Cover story: Voracious electrical appetite catching up to Minnesotans

Blackout -- Our unrelenting appetite for electricity is pushing Minnesota to the limits. Will wind and nuclear save the day?

Anyone who flips a light switch to start their day should be concerned.

“We’re running out of juice,” Mark Glaess said at the Citizens Energy Summit held recently in Willmar.

Glaess is general manager of the Minnesota Rural Electric Association, which includes 44 member-owned rural electric cooperatives serving 1.6 million Minnesota residents.

He’s concerned about the unrelenting appetite for electric power across Minnesota and the nation, compounded by the reluctance of the general public toward new coal-fired power plants and new lines to serve the power grid network. In addition, pending new legislation for CO2 containment is likely to add substantially to the cost of delivering rural electric power.

“There’s no affordable technology to capture CO2. And we can’t just assume we can pass along these additional costs to our rural consumers. The per capita income of our customers already runs below state averages,” Glaess said, adding that the recession is significantly impacting their electric customers. “Already nearly 30 percent of our customers are behind on their electrical bill payments.”

Challenge of costs

The challenge comes from increasing environmental mandates that only serve to drive the costs of electrical power higher. He said the current additional costs of air pollution reduction are 3.8 cents per kilowatt for Excel Energy. “That used to be the total cost of electricity.”

Glaess said that activists concerned about cleaner air and less disruption of the environment have a well-meaning agenda; his concern is the escalating costs of technologies that as yet are either unproven or unaffordable.

“Some are of the mindset that climate change is so cataclysmic that we must do anything and everything regardless the cost,” he said. “Others suggest the money generated through emission control be used as an offset against low-income customers. Plus the ongoing push for more money on renewable energy and conservation. Those solutions, well intentioned, are costing rate increases that today are especially difficult in view of our recession.”

So what is likely to happen in the political arena?

A “cap and trade” proposal on a state or regional basis is one thought. “But if you put a cap on CO2 emissions for Minnesota,” Glaess said, “it would raise electrical rates 17 percent and cause the loss of thousands of jobs.”

Are we running out of power?

Massoud Amin, University of Minnesota professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said “blackouts” across America are costing $100 billion per year. He maintains our state and nation’s power grid has been grossly neglected, particularly in view of rapidly increasing demands for electricity here and worldwide.

According to Amin, by 2020 there will be 30 cities worldwide with more than 10 million people, and by 2050 there will be nearly 60 such cities.

“Yet less than one-third of 1 percent of gross sales across America goes into research and development of a newer, smarter means of transmitting electrical power across the nation,” Amin said. “Will today’s electrical distribution system be left behind as a relic of the 20th century?”

Glaess talked of a national effort to establish regional electrical power systems with enough capacity to provide a 15 percent reserve in case of a blackout within any given region. “We’re going to dip below that 15 percent reserve this year. Some regions will soon be having brownouts and blackouts, leading to a rationing of electricity within three to five years. So without sounding like an alarmist, our nation’s electrical system is in danger,” he said.

He acknowledged that wind can play a growing role in electrical production even though wind and solar together represent less than 4 percent of our nation’s energy source today. With wind, however, is the need for more transmission lines.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Glaess said. “Coal-fired power plants will continue the low-cost electrical source indefinitely. But if by 2030, there are no more free allowances for carbon, Basin Electric will be hit with a $60 per ton tax on CO2 which essentially will be tripling wholesale costs of electricity.”

However, even coal is facing a finite future. Speaking at the same conference, Joe Shuster of New Prague — a chemical engineer for more than 50 years, author of “Beyond Fossil Fools,” and a high-tech energy entrepreneur who has testified before Congress in support of a national technology transfer program — said, “If we don’t fix our rapidly growing energy dilemma, our grandchildren will inherit a world in total chaos.”

Shuster said the United States has only three years left until all of its oil reserves are gone; 37 years for the world even when including 100 billion barrels not yet discovered. U.S. natural gas reserves will be exhausted in nine years, 63 years worldwide. Coal has 225 years until U.S. reserves are depleted; world reserves shrink to only 164 years partly because of rapid industrialization in China and India and the enormous new energy demands of these two nations.

Is answer unclear, or nuclear?

Shuster said new generation (fast neutron technology) nuclear energy plants are the only real solution to the growing energy concerns of the United States and the world.

“There simply is no other source to fill the gap. And it must happen now,” he said. “Unfortunately, I haven’t seen anything in the new stimulus package to upgrade our nuclear energy programs.”

According to the World Nuclear Association, the world has 441 operating reactors, 33 reactors under construction, 94 reactors planned for future construction and 222 proposed reactors. China has five reactors under construction, 30 planned and 86 proposed.

The United States has zero under construction, seven planned and 25 proposed but a political question mark. Nevertheless, we currently have more operating reactors than any other country (103 of the global total of 441).

Shuster indicated over 20 percent of U.S. electrical energy and 17 percent of world energy comes from nuclear power plants. France generates 78 percent of its electrical energy from 59 nuclear plants.

Despite the media and anti-nuclear activists, nuclear is by far the safest energy source. “Over the past 35 years there has not been a single nuclear-related death in America. The Three-Mile Island incident several years ago caused not a single death, not even a related health issue. In essence it was a non-event yet the media played it into a national concern that essentially put the brakes on modern nuclear development.”

Glaess said nuclear makes great sense, especially if you can use breeder reactors to recycle uranium. He said, “what comes out of the spent fuel rods still contains 97 percent of the nuclear energy. With new technology however these nuclear wastes would be avoided. Nuclear is relatively inexpensive and its greatest attribute is zero emissions. But the problem with nuclear is that it takes 15 to 20 years to build a new plant, and there continues to be great public resistance because of the issue of nuclear waste issue.

“However that’s a political problem, not an engineering problem. If you look at all the nuclear wastes that have been produced worldwide, it would fill a football field, maybe five or six stories high. Unfortunately movies like ‘The China Syndrome’ and rock ’n roll stars who engaged in anti-nuke concerts planted the seeds of doubt. Fortunately that attitude is finally changing, yet we still have a ban in Minnesota against any further nuclear development.”

Constant consumer education

How do Glaess and rural electric managers advise their customers, especially those already having difficulty paying their electric bills?

“Constant education to change consumer behavior, like less usage of clothes washers, dryers and dishwashers during peak 5-7 p.m. hours. Doing these chores later at night, or early morning better utilizes our base load electrical power,” he said. “So it’s a matter of teaching, which our cooperatives have been doing for the past 30 years. Years back we introduced ‘load control’ which allows us to control hot water heaters and air conditioners to the extent that we haven’t yet needed to build a 500 megawatt, $1.2 billion power plant.”

Are small (20 kilowatt to 39.5 kilowatt) on-farm wind turbines a partial answer to the growing squeeze on available electrical power? “The consumer has to ask if this is a reasonable cost-benefit investment. Wind is intermittent, and these smaller turbines have higher maintenance costs, plus the cost of the interconnection from turbine to your meter,” Glaess said. He sees more investment opportunity in locally owned wind farms involving 1 to 2 megawatt turbines.

He also sees greater potential for solar panels although at current costs of 25 to 30 cents per kilowatt hour, solar is expensive. He acknowledges a tradeoff likely to happen if costs of electricity — be it from coal-fired or nuclear-power plants — continues to escalate. “That gives rise to greater utilization of renewable energy resources, which drops that cost proportionally over time.”