This story is the second in a series of two that discusses changes in coal power and the rise of renewable energy. Read the first story here.
As coal power plants close, including the planned shutdown in 2022 of the largest in North Dakota—Coal Creek Station which is owned by Great River Energy—the question is continuing to fill power needs with a focus on renewable energy. The questions are not new as low natural gas prices along with the rise of wind power have impacted coal-fired electricity generation after coal capacity peaked and began declining in 2011, according to the United States Energy Information Association. And when the United States Department of Energy was formed in 1977, including the Western Area Power Administration and their hydroelectric dams, conservation was already a focus, according to the WAPA website.
These changes have lead to non-renewable and renewable energy mixes for electric utilities across the U.S. As a member cooperative of Great River Energy, Todd-Wadena Electric Cooperative has an energy mix of coal, natural gas, biomass, wind, open market purchases, hydropower, distributed energy resources and solar power as well as about 16% of their power from WAPA, according to TWEC’s website. The City of Wadena utilities department has two power suppliers, with about 60% purchased from WAPA and 40% from Missouri River Energy Services, according to utilities superintendent Dave Evans. The energy mix is hydroelectric, coal, fuel oil, diesel, natural gas, nuclear, solar and wind, according to Evans and the Missouri River website.
In Great River Energy’s planned closure of Coal Creek Station and switching to 63% wind power, TWEC President and CEO Dan Carlisle said TWEC’s board of directors questioned reliability, such as a possible lack of wind translating to a lack of power.
“I’ve heard this a million times, ‘If the wind isn’t blowing, you’re not going to be making electricity. If the sun isn’t shining you’re not going to be making electricity’ and that is very true,” Carlisle said. “However, Great River Energy when they say they’re going to be purchasing like 600 megawatts of contracted wind, they’ve taken into consideration what the efficiency and capacity factors will be.”
Both Evans and Carlisle agree, “Where the wind blows it’s always better,” as Evans said, which means the renewable energy may not be locally generated since sunlight and wind patterns positively impact productivity and efficiency in different states, such as solar panels as you go south and wind turbines in southwestern Minnesota or Nebraska.
“Minnesota is not California. Minnesota is not Hawaii,” Carlisle said. “You’re not going to get the same level of productivity and efficiency as you would in California located here in Central Minnesota.”
One of the most-discussed benefits of increasing renewable energy is a reduction in greenhouse emissions such as carbon dioxide, which largely comes from fossil fuels, according to the EIA.
With goals like this in mind, the Minnesota Legislature passed the Renewable Energy Objective in 2001 with requirements for electric utilities to purchase or generate power from solar, wind, hydroelectric, hydrogen and biomass sources, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce and the Minnesota Legislature website. In 2007, the REO expanded to a Renewable Energy Standard with specific goals, including 25% renewables by 2025 for utilities without a nuclear generating facility and 30% for those with one, according to the MDC and Minnesota Legislature.
"It’s not going to be a goal anymore, it's going to be a reality."
- Dan Carlisle
The Clean Energy First Act was also introduced in the House in 2019 with the goal of 100% carbon-free energy in Minnesota by 2050.
Evans said the city of Wadena utilities department’s power is 64% renewables and 90% carbon-free as of 2020.
“I feel we’re ahead of the game on most of that just because of the amount of hydro that we get already,” Evans said. “I would like to see us maybe hit 70 or 80%. I’m not sure if we can get to that point but that would be nice.”
As of 2019, TWEC’s power is 25% renewable and their power purchased from Great River is 29% carbon-free, Carlisle said. Both the city of Wadena and TWEC do not have specific future renewable goals due to their current percentages.
“It’s not going to be a goal anymore, it's going to be a reality,” Carlisle said. “(By 2025) we’re going to be close to 70% renewable with the wind, hydro.”
TWEC and the city of Wadena also joined programs that offer customers 100% renewable energy through contracts with their energy suppliers. TWEC joined the Wellspring solar and wind energy programs in 2002, where members can purchase 100 kilowatt hour blocks or their estimated monthly usage, according to Carlisle. The wind program is $0.51 per block and the solar is $2 per block, according to TWEC’s website.
About five months ago, the city of Wadena began offering the Energy Choices program where 30% of an opted-in customers’ electric bill has an additional charge of $0.05 per kilowatt hour, according to Evans. The power comes from wind, solar or other renewable sources. Evans said an average home in the summer uses about 1,500-2,000 kilowatt hours.
The smaller charges allow customers to easily join the programs rather than pay a larger sum for their own systems and possibly change their mind on them in a few years or have a system failure, as Evans said. The charges are still an additional cost, though, which Evans said may not be possible for customers currently due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Your renewable energy does cost more than carbon-type sources, but at some point it is going to get cheaper."
- Dave Evans
The city of Wadena participates in the program, including the parks, campgrounds and buildings, according to Evans.
“It really makes it easy for residents and businesses of the city of Wadena to be 100% renewable without having to buy solar panels or put up wind towers,” Evans said. “The price is much cheaper, that extra half a cent, you’d never be able to put up and maintain any type of a solar or wind energy system of your own for that kind of money.”
As the U.S. moves from coal power to natural gas and renewables, Evans noted the future price stability of renewable energy.
“Right now if you’re relying on natural gas or coal lots of factors can affect the price of their raw material … where the renewables once you have them in place you kind of you know what your cost is going to be and it’s going to be more stable,” Evans said. “It’s a little bit higher priced right now, your renewable energy does cost more than carbon-type sources, but at some point it is going to get cheaper, and I believe it will be more stable.”
Local renewable energy resources:
Zengery in Sebeka: www.zenergyguide.com/; 218-837-5155
Renewable Natural Energies in Staples: 218-639-5683
Rural Renewable Energy Alliance in Backus: www.rreal.org/; 218-947-3779