Renewable energy in the time of Polar Vortex

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A polar vortex event like we experienced last week does not make the sunshine weaker, nor does it reduce the strength of the wind. In fact, very cold weather can be associated with very sunny conditions, and in Minnesota a long dreary cool but not frigid cloudy period ended with the arrival of a much sunnier but very cold Arctic air mass. And,the movement of great masses of air is what pushes those windmill blades around.

But, Isaac Orr, a paid opinion piece writer for the Center of the American Experiment, formerly with the Heartland Institute, most famous for his pro-fracking writing, and friend of the Wisconsin mining industry, decided to write an opinion piece for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which the “Strib” blindly passed on to its readers (shame on them). Orr made the entirely false claim that it is a good thing we were not using too much renewable energy during last week’s cold snap. In fact, it was fossil fuels that failed some customers, not renewables.

From Desmogblog, “SourceWatch describes the Center for the American Experiment (CAE) as a “right-wing pressure group” that seeks to influence legislation in Minnesota. CAE is also a member of the State Policy Network, a network of conservative think tanks funded by the Koch brothers and fighting for limited government and regularly opposing climate change legislation in the US.”

So, I wrote a Letter to the Editor and the Strib also passed that on to their readers!

To the Editor:

Isaac Orr, a policy fellow for the pro-fossil-fuel Center of the American Experiment, suggests that we slow our statewide efforts to replace fossil fuels with alternatives such as wind and solar (“Cold snap shows reliable energy sources are critical,” Feb. 1). He notes that a large number of Minnesotans needed to curtail their use of natural gas, a fossil fuel, so that we wouldn’t run out in the middle of the cold crisis.

Pro tip for Mr. Orr: Next time he writes a hit piece against clean energy, he might consider leaving that sort of thing out.

Orr catalogs the types of energy that were used over the cold snap to provide electricity to homes. Most of that electricity was, of course, not used for heating, but never mind that. His point seemed to be that since we use a lot of coal and natural gas, and have not yet installed very much in the way of clean fuel infrastructure, we should therefore not install very much clean fuel infrastructure. This sort of is-ought argument is not helpful or, really, meaningful.

We are moving toward the use of clean energy slowly — probably too slowly — but also carefully. At this time, it is clear that future solar and wind will be much cheaper than present-day coal and methane. When we make our own energy, 100 percent of the contribution of that industry to the statewide or national economy is realized. When we buy methane, coal and oil from other states or countries, Minnesota (or America) loses out.

There have been no instances of which I’m aware in which deploying wind or solar power in Minnesota has caused an energy company to tell customers to stop using fuel. As we deploy more and more clean energy, the energy suppliers, under appropriate regulation, will produce that energy in a way that is reliable, clean and reasonably priced. We know this is possible, is being done increasingly across the world and, for the sake of our children’s future, is necessary.

There is an irony in Orr’s commentary: Most climate experts agree that the likelihood of a polar air mass excursion of the type we experienced in the last week of January is increased by changes in global jet stream patterns that are now undeniably linked to warming caused by the human use of fossil fuels. We have ignored this problem for too long. We need to act now.

Greg Laden, Plymouth
Feb 1 2019

For more information about climate change, I recommend these books:

The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy by Michael Mann, with a new chapter on Trump.

Dire Predictions: The Visual Guide to the Findings of the IPCC, also by Michael Mann. this is an excllent graphics-rich summary of the IPCC results on climate change. Excellent for use in the middle school or high school classroom.

Caring for Creation: The Evangelical’s Guide to Climate Change and a Healthy Environment by Paul Douglas, the country’s most famous meteorologist who does not work for the Today’s show, looking at climate change from the point of view of an Evangelical Republican.

28 Climate Change Elevator Pitches: Short Explanations on the Scientific Basis of Man-made Climate Change by Rob Honeycutt.

Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know® by Joe Romm.

The orignial hit piece ALL THE STUFF IN THIS IS WRONG:

Bitter cold shows reliable energy sources are critical


Coal, natural gas, nuclear power largely delivered. We should think twice about leaning too much on intermittent forms like wind, solar.

This week’s bitter cold had the potential to be deadly. But thanks to reliable forms of energy like coal, natural gas and nuclear power, it wasn’t.

Lawmakers considering doubling Minnesota’s renewable energy mandate to 50 percent by 2030 should use this week’s weather as a moment to reconsider their plans to lean so heavily on wind and solar.

On Wednesday, when the morning temperature in the Twin Cities was negative 24 degrees, wind energy provided just 4 percent of the electricity and utilized just 24 percent of its installed capacity in a region monitored by the Midcontinent Independent Systems Operator (MISO), a not-for-profit organization that ensures reliable, least-cost delivery of electricity across all or parts of 15 U.S. states, including Minnesota.

Meanwhile, coal-fired power plants provided 45 percent of MISO’s power and nuclear provided 13 percent — most of this from Minnesota’s Prairie Island and Monticello nuclear plants (which we should keep open, by the way). Natural gas provided 26 percent of our electricity use at that time, and the remainder was imported from Canada and other U.S. states.

Natural gas also heated the homes of approximately 66 percent of Minnesotans this week, by far the most for any home heating fuel, but there wasn’t enough gas to combat the frigid temperatures.

Because of the extreme cold, Xcel Energy urged its natural gas customers in Becker, Big Lake, Chisago City, Lindstrom, Princeton and Isanti to reduce the settings on their thermostats, first down to 60 degrees, then to 63, through Thursday morning to conserve enough natural gas to prevent a widespread shortage as temperatures remained 14 below zero. Some Xcel customers in the Princeton area lost gas service, and Xcel reserved rooms for them in nearby hotels.

Enacting a 50 percent renewable energy mandate will not replace coal-fired power plants with wind and solar. It will replace coal-fired power plants with wind, solar and natural gas — enough natural gas power plants to potentially generate up to 100 percent of our electricity needs in the very possible eventuality that wind or solar are generating zero electricity at a given moment. Or, on a day like Wednesday, 96 percent of electricity might have to be generated by natural gas, with wind contributing 4 percent.

This week’s urgent notice from Xcel to conserve natural gas shows there is real danger in putting all of our eggs into the renewables-plus-natural gas basket. At minimum, pursuing a grid powered entirely by solar, wind and natural gas would require more natural gas pipeline capacity, which is likely to be opposed by the factions that are currently challenging the replacement of the Line 3 pipeline.

Lest I be accused of unfairness, it’s true that any number of unforeseen circumstances could prevent a coal, nuclear or natural gas plant from being able to run during a cold snap like this. But the key word is “unforeseen.” The intermittency of wind and solar is a feature, not a bug, which is why Minnesota lawmakers should reconsider the wisdom of enacting a mandate requiring 50 percent of our electricity to come from intermittent renewable sources.

If Minnesota lawmakers are sincere in their belief that we must reduce carbon dioxide emissions as soon as possible, they must lift Minnesota’s ban on new nuclear power plants, which has been in place since 1994.

Not only would nuclear power plants be essentially guaranteed to run in minus-24-degree weather, but a forthcoming study by American Experiment has found that new nuclear power plants could not only achieve a lower emissions rate by 2030, but also save Minnesota $30.2 billion through 2050.

Minnesota can show true leadership, and provide reliable, affordable and safe electricity by legalizing new nuclear power, not by doubling Minnesota’s reliance on intermittent renewable power (and natural gas).

Isaac Orr is a policy fellow at Center of the American Experiment.


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