Rooftop solar panelsRecent, bold actions by some of Minnesota’s largest companies, many of which have a national or global presence, reveal a lot about the expected reliability and cost-savings of an increasingly carbon-free electric system in the Midwest and the nation. From nation-leading goals to a broad consensus on the business case for clean energy, these companies’ actions demonstrate a clear direction for our energy future:

  • Nine companies with deep roots in Minnesota collectively urged lawmakers to address climate change as final decisions are being made in the state’s 2019 legislative session.
  • 3M announced a goal of 100 percent renewable electricity for its global operations, starting with its headquarters in Minnesota.
  • Xcel Energy announced its intention to achieve 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050, making it the first utility in the nation to do so.
  • The CEO of Great River Energy told a gathering of energy leaders that “wind is the new baseload” and has committed the company to 50 percent renewable electricity by 2030.
  • Thirty-some other name-brand Minnesota companies and institutions (the Minnesota Sustainable Growth Coalition) announced a consensus clean energy vision calling for the state to surpass its existing statutory goal of reducing greenhouse gases 80 percent by 2050.

The growing corporate interest in carbon-free energy reflects today’s market reality.

Energy efficiency, cheap natural gas, dramatically-declining costs and improved technology for wind, solar, and energy storage–along with changing consumer expectations–are disrupting the traditional economics of electricity markets, prompting companies and utilities all over the country to rethink what kind of electricity generation to buy and build.

These same market trends surely informed Governor Tim Walz’s proposal for Minnesota to achieve a carbon-free electricity system by 2050.

These goals may seem ambitious, but research shows it is possible to decarbonize the electricity system while keeping electricity affordable and reliable. This past year the Great Plains Institute worked with a diverse group of interests called the Midcontinent Power Sector Collaborative to analyze what it would take to reach a low-to-zero carbon future in the region. Our findings show we can largely decarbonize electricity production with existing technology by 2050. Achieving this future will require a portfolio approach including energy efficiency, renewable energy, and carbon capture technology paired with any coal or natural gas we continue to use.

In a separate analysis focused just on Minnesota (in which we were one of several partners), the Minnesota Department of Commerce found that a high-renewables future is achievable, cost-competitive, and capable of meeting 70 percent of Minnesota’s electric energy needs. Read the Solar Potential Analysis on the Minnesota Solar Pathways website.

However, as we know, the sun doesn’t always shine and sometimes it snows in Minnesota…in May. So, what about the reliability of a high-renewables system?

Minnesotans may have already blotted out this winter’s polar vortex from their mind, but will recall that it put a lot of systems (and people) to the test. Electricity was no exception. In our region, 25 percent of all types of generation capacity was unavailable largely due to the cold. Most electric grid equipment has a hard time operating in such extreme conditions and that includes wind turbines. A significant proportion of the wind that the region’s grid operator—the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO)—forecasted for January 30 was not generated. That’s because wind turbines are designed to shut down at extremely low temperatures to protect the equipment and prevent permanent damage. The industry had already anticipated the challenge of generating wind in colder climates, so turbines can be equipped with “cold weather packages” to keep the blades spinning down to a frigid -30⁰ C, but not all turbines have these packages. Despite these operational challenges, wind started coming back online on January 31 and provided 30 percent of the energy supply in MISO’s North region during the three-day polar vortex.

Indeed, the polar vortex showed what will be needed to make renewables every bit as reliable as what we’re used to, even at higher penetrations. We will need better forecasting to account for new technologies on the grid. We will also need a strong regional transmission grid to move energy from where it is generated to where it is needed. Even if it’s calm and cloudy where you are, the wind is blowing and the sun is shining somewhere. As states work to build an electric grid that collects renewable electricity from an increasingly large enough area, we can all benefit from someone else’s weather. Case in point, DTE Energy noted that its 277 wind turbines in Michigan performed well throughout the polar vortex. The whole history of the electric grid has been one of learning by doing.

The market is demanding carbon-free electricity because it’s often the cheapest, poses fewer risks, and consumers prefer it. We already know how to decarbonize the region’s electricity production 80 to 95 percent, and between now and 2050 we’ll figure out how to decarbonize that last 5 to 20 percent the same way we have solved other challenges: intention and innovation.

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