremes. But confusing energy issues as a way to roll back energy gains will not make us smarter or more resilient when those climate stressors do come.

This “one crossover” is the exact point I was making in writing my article. If we shut down our nuclear and coal plants, and rely on solar, wind, and natural gas, then we are taking dangerous risks with the health of Minnesota families. Why would we increase our reliance on intermittent and undependable sources of energy like wind and solar when it is entirely probable they won’t show up to work during a future polar vortex.

Less than 11 percent of the gas consumed in Minnesota is currently used for electricity generation, but the share of natural gas used to generate electricity will increase if we shift away from nuclear and coal-fired electricity.

Navigating Minnesota through an energy transition to reduce CO2 emissions will require nuclear power, not intermittent, unreliable wind and solar. This is why my article called for for lawmakers to lift the ban on new nuclear power plants that has been in effect since 1994. If lawmakers are serious about doing something about greenhouse gas emissions, rather than serious about appearing “green” by promoting wind and solar, this should be the first order of business in St. Paul.

The U of M’s Energy Transition Lab must acknowledge the importance of nuclear power, otherwise, what are we funding it for?