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Energy and climate division discusses how far, fast to shift toward renewables

If Ned Mohan’s vision becomes reality, the sun and wind will create all of our electricity, and that electricity will be powering our cars.

A professor in the University of Minnesota Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mohan briefed the House Energy and Climate Finance and Policy Division Thursday on his vision for slowing climate change.

Mohan gave a brief tutorial on how electric power systems work, emphasizing the limits of fossil fuels like coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear (which requires uranium) for electric generation. But he said the larger issue in the climate debate is motor vehicles.

“Transportation has really taken over the carbon footprint from the electric power sector,” Mohan said. “That’s because much of our electric generation has shifted from coal to natural gas … And the footprint of natural gas is about half that of coal.

“Half of our energy in Minnesota comes from coal and gas,” Mohan said, “but our state is also more nuclear than most. We’re one of the few states to have two nuclear plants (near Red Wing and Monticello). … About 23 percent of our electric power is supplied by nuclear.”

Mohan spoke of how current operational generating stations could be converted to wind or solar, or how customers at the other end of the power stream could convert their homes to rooftop solar.

“Unfortunately, rooftop solar is still very costly,” he said. However, he is optimistic prices will go down as volume increases. “We have this tremendous federal tax credit of 30 percent (for rooftop solar installation). But that goes away in 2019.

“Storage is the missing link, and it’s hard to imagine that we can reach 100 percent renewable without that. But you can have a goal of 100 percent and, if you get to 90 percent, that’s good,” Mohan said. “… We have wind like crazy from our neighboring states of North Dakota and South Dakota. So Minnesota is the best place to be during climate change.”

Joining Mohan were Mark Ahlstrom, vice president of renewable energy policy at NextEra Energy Resources, a wholesale electricity supplier, and Jukka Kukkonen, founder of PlugInConnect, who espoused the benefits of electric vehicles.

Ahlstrom said he’s optimistic about the move toward renewables.

“It’s really only over the past 20 years that we’ve gone in deep on renewables,” Ahlstrom said, “so we’ve made great progress. And now they’re fully embedded as reliable power plants. … The new plants we’re putting in, be they wind, solar or storage, are state of the art ... I strongly believe that, with the current equipment we have, we could get to 80 percent clean energy quite easily, and at a lower cost than we’re paying today.”

As for the move away from fossil fuels for transportation, Kukkonen spoke of the rise in sales of electric vehicles — a sevenfold increase since 2012 — and the move toward at-home charging.

“The same way that cellphones have changed the way we communicate,” Kukkonen said, “electric vehicles will change how much energy we have to expend for our transportation.”

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