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Minnesota's renewable energy objectives are both arbitrary and impractical

The Renewable Energy Objectives in Minnesota Statute 216B call for public utilities to get 25 percent of their energy from renewable technology by 2025. Eligible renewable technologies include wind, solar, biomass and hydroelectric. The impact of this impractical legislation can be seen by showing its effect on a utility like Minnesota Power, which serves northeastern Minnesota.

Although Minnesota Power gets over 80 percent of its energy from coal, it does have a head start on renewables, with perhaps 10 percent today from hydroelectric and burning biomass. Our flat geography offers limited potential for more hydroelectric dams. We are too far from the equator for effective large-scale solar power, and the logistics of hauling low-density biomass limit that option. That leaves wind, especially the wind-swept terrain of North Dakota.

Minnesota Power's first big wind venture is the $180 million Bison 1 wind farm in North Dakota. Bison 1 has 16 Siemens 2.3 megawatt (MW) turbines plus 15 new technology Siemens 3 MW direct drive turbines. This gives Bison 1 an 83 MW nameplate capacity. Adding this to Minnesota Power's operational 25 MW Taconite Ridge wind farm provides it with 108 MW of wind. But we have to adjust that nameplate number for the percent of time that erratic wind is actually producing power (capacity factor). Wind turns itself on and off, tending toward off in summer, when demand is highest on those sultry summer days without a "breath of air."

Three percent wind, from two farms
In the United States in 2009, wind produced 70 billion kilowatt hours (kwh) at a 27 percent capacity factor, providing 1.75 percent of total U.S. electric power. At an optimistic 30 percent capacity factor, Minnesota Power's wind farms will provide about 30-35 MW during 2011. Minnesota Power's total generating capacity is 1,700 MW, which we can adjust down for the 65 percent capacity factor of its coal and biomass plants to 1,100 MW. That puts Minnesota Power at 3 percent wind from its two farms, raising its renewable capacity from 10 percent to 13 percent.

At least four more Bison-scale wind farms will be needed for Minnesota Power to reach the mandated 25 percent renewables. In addition, for approximately $70 million, Minnesota Power has acquired a 250-kilovolt line to bring wind power from Center, N.D., to its Arrowhead Substation in Hermantown, Minn. Meeting the 216B requirement will mean an investment of more than $1 billion for Minnesota Power.

There are other issues relating to the difficulty of integrating intermittent wind power with delicately balanced power grids. Denmark is the poster country for wind energy, with more per capita turbines than any nation. Its 5200 turbines do produce 20 percent of Denmark's total electric consumption. But most of that variable power can't be used by the grid at the time it is generated, and it is dumped at a loss to Norway and Sweden. Denmark's turbines actually provided an average of 8.7 percent of Denmark's grid power over the past five years, not the 20 percent and more assumed by many. There are no large electric grids with consistent wind power at the 15 percent share being required of Minnesota Power.
Texas has top wind capacity
Texas has three times the wind capacity of any other state. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) manages the state's electric grids. ERCOT reported on August 23, 2010, a new Texas electricity demand record at 65,776 MW. ERCOT also reported that its 9,319 MW of nameplate wind capacity produced an actual 650 MW during that period, or 1 percent of Texas demand. For all of 2009 Texas wind operated at an 8.7 capacity factor and provided 1 percent of total Texas electricity demand.
Last April, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar approved the largest U.S. wind program, the Cape Wind project, which will place 130 turbines off the coast of Cape Cod. This $2 billion program will receive at least $600 million up front in taxpayer subsidies.

In testimony before the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board, the developer said that in summer, when winds are weakest, Cape Wind will produce a modest 100 MW at a 22 percent capacity factor. This limit means that Cape Wind has to charge more than twice the going rate to cover its costs.

There is a role for wind energy in our electric future, but it is a supplement, not a substitute for high-capacity-factor coal and nuclear base load power. Arbitrary legislative standards like 216B that ignore economics and technology will likely fail.

Passing paper laws is easy. Repealing the laws of nature and physics is not so easy.
Rolf Westgard is a professional member of the Geological Society of America and the American Nuclear Society. He is a guest lecturer on energy subjects for the University of Minnesota College of Continuing Education.

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Comments (14)

I hardly think the law is either arbitrary or impractical. Coal is dirty and nuclear is expensive and this law drives the market toward sources of energy that are cleaner and cheaper.

Your handful of anecdotes hardly provide sufficient evidence to counter that.

John or Rolf,

I'm curious: is there anything about Minnesota Power's territory that puts it at a geographic disadvantage compared to Xcel Energy, in terms of meeting these renewable energy targets? It's my impression that Xcel is confident about meeting its renewable requirements. What is Xcel doing that Minnesota Power isn't? Maybe that's part of the solution?

The most "arbitrary" thing currently seen in the energy sector here in the US is the price of gasoline. The moment-by-moment, constantly changing price at the pump now has very little to do with the ACTUAL supply and demand of oil and EVERYTHING to do with the limited supply of futures contracts in barrels of oil being traded by speculators hoping to make a killing.

The currently-reported very high "price" of a barrel of oil is NEVER the actual price eventually paid for that oil. Still, that reported "price" conveniently gives oil companies cover for raising the price of gasoline made out of previously pumped, unrefined oil for which that high price was never paid.

Thus, when the futures price of oil is bid up by speculators, the price of gasoline in the underground tanks at service stations across the nation is raised in response, even though the oil used to make that gasoline cost much less than that imaginary future price.

Furthermore, when they finally change hands, the REAL price that's actually paid for the barrels of oil in today's high priced futures contracts is NEVER as high (often not even close) as the price at which the speculative "futures" contracts for those barrels was once trading.

As to "impractical," what would be impractical would be to continue to burn fossil fuels as our largest energy source while waiting to see when we'll reach the tipping point where the world's climate will change massively and catastrophically causing worldwide destruction, necessitating the massive movement of large segments of the world's population, flooding coastlines, creating massive new deserts and shifting areas where crops can be grown far away from where they currently are (if sufficient areas even continue to exist).

What I suspect Mr. Westergard really means to say is, that making the changes we absolutely MUST make is

sooo difficult


sooo costly

that we must, therefore, do what Americans have never done in the face of a mounting threat: NOTHING.

That and, of course, those who make massive profits from our energy supply system as it currently exists are loathe to see that system move away from the fossil fuels off which they make those massive profits.

Evidently they regard their own wealth (which they expect to expand exponentially as the world's supply of fossil fuels grows increasingly short driving up prices far beyond current levels) as far more important than the health of their fellow citizens or the ability of the planet we share to adequately support our form of life.

Finally, if we, indeed, do nothing, we'll soon find ourselves completely dependent on other parts of the world to supply the necessary technology to supply the clean energy we need, (which is, sadly, already the case).

If Mr. Westgard and his like-minded friends win the day and pull the rug out from under initiative needed to develop the technologies we MUST develop to meet our future energy needs, we will end up being one of the last nations in the world to be largely dependent on what will, by then, be VERY expensive fossil fuels, which will be a massive (and completely unnecessary) drain on our national economy and result in hugely reduced quality of life for our children and grandchildren.

John, those "anecdotes" are total energy data from the US, Texas and Denmark. As to nuclear, Excel Energy recently incuded a brochure with all its customer bills listing its various fuel source. Nuclear is it most reliable and one of its LEAST costly sources. Wind is the least reliable. Coal is cheap, dirty, and environmentally damaging.
The short term answer is natural gas and the long term answer for electric power will be primarily nuclear.
Solar should be providing more than it is at present - about one tenth of one percent of US electric demand. For the first ten months of 2010, solar shows no growth over 2009. Wind is growing rapidly thanks to massive taxpayer subsidies and will be about 2% of our electric power in 2010 when the final figures are in. The more wind you add, the more combustion gas plants you have to build to back up erratic wind. Those gas plants are the least efficient. It's like driving your car in stop and go traffic.

P.S. Don't live within a mile of those big wind turbines. The noise will drive you up the wall that those low frequency sounds penetrate.
I'm currently trying to help a citizen's group near Paynesville, MN save themselves from a wind farm. The greenest thing about a wind farm is the money the developers collect from the rest of us.

Dan, yes. With respect to wind, the Duluth region and the North Shore have the poorest winds in the state. One of the big problems in MN is that the best winds are in the west and the population centers are in the east. That means expensive new transmission lines. And with those low capacity factors, most of the time the lines aren't pushing electrons. Contrast that with nuclear's 90%+ capacity factors, and the down time is scheduled. See my featured article in the opinion section of Wednesday's Star Trib. It's still on line.

Greg: I don't need to "pull the rug out from under" wind or corn ethanol. They don't don't even have a leg to stand on the rug. As to draining our economy, you can look at Spain went all out with wind and solar subsidies. The high power cost killed industry resulting in the highest unemployment rate ion Europe. Now they are drastically cutting those subsidies. A study by King Carlos University showed that for every renewable job created, they lost two in manufacturing. Some of them went to France with its low cost nuclear power.

There is a new Winter Quarter class #2270; OIl & Gas; from the Gulf Spill to the Electric Car, in the U of MN Lifelong Learning program. It starts Tuesday, Jan 11, and includes a tour of Excel Energy's High Bridge combined cycle gas plant. That plant completely replaced the old coal plant which was just across Randolph Ave in St Paul. Each session includes a multi-page handout which has the graphs and charts supporting the day's material. For;; or 612-624-7847.

The new small nuclear reactors(125-300MW) that are being developed by Babcock and Wilcox and others would be ideal for Minnesota Power. Most of the designs are based on the power plants in our nuclear navy. They are very reliable and run for years without refueling.

I'm sorry, Rolf, but your rejection, out of hand, of all other points of view, and your failure to suggest anything that might assist the US in moving to a cleaner, more sustainable energy future makes you come across as a shill for those who make their profits from the energy supply system as it currently exists.

Just because a class is being taught which reflects your point of view (and likely requires your students to appear to adopt it no matter what evidence they might discover to the contrary) does not mean it's authoritative, factual, useful, or helpful.

Greg, the class really does attempt to present a reasoned scientific view of our energy choices. I will admit to being biased as I teach the class.
The problem with most of the so-called "sustainable energy" options is that they aren't very sustainable. Devoting 40 million+ prime crop acres to making a small percent of our transportation fuel is not a winner. Especially given the impact on our environment of that industrial one crop farming.
Every wind farm needs to be backed by inefficient combustion gas plants, etc.
I am often attacked as a shill. But the attacks would be more effective if you and they would respond to the numerous specifics in my editorials.
Regards, Rolf

P.S. I will pay your modest tuition if you would like to attend the class.

The biggest problem from legislative mandates for so-called renewable energy is not the waste of billions in taxpayer money. The even bigger problem is that it fosters technology dreams "that it might assist the US in moving to a cleaner, more sustainable energy future" per Greg's post. Those dreams prevent us from making the hard conservation and tax choices.
Since technology will save us we don't tax gasoline to build energy efficient rail transport and encourage its use. We don't look at how we buy and transport food. We don't insulate our buildings, etc, etc.
All we need to do is spot giant stills all over Midwestern farm fields and make the fields look like pincushions from the air with all those towering windmills. Or buy an enormous Japanese battery for millions to back up the energy from a wind farm per the current Excel test. The total power storage in that battery equals 18 seconds output from the Prairie Island nuclear plant.

Let's see now...Kennedy put a man on the moon in less than ten years and Eisenhower got the interstate highway system significantly underway (funded, surveyed and highway heavies were pushing dirt) in less time.

But today our nation state has become replaced by a korporate state and we can't seem to get much done anymore. It seems like every politician is an accountant-wannabe and believes a leader is a person who can squeeze a nickel into five pennies.

Everything worthwhile costs too much! You know what I am talking about? "Costs" as in "money"...those pieces of paper printed with images of dead presidents. There is not enough of the stuff. In our land of milk and honey, there isn't enough money.

I believe if we had clear minds and strong hearts, we could jam the social throttle (code for political will) to the firewall and achieve the 25% goal in a decade. Like conquering space and building highways, energy self-sufficiency is a "national security issue".

But alas, the illusions that bind our thoughts and that limit our deeds are too powerful. Ain't it something? Have we become a nation of scribes and sissy's?

Your frustrations are understandable, Richard. But it's not just money. We're competing with a miracle of nature - the sunshine buried over millions of years to produce those hydrocarbons, especially oil and gas, even coal. Those hulking wind turbines and very dispersed solar energy don't quite cut it.
We do have another miracle of nature available - the enormous multiplier available when matter is converted to energy to bind the atomic nucleus. Even with our early generation reactors, a tiny fuel pellet equals a ton of coal. Potentially it could equal twenty tons and more. But ignorant legislative panic is preventing full utilization of that potential.