Politics & Policy

The ‘Thoughtful Path’ to Renewable Energy

“Global warming” in the land of 10,000 lakes (Jakub Cejpek/Dreamstime)
Environmentalist politicians propose to make Minnesota fossil-fuel free. But how?

Sometimes the pull quote is a handy way of telling you “move along here, nothing to see.” If the quote says “Despite centuries of myths and legends, Unicorns have never been photographed” and the title of the piece is “It’s time to stop thinking Unicorns might exist,” you get the pith. But if the quote says “Rogue wood kills more people annually than skillets” and the title is “Bushes and Birches and Elms, Oh My: The Increasing Menace of Feral Trees,” you’re curious. In my paper was a quote that straddled the two extremes:

At first glance, you know what you’re dealing with: someone who wants everyone pedaling to work like it’s Amsterdam, and wants endless rows of whooshing bird-mincing wind turbines arrayed along the land pumping a trickle of electricity to small houses with solar-panel roofs and twelve-square-foot backyards, half of which is a compost pit of slimy carrot peelings.

Or not? Could it be someone who wants to build a half-dozen nuclear power plants? Some can-do futurist with a cheerful faith in technology, smiling at America’s knack for know-how? Radioactive waste? Aw, relax, Poindexter. We can store it in a mountain until we develop a big enough rail gun to shoot it into the sun. Let’s start crackin’ atoms!

No. The author, Minnesota state senator John Marty, believes we must turn away from the moral stain of carbon, because otherwise people in Kansas will be standing on tiptoe to avoid rising seas. From the article:

‘Severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems,” will occur unless we aggressively address climate change, according to a draft of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

I don’t know how you can argue with a report from a panel that’s not just governmental but intergovernmental, and is the latest, and is a draft. Makes Moses’s tablets look like a dry-erase board. Onward:

As a recent report on Minnesota’s energy policy reminds us, our energy future is a matter of choice, not fate. If we plan ahead, we can end our state’s costly reliance on fossil fuels, making it an opportunity to build a better future.

To move us forward, I authored a law designed to formulate a thoughtful path to make Minnesota the first state in the nation to transition to a 100 percent renewable-energy economy, eliminating use of fossil fuels.

One hundred percent fossil-fuel free. How? Law! O sweet wise law, with its dazzling thoughtful-path formulations. The op-ed has no details on the Thoughtful Path, but the author notes:

Not only are the costs of unmitigated climate change almost unimaginable, but in immediate impacts, Minnesota’s economy burns through $18 billion every year to import fossil fuels.

I imagine the state burns through tons of money to import furniture and oranges as well. It’s an interesting figure, this $18 billion; googling around, I found this:

At a legislative hearing on energy, Marty Kushler, Senior Fellow at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, told legislators that while Minnesotans regularly debate the impact on the economy of the $18 billion in taxes that pay for the state general fund budget, they are largely unaware of the $13 billion that Minnesotans spend to import coal, oil, natural gas and other fossil fuels.

I’d send that figure to Senator Marty, but that’s from an article he wrote for another publication.

Anyhoo, let’s split the diff and say it’s $15.5 billion, and the economy of the state and the fate of the earth would be just jake if the money was spent on solar and wind, including small pinwheels on the back of cows to generate energy from all the methane flatulence. This is money that individuals spend, right? It’s not as if a fat plutocrat from a Thomas Nast cartoon shows up once a year at the state capitol, takes his watch from his waistcoat, and says “Reckon it’s time you settle up, boys. Eighteen billion, cash on the barrelhead.” No, it’s individuals spending money on silly non-essentials like gasoline.

STOP DOING THAT! Here, take the thoughtful path. Spend your gas money on . . . what, exactly? There has to be some transition point where every car in the state is exchanged for one that runs on compressed air or electricity or Fred Flintstone–feet or a rubber-band wound really tight. This wouldn’t destroy the gasoline-based convenience-store industry, it would revitalize it: Like days of yore, men in smart uniforms would spring from the store the moment you ran over the ding-ding! rope, and say “Wind ’er up, sir?”

Tractors and other pieces of farm equipment, currently using planet-hating fuels, would presumably transition to non-fossil-fuel engines. They could use ethanol, derived from corn, to drive the machines that plant corn. If we can spend some of those billions on new strains of fast-growing corn, the tractors could actually be powered by planting corn, turning around to harvest it and converting it to fuel, then repeating the action in the next furrow, and so on. And if 100 percent of the annual corn crop was devoted to powering the machinery that made corn possible? Perfect! Not a drop of waste!

If the state had to import corn for any other purpose, it could come in ships plying the Great Lakes, their tall masts and billowing sails a sign of our new economy. It’s not just the fossil-free ships that made our economy boon — it was the schools that popped up to teach rigging and knots, and teach sailors the skills needed to do a hornpipe jig to while away the hours when the winds died and the ship was becalmed.

Why must we do this? Because the people around the globe demand action, and you can’t dispute the wisdom of global-people action.

Across the globe, people are beginning to demand change. On Sunday, in support of the United Nations Climate Summit, activists and everyday citizens are planning the largest climate action in history, with coordinated rallies around the globe — from New York City to Cape Town, Riyadh to Reykjavik, Helsinki to Hong Kong — demonstrating support for bold international solutions.

Which of these cities is not like the other? Right. Google “Riyadh Climate March” and you get stats for the weather between February and April. Saudis demonstrating for a fossil-fuel future is Hugh Hefner leading a rally to impose the Burqa.

As for the Thoughtful Path, I wish I could spell it out. I looked through the bill linked to in one of the senator’s essays, and found no clear route to a 100 percent fossil-free future. Subsidies, though. Encouragements. Regulations. When it came to the Sec. 41, the “TRANSMISSION FOR FUTURE RENEWABLE ENERGY STANDARD,” there’s an instructive compendium of the hoops through which future electricity generation must leap:

As part of the planning process, the Minnesota electric utilities and transmission companies must incorporate and build upon the analyses that have previously been done or that are in progress including but not limited to the 2006 Minnesota Wind Integration Study and ongoing work to address geographically dispersed development plans, the 2007 Minnesota Transmission for Renewable Energy Standard Study, the 2008 and 2009 Statewide Studies of Dispersed Renewable Generation, the 2009 Minnesota RES Update, Corridor, and Capacity Validation Studies, the 2010 Regional Generation Outlet Study, the 2011 Multi Value Project Portfolio Study, and recent and ongoing Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator transmission expansion planning work.

Translation: brownouts. Well, we can always light candles. The wicks may exhale the devil’s breath, but at least the carbon doesn’t come from fossils.

In the interests of full disclosure, an admission: I was bought and paid for by Texaco, inasmuch as my father distributed their products. He continues to drive around the state of North Dakota in a large truck, delivering lubricants and fuels to places like small airports that have not yet converted their plane engines to warp drive. He is 86 and can parallel park a double-tank gas transport; he also drives a fossil-fuel powered Harley. Practically a war criminal, I know, but I love him.

Yet family loyalty would be thrown to the wind — the gentle, nurturing, sustainable wind — if I could get a car with perky pickup that drove a week on a charge from a plug powered by a nuclear plant glowing red as it pumped out too-cheap-to-meter juice. I’d be perfectly happy paying a nickel to drive 40 miles, and it would be nice not to pay the 47 cents-per-gallon tax that makes the state’s take about 45 cents more than the gas station gets.

But wouldn’t that be unpatriotic? There would have to be a tax to make the electric-car supply the same amount of revenue. You can’t tax the sun, of course; that’s absurd.

A Photon Capture Levy, though: that would work.

— James Lileks is a columnist for National Review Online.

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