Star Tribune, Counterpoint: Here’s How We ‘Modernize’ the GOP

Yesterday, the Star Tribune ran an opinion piece I wrote entitled “Counterpoint: Here’s how we ‘modernize’ the GOP,” where I responded to former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s comments on energy policy. I’ve reproduced the article below, along with graphs to demonstrate my points. I’ve also included the final paragraph that I submitted but was not published.

In “Where does the GOP go from here?” (Opinion Exchange, Jan. 11), former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said the Republican Party needs to embrace modernism. In many respects, I agree.

However, it would be easier to take seriously Pawlenty’s lecture on the need for a modern energy policy if his signature policy achievement in this area, the Next Generation Energy Act of 2007 (NGEA), had not mandated the use of an 18th-century technology to power a 21st-century economy.

What I am about to say will likely sound like heresy to many Star Tribune’s readers, but it needs to be said: Wind and solar are uniquely bad ways of generating electricity. The sooner we all acknowledge this reality, the sooner we can rally around a truly modern energy future.

Most people don’t realize that electricity is consumed the instant it is generated. Furthermore, the electric grid is not a giant bathtub that stores electricity for later use. It is a highway, not a parking lot.

This seriously limits the utility of wind turbines and solar panels, because they can only produce useful electricity when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. There is no practical way to store the electricity generated by them for later use.

Ignoring this reality of physics, which is a science, is a recipe for higher electricity prices and less reliable service. California has learned this lesson the hard way.

The Golden State’s electricity prices increased 27% faster than the national average since 2008, when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order requiring 33% of California’s electricity to be renewable by 2020.

Subsequent governors micromanaged the electricity supply to an even greater extent, causing the entirely predictable rolling blackouts that caused 2 million Californians to lose power during an August 2020 heat wave.

According to California’s grid operator, there was not enough electricity to meet demand during the heat wave because of a drop in wind production and the setting sun. Nightfall rendered California’s solar panels incapable of providing the much-needed power.

Pawlenty’s renewable energy mandate has not resulted in electricity shortages in Minnesota, but the Polar Vortex of 2019 was a close call.

Energy demands surged as temperatures plunged to 29 below, but it was then too cold for the wind turbines that Mr. Pawlenty mandated on the grid to operate. Minnesota’s coal, natural gas and nuclear fleet carried the day.

Meanwhile, thanks to the NGEA, Minnesota electricity prices have increased 23% faster than the national average since 2007. Minnesota families now pay an additional $108 per year for electricity even though they use 8% less electricity than they did in 2007.

An additional $108 may not be much for someone serving on several corporate boards, but that was half of my family’s entire Christmas budget when I was growing up.

And while the NGEA has been economically punitive to Minnesotans, the results have been about average in terms of lowering emissions. Federal data from 2007 through 2019 show Minnesota reduced carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 34%, while emissions nationally fell 32.3%.

This means Minnesota paid a massive price premium for average results.

A truly modern, forward-looking energy agenda would have legalized new nuclear power plants and embraced large hydroelectric power producers in Canada. The NGEA did neither, even though these energy sources produce reliable, carbon-free power around the clock, regardless of weather conditions. Even at 29 below.

Here’s my original ending:

If Mr. Pawlenty wants to show conservatives how to succeed in the future, he needs to substantively engage in a discussion about the collateral damage and mediocre environmental results his renewable energy mandates have caused. Otherwise, his drive-by commentary is unwarranted and unwanted.

Isaac Orr is a Policy Fellow at Center of the American Experiment, specializing in energy and environmental issues.