Last week was a tough one for Minnesotans. Exceptionally cold weather tested our infrastructure and revealed some of our vulnerabilities and strengths.
In “Cold snap shows reliable energy sources are critical” (Feb. 1), Isaac Orr, a policy fellow of the Center of the American Experiment, seized on the cold weather to push for a return to coal and a rejection of renewables. He supported his claim with a confusing mix of statistics that mischaracterize where our energy comes from and how renewables work.
Facing an onslaught of climate and economic changes, we need good information about our energy system to keep our citizens warm and safe and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
In a cold climate, we need two kinds of energy: electricity and heating. Electricity powers our lights, electronics and anything that plugs into the wall. In Minnesota, we get that energy from a mix of sources, including coal, nuclear, natural gas and renewables like wind and hydro.
In contrast, heating for most Minnesotans comes from natural gas that is burned in a home furnace.
Orr switches back and forth between the roles played by these two energy types, suggesting that heating your home has something to do with coal plants or wind turbines. For most of us, it doesn’t.
Any worries we had about shortages of natural gas to heat our homes during the cold blast did not have anything to do with power from wind or solar.
We have been adding renewables to energy production in Minnesota over the past several years, up to 25 percent in 2018. These sources generate power when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining, and there are proven strategies for connecting them together to build a reliable electricity system.
Germany, for instance, currently has 40 percent renewable electricity in its grid and plans to go to 80 percent by 2050. Electric outages there amount to 12 minutes per year, which makes that country’s security of supply among the world’s highest.
Additionally, cold snaps like the polar vortex are usually quite sunny and breezy, generating power even though the temperature is low. To wit: A solar array connected to a battery recently installed by Connexus Energy generated 147 percent more power than average on Jan. 30, when it was colder than 20 below at noon. In fact, Connexus’ solar and battery storage system performed so well that during the coldest part of the polar vortex, it provided power to reduce peak demand and helped reduce strain on the electric grid.
There is one crossover between electricity and heating in Minnesota: Natural gas can be used in both processes. Orr suggests a conflict there, but it is not as problematic as he implies.
Less than 11 percent of the natural gas consumed in Minnesota is burned in an electricity power plant. And when we rely more on renewables instead of natural gas for electricity production, that leaves more natural gas for home heating use. We also can make both electricity and heat in energy-efficient combined heat-and-power plants, as we do at the University of Minnesota and in downtown St. Paul’s Ever-Green Energy plant.
Navigating Minnesota through an energy transition to a cleaner, reliable energy system is not easy, and there are many paths to get there. So far our transition has been going well: Electricity prices are stable and the lights have stayed on. Our leading power company in Minnesota, Xcel Energy, expects to be able to reliably push renewables even further in the coming years.
Our changing climate will bring more weather extremes. But confusing energy issues as a way to roll back energy gains will not make us smarter or more resilient when those climate stressors do come.
Jessica Hellmann is director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, where Ellen Anderson is director, Energy Transition Lab, and Sabine Engel is director, International Partnerships.