Better footing for Minnesota’s energy future


The controversial Big Stone II power plant project collapsed earlier this week, highlighting the considerable energy challenges facing Minnesota. Anyone claiming victory or acknowledging defeat would be, at least partly, wrong. Despite considerable shortcomings, the project was grounded in a very real future need for more electrical power.

Progressives must think long and hard about this project’s lessons. Opposition, while important, is no substitute for forward-thinking public energy policy. Only real innovation drives a sustainable Minnesota future.

Big Stone II was a proposed “clean coal technology” power generation plant sited in Milbank, South Dakota. Despite its location, half the plant’s power would’ve been transmitted to the Twin Cities, powering an estimated 600,000 homes.

Minnesota lacks the high voltage transmission capacity necessary to carry that much new juice. Because Big Stone II conveniently fell under the more coal power friendly South Dakota Public Utilities Commission’s jurisdiction, the proposed transmission line became project opponents’ focal point.

“Clean coal” is an oxymoron. Coal is a user friendly, readily available energy source. As burning technologies go, it also yields a lot of carbon and airborne particulate matter. If coal weren’t so abundant, it wouldn’t be worth the bother yet it is so we’re forced to confront it. “Clean coal” technology claims to burn coal more efficiently while more effectively scrubbing effluvium but it still pumps carbon and particulates into the atmosphere.

Combustible fuel yields carbon dioxide, a very real source of planetary climate change. Combustible fuels, particularly coal, are also an absolutely critical source of constant energy generation. Solar and wind generated power can’t provide energy constancy. Solar only works when the sun is shining and wind speeds rise and fall due to variety of factors.

Hydroelectricity is clean but not plentiful. It’s mostly constant but dams carry environmental and commercial costs limiting their growth. The same holds with nuclear power. Nukes are carbon-free for sure. Countries like France have embraced nuclear energy as a national power generation strategy but entrenched opposition, combined with mind-numbing costs, make building new nuclear power facilities an unlikely proposition.

The final nail in Big Stone II’s coffin came when the Obama Administration’s priorities succeeded President Bush’s.  Where Bush policy struck an anti-regulatory tone, Obama policy has pursued closer study and inquiry, effectively raising the barrier to building new coal generated power plants.

It’s important to pause at this point and remember that we’re struggling with power generation issues precisely because we’ve built our lives around electricity. Cell phones, dishwashers, light bulbs, sensors, and imaging systems are just examples. We cannot live without electricity. Consequently, steady, clean and reliable power sources are absolutely critical to maintaining our complex lives, not to mention essential future growth.

Honestly, I don’t see Minnesota living on less energy. That’s the simple, immutable truth that must guide the energy debate.

Energy efficiency is an important step forward. Innovation yielding lower consumptive infrastructure, meaning a blender that whips up a margarita at half the previous electrical draw, must command greater public policy priority. It’s one thing to advocate a clean, green future; it’s quite another to put public resources and incentives behind it.

Coal generated power will easily be with us for at least another generation or two. Unless we change the laws of physics and somehow burn coal without yielding carbon dioxide or suspended particulates, an increasingly combustion warmed planet creates a truly compromised future. That’s unacceptable.

The path lies, simultaneously, with large and small scale solutions. Heat pumps, for example, devices that transfer heat from one place, such as the ground, to another, like your house, are gaining popularity. Expand this system from a single dwelling to every home on the block, however, and the cost savings and energy efficiency economies of scale soar. A micro community heat pump won’t replace our dependence on combustion power but it begins to cut demand in a significant fashion.

Present energy policy largely reinforces traditional systems. Minnesota can embrace a sustainable energy future but only through forward-looking policy initiatives. Big Stone II’s collapse teaches us that betting Minnesota’s future on 20th century power technology is a sucker’s bet. We can and must do better.