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This Earth Day, imagine a new energy economy

Michael NobleMichael Noble

Fossil fuels — oil and coal and natural gas — are the central energy source of the world’s economy. No wonder there’s a credibility problem with swapping the old system for a new one, in spite of abundant evidence that the Earth’s climate will change radically due to carbon pollution from those fossil fuels. Add the reality that the Earth’s 7.008 billion people all want the same standard of living that we Americans have, and it’s easy to see why some people tune out the climate-change message.

The task of changing the world’s energy economy seems too big to imagine, so on Earth Day people may think about buying a hybrid car or changing their light bulbs to LEDs, but more likely, don’t think about energy at all. What Earth Day needs is a credible narrative that the world can change the old energy economy for a better one that solves our world’s most pressing economic and security challenges — and is good for the environment to boot.

Can we tell a persuasive story about a prosperous world not dependent on fossil fuels? We can, and the story starts right here in Minnesota.

Big growth since 2007

Minnesota is already quietly under way toward an electric system not dependent on coal. In 2007, a bipartisan bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty made a commitment to draw a quarter of the state’s electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020, mostly wind power. Other states have done the same — 24 states now have renewable standards. Since then, wind power in our regional electric grid in the upper Midwest has grown tenfold, now topping 12,000 megawatts, about a $25 billion private investment.

This year, voters expect to more than double the renewable electricity standards in Michigan and Missouri, reaching the 25 percent threshold in 2025, the same as Illinois. Those four Midwestern states alone will drive $60 billion dollar private investment in innovation and new technology.

The best news yet: Early analyses show no pattern of upward pressure on electric bills from these laws; in fact, in some electric systems — such as Xcel’s — renewable power is helping keep electric bills lower than they would otherwise have become.

The solar-energy story

How about the solar energy story? For the fourth consecutive year, polls show 9 in 10 Americans think it’s important to develop America’s free and abundant solar energy resources, and huge bipartisan majorities want 10 percent solar energy added on top of Minnesota’s nation-leading renewable standard. Meanwhile, the cost of solar panels is falling so fast that it has bankrupted some manufacturers. While that was a bad outcome for some investors, it portends an electricity market in which solar power is the cheapest source of new electricity. If we eliminate the red tape required to connect solar power to the electric grid, the industry will explode in Minnesota and around the country.

In early December, a $5 billion plan to modernize the electric grid of the upper Midwest to accommodate all the new renewable energy was approved by the regional grid operator — about 17 new transmission lines that will take a decade to build. As renewable energy grows on the grid from 20 percent to 30 percent and beyond, advanced battery and energy-storage technologies will come online to stabilize the ups and downs of renewable energy production.

Transforming transportation

On the transportation side, it’s also not hard to imagine a world that doesn’t run on oil. By crafting a deal with the automakers that will drive corporate average fuel economy to 54.5 MPG by 2025, the Obama administration more than doubled the useful work we’ll soon get from each gallon of gas. By building a world-class public transportation system in Minnesota by 2020 instead of 2030, more and more families will find housing and work that is more transit-friendly and less car dependent.

Many young families are already opting for lifestyles where they drive fewer miles, own fewer cars, and increase health and vitality with more walking and more bicycle use. And more retired couples will stay in Minnesota if they can have neighborhoods that do not require driving to every needed service. As oil prices inevitably rise with rising global demand, electric motors will take an increasing market share. Despite some hostile press, first-year sales of electric vehicles far outpace the early growth trend for hybrid vehicles, as drivers love that they almost never visit the pricey gas pump.

So this Earth Day, don’t just think about the environment. Earth Day is also about the economy.

Michael Noble is the executive director and CEO of Fresh Energy, a nonprofit working with leaders in the private and public sectors to move toward better energy and transportation systems.


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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 04/20/2012 - 05:14 pm.

    Required Reading!

    Michael Noble’s commentary should be required reading for every legislator. And for members of Congress as well. There is clearly a well marked path for Minnesota and the United States to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and lower the cost of energy for both households and business. We owe it to ourselves to make reducing use of fossil fuels a state and federal economic and policy priority – if for other reasons than it is just good common economic sense.

    • Submitted by rolf westgard on 04/24/2012 - 04:07 pm.

      Reading matter for legislators

      You are right. This one is right at the energy level IQ of the average legislator – about 80.

  2. Submitted by rolf westgard on 04/21/2012 - 05:59 am.

    If wishes were horses

    If wishes were horses, legislators could pass renewable energy bills which rode rough shod over the Laws of Nature and Physics, but they can’t. If wishes were horses, wind and solar would have replaced one fossil fuel plant somewhere on earth, but they haven’t. Solar would be more than a small fraction of 1% of our electric energy, and wind and solar combined would be more than one quad of the 100 quads of annual US energy consumption, but they aren’t. And there would be batteries with the capacity to step up when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind blows too little or too much, but there aren’t. We use natural gas and hydro for that.
    Xcel Energy has a program called Windsource where you pay more, not less, to use wind power. Xcel’s lowest cost energy source is nuclear. The EIA reports that on a per unit of energy basis, subsidies to coal are $0.39; nuclear $1.79; for corn ethanol $20.37; wind $32.39; for solar $63.
    We need more public transport; more efficient cars and light bulbs; and to continue support for renewables research. We don’t need premature projects like the $2 billion Ivanpah solar project in Nevada or the $2 billion Cape Wind off Cape Cod. Neither will produce one tenth the output of Prairie Island nuclear, Xcel Energy’s lowest cost power source.
    On May 2 I’m taking my U of MN class to tour District Energy with its excellent heating and cooling system for downtown St Paul, and its solar hot water project on the Rivercenter roof.
    On Earth Day, think about the environment, but not too much about the economy where the rest of us cough up $7500 for each wealthy buyer of an electric car. Or about Germany where low and middle income power users cough up so that wealthy home owners can decorate their roofs with solar panels.
    If wishes were horses, it would be easy and cheap to replace fossil fuels, but it won’t be.

  3. Submitted by Gary Doan on 04/22/2012 - 07:57 am.

    In an imaginary world maybe

    At this point in time, thinking we can just discard fossil fuel is a total fantasy. Alternatives are more expensive and will continue to be, unless some new technology surfaces. Government can not force change, that always fails badly, costing consumers more and could make energy even more expensive for decades to come. In reality, if left alone, without government intervention, energy will evolve and as alternatives become competitive in the marketplace, they will be adopted. Paying more for non-fossil fuel today should be a personal choice, if you want to pay more, then pay more, please, but don’t try to force everyone to pay more, for your fantasy.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/22/2012 - 09:53 am.

    Do yourselves a huge favor

    and spend 60 minutes watching this debate:

    “A Peak Oil Professor Debates Shell’s Former CEO On The Subject Of Peak Oil”

  5. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 04/23/2012 - 10:01 am.

    New nukes? Talk about wishful thinking…

    It is very unlikely that we will see a new nuclear power plant in Minnesota anytime soon. Our utilities are on track to meet their 25 by 25 goals, some are ahead of schedule. Yet Rolf still says it can’t be done. Even as we are doing it — with some of the lowest electrical rates in the nation. Go figure.

    I’ll be the first to admit that changing our transportation fuels/options is a daunting task, but I won’t accept failure — or the status quo — as an option.

  6. Submitted by rolf westgard on 04/23/2012 - 05:07 pm.

    the industrial wind scam

    To my knowledge, Xcel Energy does have the highest wind % of any US utility.
    I was happy to play a small part in delaying or halting T Boone Pickens Goodhue County wind farm whose turbines would loom over the local residents. Like unwelcome guests at a dinner party, IMO the turbines intrude upon the hapless residents with the help of subsidies forced from ratepayers and taxpayers.

  7. Submitted by rolf westgard on 04/24/2012 - 12:08 pm.

    Solar delusion

    Despite mandates and billions in subsidies, solar energy is simply not useful. In 2011 we got about 2 billion kwh from solar, that’s one twentieth of 1% of our 4000 B kwh annual consumption. Solar capacity factors struggle to get out of the single digits.

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