Minnesota should zipper merge on carbon dioxide emissions

Minnesotans are notoriously bad practitioners of the zipper merge. Rather than using two full lanes until it is finally time to merge, something about the collective Minnesota mindset resents the zipper merge as unfair or cheating. While these feelings are well-intentioned, they result in an inefficient, herky-jerky early merging system that results in longer bottlenecks, expensive accidents, and more injuries than would occur if we embraced zipper merging.  

We have a similar mindset when it comes to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, favoring the stop-and-go early adoption of technologies that have not proved they are capable of powering our lives and transporting our families to and from our destinations. The results have been inefficient, costly, and they are growing increasingly dangerous.  

Our state once had electricity prices far below the national average, but federal data show the cost of electricity has risen 2.7 times faster than the national average since our renewable energy mandate was unwisely signed into law by Gov. Pawlenty in 2007.  

Minnesota is also at a greater risk of experiencing the electricity shortages that are currently plaguing California because like the Golden State, our grid is becoming increasingly dependent upon wind turbines and solar panels, energy sources that are reliant upon the weather.   

Things have gotten so bad in California that the electric grid operators are begging people to use less electricity from 4 to 9 p.m. when electricity demand soars as people get home from work, but the setting sun reduces supply generated from the state’s solar panels.   

On several occasions this year, grid operators have asked Californians to forego the use of air conditioning during soaring temperatures, requested they not do laundry or use the dishwasher, and asked people not to charge their electric vehicles, which will be the only type of new vehicles that can be sold in the Golden State by 2035.  

Rather than replicating California’s clumsy transition away from fossil fuels toward unreliable energy sources, Minnesotans should zipper merge on emissions. This would entail using our reliable and affordable existing coal and natural gas power plants until the end of their useful lifetimes, and gradually “merging” to new, carbon-free, nuclear power plants to replace them.  

This “zipper merge” strategy got a massive boost when Xcel Energy, the largest electric utility in the state, signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with NuScale Power. NuScale is currently developing an innovative new nuclear reactor design that focuses on building smaller, safer nuclear power plants that are connected together like a LEGO set to form a larger power plant.  

NuScale’s MoU with Xcel explores the possibility of Xcel becoming NuScale’s preferred partner, offering a variety of power plant services for NuScale’s customers. Xcel was selected due to its exemplary track record of operating nuclear plants in Minnesota.  

This is fantastic news for our state because nuclear power offers multiple advantages over wind and solar. It produces reliable electricity at all hours of the day, regardless of weather conditions, and nuclear power plants can operate for 80 years, whereas wind turbines and solar panels only last for 20 years and 30 years, respectively.  

This means the NuScaleXcel zipper merge would provide more reliable, longer-lasting carbon dioxide reductions than shoehorning short-lived, unreliable energy sources onto the grid. However, realizing the full potential of Xcel’s new nuclear opportunity will require lawmakers to act swiftly to lift Minnesota’s arcane ban on building new nuclear power plants.

The sooner this happens, the better, because nuclear power should be the perfect, common-sense energy compromise for liberals and conservatives, who ultimately want the same things: reliable, affordable and environmentally friendly energy.  

The idea of zipper merging on emissions will no doubt anger some Minnesotans, but like those who silently fume in their cars as others whiz by, we need to adopt and embrace the most efficient strategies for running our electric grid.  

This op-ed originally appeared in Inforum.