By Mike Franklin
At the Minnesota Conservative Energy Forum (MNCEF), we got a chuckle recently when we saw that our friends at the Center of the American Experiment appeared to be quite literally tilting at windmills. Like some kind of 21st Century Don Quixote, the Center was – unironically – trying to cast wind energy as an enemy that should be slain.
Unfortunately, their misleading arguments have actual real-world implications, to say nothing of the political consequence to conservative candidates who should be embracing wind energy instead of taking the Center’s bad (political and practical) advice to run away from it. The group has put up billboards along I-35 denouncing wind energy, and its policy fellow penned a column to try and make the case that wind energy is too costly and unreliable. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Like MNCEF, the Center espouses conservative principles such as free enterprise, limited government and accountability. However, like all friends, we don’t always agree. The Center misses an opportunity to apply those principles to Minnesota’s energy industry as a foundation for solutions that will reduce red tape, create jobs, increase competition, grow the economy, foster a clean energy future and, ahem, actually cut electric costs.
To support the group’s case, the author painted an inaccurate picture of how the electric grid actually works, and used strawman arguments – like saying Minnesotans pay twice for wind energy – that have no basis in fact. The author also took liberties when crunching the numbers. For instance, he included billions of dollars for new transmission lines when arguing that wind turbines cost more than nuclear power plant upgrades (a false equivalence when not similarly including external infrastructure costs in the bottom line for other energy forms that also require transmission…which is to say, all other forms of energy generation.)
By comparison, the Minnesota Conservative Energy Forum believes in market-based policies that benefit consumers, create jobs, promote clean and sustainable energy sources – like wind – and improve the reliability and security of the electric grid. In other words, as Sancho said more than 400 years ago, “Take care sir. Those over there are not giants but windmills.” Here’s why:
Wind farms produce electricity just as often as coal.
The author distorts our regional electric grid by incorrectly stating back-up generation is required for each wind farm. The fact is that no energy source is available 100 percent of the time. This past April, U.S. coal plants were used at only 41.8 percent of their electricity-making capacity – even lower than wind farms at 44.9 percent. The Center’s policy expert loves to say that the wind isn’t always blowing, but he fails to mention that expensive coal plants are turned on about as often than wind.
The electric grid uses many energy sources from across the region.
The author oversimplifies how the electric grid actually works. The truth is, the grid has evolved from using inflexible, large power plants like coal to harnessing many electricity sources (which lowers prices and increases grid security.) MISO, the nonprofit grid operator for the Upper Midwest selects energy resources in real-time based on what costs the least until demand is met – just like a marketplace would do. Often, wind is the least costly because it has no fuel costs compared to other sources. In this way, the electric grid across the entire Upper Midwest pools its resources to cost-effectively deliver electricity reliably.
Coal plants are expensive – and require Minnesota to import fuel to meet demand.
Simply ”upgrading Minnesota’s coal plants” would only be a fraction of the total cost required to keep them running – costs which are increasing every year, regardless of any current or future environmental costs. They have operating and maintenance costs along with purchasing trainloads of coal delivered from multiple states away. Rail lines are getting more and more clogged, in part because of our state’s inability to permit new pipelines for liquid fuels, which increases the cost for coal transportation (and anything else that depends on the rails).
By comparison, the fuel cost for wind is zero. With wind projects located in rural communities in southern Minnesota, residents benefit from the tax revenue, jobs (over 57,000 in clean energy according to a recent study, and growing by over 5% per year), and landowner lease payments from harvesting and exporting their wind. The same can’t be said for coal, in which the tax and economic benefits go to other states.
The Minnesota Conservative Energy Forum believes that Minnesota should pursue a “best available” energy strategy. That means as wind and solar continue to reduce costs and increase their competitiveness in the marketplace, our state should reduce its heavy dependence on coal and natural gas and allow an increase in electricity generation from renewable energy sources. To put it bluntly, Minnesota can’t afford to take a 17th Century approach to windmills.
 Klippenstein, Matthew. “Wind Breezed Past Coal’s Capacity Factor in April.”
https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/wind-breezed-past-coal-capacity-factor-in-april#gs.LMP4OfI. July 13, 2018.