Local leaders meet with affordable energy advocates

Published 7:54 am Thursday, July 10, 2008

It’s an obscure problem perhaps, though one with potentially calamitous consequences.

According to energy experts and advocacy organizations, Minnesota is straining its core energy system and limiting its options to resolve it.

“Basically, it’s what we deal with all the time,” said Austin Utilities general manager Jerry McCarthy.

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“We’ve got an aging infrastructure basically,” he said.

He and other local energy and business leaders met with Christina Pierson, executive director for Partners for Affordable Energy, Tuesday to discuss to the issue.

Pierson has been touring the state with the intent of informing community leaders about problems surrounding energy production and transmission capacity, both of which may reach breaking points without due action, she said. Her hope is their influence will affect energy policy, as well as generate local solutions.

She defined three key energy categories integral to the issue — baseload, peaking and intermittent — from which energy is derived. Baseload is the most stable of the three, encompassing coal and nuclear energy. Peaking is utilized as needed, and is most often natural gas. And intermittent is renewables such as solar and wind, and the most unstable of the three.

All are imperative to a healthy energy system.

“There is no silver bullet in our energy system, because all energy sources have an environmental impact,” Pierson said. “You need disperse and all kinds of generation.”

The problem, she said, is baseload generation may falter in the future as demands stress aging power plants and legislative moratoriums prohibit construction of new facilities.

The result: An unpredictable system and prices.

“Because Minnesota isn’t able to build plants, we’re going to be turning more and more to natural gas,” Pierson said. “Using natural gas as a baseload source of energy will cause energy prices to be more volatile than they are today.”

Increased energy consumption, much of which results from new products, exacerbates the issue. To top it off, most people don’t know the energy consequences of what they buy or the general operation of the electrical system altogether, she said.

“Our use of electricity has changed, so it’s increased electricity demand,” she said. “We need to teach people to conserve.

“A plasma television takes more electricity turned off than a fridge running,” she added.

She encouraged individuals and families to unplug small appliances like hairdryers and toasters, and also use power strips, and flip them off for televisions and computers.

She also suggested energy audits, which are available through Austin Utilities for $40.

“You might be surprised to hear how you can reduce your electric load,” she said.

Pierson said all businesses, as the major energy expenders of the community, should attempt the same. Both she and McCarthy agree the savings is both financial and energy-related.

It’s proven to be an uphill battle, however.

“It’s hard to get businesses to put up that up-front cost, but really the payback is only two to three years,” she said.

And some are trying. McCarthy said he recently attended a meeting with Hormel Foods to discuss their conservation initiative called “Green to Gold,” in which the company is exploring ways to save on energy and their bottom line.

“They are looking at manufacturing, employee travel — everything they can look at in terms of their company,” he said.

And energy researchers are looking for ways to decrease the environmental effect of baseload fuels. Pierson said her organization strongly supports research and technologies that put baseload byproducts to use or eliminate them completely.

“The industry is doing its best to come up with the technology to do it,” Pierson said of the latter. “It may take 15-20 years.”

Minnesota recently passed an environmental initiative that will force down emissions by 15 percent by 2015. McCarthy said the city’s northeast power plant has been affected by state standards, forcing the plant from a baseload to a peak-power facility.

Austin Utilities draws most of its power from a coal-fired plant in Becker County, Minnesota, and is further discussing its needs from the facility.

Pierson and McCarthy also said that dependence on renewable is not the answer for now. It needs more development, they said.

“Some people want to do everything at the exclusion of everything else,” Pierson said. “Wind turbines don’t turn on automatically by themselves. They need baseload to get that spark.”

“Renewable energy is part of it, wind is part of it, but we also need baseload,” McCarthy said.