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How Minnesota could economically reach 70 percent renewable electricity

PHOTO BY Tony Webster / Creative Commons

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A November report suggests overbuilding wind and solar capacity could be cheaper than energy storage.

A recent report from Minnesota pollution regulators shows the state is making progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but it isn’t doing enough to keep pace with its long-term goals or stop catastrophic climate change.

As a new administration takes office this week, its predecessors leave it with at least one blueprint for closing those gaps. It requires no new technologies but a dramatic shift in thinking about how the electric system is managed.

The Minnesota Department of Commerce, clean energy advocates, and all the state’s major utilities over the past three years developed the Solar Potential Analysis Report. (Fresh Energy, which publishes the Energy News Network, was among the stakeholders that participated in the process.)

The report, published in November, concludes that Minnesota could get 70 percent of its electricity from wind and solar by 2050 at no additional cost compared to natural gas. Instead of batteries to balance the variable generation, it suggests that overbuilding wind and solar capacity would be more economical. The model calls for reaching up to 22 gigawatts capacity each for wind and solar power.

Cost-effective is one thing, but it wouldn’t be easy. Utilities would have to invest in renewables well beyond their likely comfort level. New payment models for clean energy would have to be created. Consumers would have to change behaviors and program appliances for night use, employ electric water heaters and charge electric cars overnight.

“This would require utilities to ramp up even more than what they said they were going to do and overshoot the mark,” said Brian Ross, senior program director for the Great Plains Institute and one of the report’s authors. “We did not identify the mechanisms by which this would happen.”

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on January 9, 2019

If Minnesota does do this, it will be one to watch. The strategy of intentionally overbuilding-- I think I understand the point on a logical level, but I feel like it also poses risks for the clean energy movement if it doesn't work out and it scares off other regions from investing. I believe there was an article on here recently about that strategy taking place in Georgetown TX and when it cost short-term losses it allowed critics to pounce. 

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