Power From Above

by Phil Anderson

“Sinners are you ready for a little redemption To receive forgiveness for what we've done? The time has come to break bad habits It's time to turn to the wind and the sun.”   “There's a better way than barrels of oil There's a better way than lumps of coal There's a better way to work together Renewable power that's our goal”  

This song, “Power From Above” by Dan Berggren, is a peppy parody of old time Gospel that calls on us to turn from the wickedness of fossil fuels and embrace the “power from above.” This is not just the hope of starry eyed folk singers. All over the country people, businesses, and electric utilities are moving to clean solar and wind power.  

One of these is Superior Water and Light. They plan to build a 470 kilowatt community “solar garden” adjacent to Heritage Park at 2828 Hammond Avenue. The project is expected to be completed by the end of this year and will let SWP&L customers, who don't have a suitable location or don't have the ability to install their own system, to benefit from solar. Check it out at www.swlp.com/CustomerService/SuperiorSolar.  

Minnesota Power also is using more solar and wind capacity. They plan to generate 50% of their electricity with renewable sources by 2021(including hydroelectric from Canada). Solar will be a small part of this effort. So why are they, and Dairyland Power Cooperative, planning to build a new power plant In Superior using dirty fracked natural gas?   Minnesota Power says the new plant is needed to fill in the gaps from wind and solar. Natural gas is the “bridge” fuel to cleaner electric power. They claim natural gas is cleaner than coal, is necessary to provide enough power, and keep costs down. But many sources dispute the value of natural gas as a “bridge” fuel. There are also other problems with using natural gas.  

Natural gas power plants are cheaper to operate and less polluting than coal plants. But this is only true if you ignore the environmental costs of fracking the natural gas wells. When this impact is considered natural gas is just a dirty as coal. Drilling for and transporting natural gas results in significant amounts of methane (a component of natural gas) leaking into the air. Because methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (trapping 86 times more heat than CO2) this is a serious problem for climate change. A NASA study, and other researchers, say this cancels out the benefits of burning cleaner natural gas. Fracking natural gas wells also uses huge amounts of water and turns it into highly toxic contaminated waste water.   Using natural gas also has economic problems. Right now there is abundant, cheap natural gas from fracking. But this is expected to change. At utility scale solar and wind are now cheaper than gas and the cost is continuing to go down. The federal Energy Information Administration estimates by 2023 the average cost of a megawatt hour of electricity will be $40.20 using natural gas. Utility scale solar will be $2.60 cheaper and wind turbines $3.60 cheaper. One reason is that solar and wind have stable prices. Once the infrastructure is built, the fuel – wind and sunlight – is free.  

The Rocky Mountain Institute is a conservation and renewable energy research organization. They recently did a study showing natural gas power plants do not make economic sense. Over the life of new facilities natural gas will cost more than wind and solar. Their analysis of every proposed gas-fired power plant in the U.S. found:  

• 90% of proposed gas plants would be more expensive than solar and wind.

• If built, owners of these gas plants face tens of billions in “stranded costs” with uncertain future revenues as clean energy continues to fall in price.

• Electricity customers could save $29 billion by investing in renewable energy.

• Renewable power would avoid 100 million tons of CO2 emissions each year.  

The Union of Concerned Scientists says solar and wind can deliver affordable, reliable, and low-carbon power and is preferable to natural gas. They say natural gas is still needed but should have a limited role in replacing coal.  

The Superior power plant will also consume large amounts of water (unlike soar and wind). The plant is expected to use 3 million gallons of water per day. This will come from four, on site, high capacity wells. Wisconsin DNR hydrologists have questioned if the aquifer under the city can sustain this level of use. None of this water is recycled or reused. The project web site admits that 2.3 million gallons per day will simply be evaporated. One would think with a high tech, $700 million project there would be a way to condense the steam and reuse the water. Environmental groups are very concerned about this level of water consumption.  

Not all opposition is from environmentalists. The Duluth News Tribune reported that 11 industrial customers, who consume two-thirds of Minnesota Power's electricity, are opposed to the project. Testifying at the Public Utilities Commission hearing, these companies said the project was not needed. Using off peak, voluntary blackouts, and “interruptible” power rates would make the plant unnecessary. They were concerned about construction costs being passed on to customers.  

One wonders why solar or wind generation is not included as part of this project. The project could include a community solar farm (like SWPL&L) to benefit Minnesota Power customers. If nothing else, it would be good public relations and a good way to defuse opposition to the project. The 11 industrial customers could benefit and probably would have the roof space or other land for building the solar farm.  

Not considered in these discussions is the need for conservation. Not using as much power provides a bigger bang-for-the-buck than building new power plants of any kind. We are a hugely wasteful society. In recent decades we have made improvements in energy efficiency but there is still much more that can be done.   Climate change demands serious action NOW. It demands more than tweaking around the edges. Massive use of renewable energy must become the norm and not the anomaly. We have to, as the song says, “break bad habits” and make renewable energy our primary goal.