Minnesota Can Handle the Cold Because of Fossil Fuel Power Plants

The article below was originally published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

We need to stop planning our electric system around wind turbines and solar panels, technologies that often fail to show up during extreme weather events, when we need them most.

Texas is learning this lesson the hard way. More than 2.5 million people are experiencing rolling blackouts because an arctic blast has frozen a significant portion of the Lone Star State’s natural gas infrastructure. Compounding the shortages is the fact that at one point during the blackouts, the Texas wind fleet (the largest in the nation) was producing just 2% of its potential output.

Minnesota is not currently subject to rolling blackouts, but we are also experiencing challenges keeping the lights on and our homes warm.

In the recent subzero weather, our home heating devices, whether they run on natural gas, propane or electricity have been running full steam, but the same cannot be said for the technologies providing electricity to the grid.

According to the website for the Midcontinent Independent Systems Operator, which runs the regional electric grid, coal is generating 52% of electricity demand, natural gas is providing 28% and nuclear is providing 12%. Wind is producing just 4.2% of demand, and solar only 0.3%.

What’s worse, wind is providing only 3,521 megawatts (MW) of electricity, even though it could be producing 22,000 MW. This means wind is producing just 16% of its potential output when we need the electricity most.

Citing climate change as an “existential crisis,” Gov. Tim Walz wants to mandate Minnesota’s electric grid to run on 100% carbon-free sources by 2040. However, his plan does not legalize new nuclear power plants or allow electricity purchased from Canadian large hydroelectric producers to count as “carbon-free,” and it does nothing to pave the way for the use of carbon capture and sequestration technologies.

As such, the governor’s proposed mandate is essentially a wind, solar and battery storage mandate. This proposal is unforgivably flawed, because if Walz is worried that climate change will cause more extreme weather events, it makes zero sense to mandate more wind turbines and solar panels, energy sources that often don’t show up during extreme weather events.

Battery storage is not a realistic solution to the problem, either. A recent analysis by Wood Mackenzie predicts there will be only 741,000 megawatt hours (MWhs) of storage on the grid by 2030, while data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows Minnesota used 72 million megawatt hours in 2019 — meaning the amount of battery storage available in the entire world in 2030 will be able to handle 1% of Minnesota’s 2019 electricity consumption.

Those who argue that “Minnesota can’t wait” to reduce emissions need to face the facts. We need new nuclear power plants, and we need to start building them now.

Four large South Korean nuclear reactors are being built in the United Arab Emirates. Construction began in 2012, and the first of the four reactors will begin sending commercial electricity to the grid this year.

While the upfront costs would be substantial, one of these reactors would produce more electricity than Minnesota’s entire wind fleet and it would last much longer. A nuclear plant can produce reliable electricity for 80 years, whereas wind turbines produce unreliable electricity for 20 years.

Minnesotans need to learn from the mistakes of others, not replicate them. By mandating a grid powered extensively by wind and solar, Walz would be attempting to avert a future climate crisis by mandating an immediate energy crisis. That’s an unnecessarily bad trade.

Isaac Orr is a policy fellow specializing in energy and environmental policy at Center of the American Experiment.