The day after Governor Tim Walz announced a plan for Minnesota to generate 100 percent of our electricity from carbon-free sources by 2050 [Applause!], I went to dinner with my Dad. He has always been an example to me of environmental stewardship and is a huge supporter of Fresh Energy, but he is also a very pragmatic person. I could see him struggling to imagine how this 100 percent idea might actually work. I had some of the answers to his great questions, and we had a lively conversation. It was fun to imagine this future together! And it’s certainly a conversation we need to be having. So, let’s dig in…
OK, 100 percent of what exactly?
This commitment is 100 percent about electricity. It addresses only the sources we use to generate the electricity that powers items like our electronics and lighting. It will be the responsibility of the company to whom you pay your electricity bill, in my case Xcel Energy, to transition their supply chain from fossil fuel generators to carbon-free generators.
There are many other situations where we burn fossil fuels for energy—we burn natural gas for home heating and cooking, we fill our boat motors with gasoline—and these fuels are not part of this commitment. The urgency of the climate change crisis requires us to transition away from all these fossil fuel uses, but that’s not on the table… yet. Deep decarbonization will require that we clean up our electricity sources and switch all other fuels uses to electricity. Next time you’re shopping for a new car or appliance, buy an electric one.
Why electricity only?
The Midwest has incredible renewable energy resource potential in wind and solar. The technology is proven, reliable, and cost-competitive. Minnesota has the workforce and skilled labor in place, and both stand ready to grow. Utilities are making huge decisions about investments in new power plants and signing procurement contracts today that have long-term consequences to our climate. This is not an industry that can pivot on a dime. Clear direction and strong policies are what utilities need to responsibly plan for a renewable energy future. The good news is they are already planning.
How will this affect me? What should I be planning for?
It won’t. Nothing. Today, when you plug your phone into an outlet to charge, you don’t know where the electrons that you are consuming originate, how they were created, or how far they traveled to get to your outlet. Electricity is just there when we need it (hats off to our hard-working utilities) and that will continue to be the case. It will also continue to be important to conserve energy.
Or maybe it will affect you. If you are in school to become a power systems engineer, you will have a good job waiting for you when you graduate. If you are a land owner, you may have the opportunity to host a wind project to boost your income while still farming your land. If you own a smart thermostat, you may wish to participate in a demand response program or time of use rate. I see a future where there is more opportunity to interact with our utility, more choices as a consumer, and more fun gadgets that allow us to participate in this exciting and critical revolution.
But sometimes the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. What then?
In the near term, the connectivity of the grid solves for this. It’s a web, by design, so that many sources of electricity can all reach your outlet or light switch. In other words, no one nearby solar array will be solely relied upon to power your home or office.
The other key piece will be geographic diversity of renewables. The more connected our transmission grid is across the country and entire continent, the better! If the wind isn’t blowing in Minnesota, we’ll tap into the oversupply of solar generation from New Mexico, or hydro generation in Canada, or energy storage ready to discharge. Transmission and energy markets are doing this real time energy exchange already today. Electricity can and does travel long distances quickly and pretty efficiently.
This balancing act will get more complex as we near 100 percent renewable energy. But importantly, we can’t let the unknown final steps to the finish line stop us from starting the race!
Will electricity become more expensive?
Hard to say. Rates are complicated and somewhat unpredictable. Today, in Minnesota, wind is the cheapest energy source on the market. Sunshine and wind are free; that is to say the fuel cost of these resources is $0. Plus, renewable energy is a technology and likely will continue to become more efficient, less expensive, and notably smarter over time. On the other hand, the transition will require utility investments in a more modern grid infrastructure and we’ll need more transmission lines. But, if factoring in the potential savings of externalities like health benefits and avoiding the most extreme natural disasters associated with climate change, then we are likely to save a few bucks there. All this is an extreme oversimplification, so, again, it’s hard to say.
Is 2050 soon enough?
No. But it’s a good starting point and Fresh Energy will be pushing to get us there sooner. And you better believe that the year that Xcel Energy is pumping 100 percent carbon-free electricity into my outlets I will have an epic holiday light display. (And then I’ll go back to conserving.)