Did We Just Miss the Moment of Renewable Energy Convergence?
We need some good news during this period of national chaos. There were three news stories this week that could be missed during the pandemic, but together they signal the moment of convergence for clean low cost renewable energy.
Convergence means the merging of distinct things. In this case, it is industry, economics and renewable technology.
The first story is about a small utility, Great River Energy, based in Minnesota. Small is a relative term, they supply electricity to 28 rural cooperatives and 700,000 customers. This week, they announced they are closing Coal Creek Station, their main 1,150MW coal-fired power plant in North Dakota, and replacing it with a $1.2B investment in wind energy. This will make two-thirds of the energy they supply, carbon free and allow Great River to slash consumer costs.
One the primary drivers for this decision is economics or supply side cost. Even though the plant is located close to a coal mine, the economics of large coal plants no longer work, even without considering the cost of pollution. Great River has tried to give the plant away but can’t find any takers. North Dakota and Minnesota are the Saudi Arabia of wind, and wind farms are springing up here faster than prairie daisies. The emerging story is that all across the country wind and solar are now cheaper than coal and gas, and costs are still dropping.
There is also a demand side to economics. Efficiency can reduce energy demand. We have lived in a cheap energy world but this is changing fast. It is now cheaper to save an electron than it is to create one via fossil fuels. The other part of demand is our demand for jobs. The week’s story is one when the nation reached 20% unemployment.
Unfortunately 260 plant employees at Coal Creek are also expected to lose their jobs in 2022 as the plant closes. The governor of North Dakota pledges to find a way to keep the plant open. This seems strange since growth in renewable jobs is rising fast. Investing in clean energy, creating good jobs, and retraining workers would be smarter than backing old dirty outdated technology.
Finally, there was another announcement this week by Form Energy for a 1 MW/150 MWh long-duration energy storage solution. This is essentially a one-week battery, and reliable long term storage overcomes the last hurtle to going 100% clean energy. Where is Form Energy going to test their new battery? Would you believe, Great River Energy?
What is missed by the Governor and current national administration is that creating renewable infrastructure could be a path to rebuilding the economy better and cleaner as we emerge from the pandemic. It would be a good way to put people back to work and address climate as well as equity issues. The Green New Deal proposal is an example of this policy.
Yet while fossil fuel companies throw money at politicians, and they in turn throw relief checks to fossil fuels, very little of your tax dollars are destined toward renewable energy. The administration is sitting on $43 billion in loans to renewable companies. They also seem content to wage war on renewables through every means possible whether it is tariffs, lack of relief to the renewable industry, or support for fossil fuels. In the end, these bankrupt ideas will go the way of old coal plants.
We are faced with a health crisis, an economic and equity crisis, and a climate crisis. Americans will pull through these by pulling together, no matter what we look like, where we live, or who we vote for because we care for each other and for the earth. For far too long, a few fossil fuel executives have sought to divide us and spread mis-information for the purpose of padding their own pockets and those of the politicians they can buy. We must rewrite the way we approach our energy and recovery policy by changing to clean low cost renewables. In the process we can build back cleaner and better, and provide the kind of security and employment that helps all of us. With costs low, the need high and the technology available, the time to do this is now. More than ever, we need political convergence because we are all in this together.
‘We are all connected. Savor the Earth!’™
L. Hobart Stocking