A Life-Changing Talk Leads to an Energy Plan
Like many people, I want to do what I can to live more sustainably and to reduce my carbon footprint and dependence on fossil fuels. But once you get past the obvious stuff (changing light bulbs, adding insulation), the next step – and the one after that – is not always clear.
That’s what I wanted to know when I attended a seminar at the U of M called “Energy from Renewables: Confronting Global Collapse” in October 2016.
That event changed my life. Here’s why.
After morning sessions explaining the seriousness and immediacy of the climate problem, we heard from Mark Jacobson, director of the Atmosphere and Energy Program at Stanford University. In his lunchtime speech, he made a strong case for immediate and deep “decarbonization” (greenhouse gas reduction) by shifting to 80% renewable energy by 2030 – that’s 12 years.
With near-record-low arctic sea ice and a world-record-high springtime temp of 122°F last week in the city of Nawabshah, Pakistan, the urgency of that shift has never been greater. Jacobson’s work with the global Solutions Project provides a clear two-step plan to kick fossil fuels to the curb.
- Clean up electricity
- Electrify everything
Jacobson and his colleagues at the Solutions Project have crafted a plan to bring 139 countries to 100% renewable wind, water and solar by 2050. See what they propose.
Where is Minnesota When it Comes to Cleaning Up Our Electricity?
According to J. Drake Hamilton of Fresh Energy, we’ve made tremendous progress on this front:
- Clean, renewable energy increased from 7% of our energy supply in 2006 to 25% in 2017.
- In the process, 57,000 clean energy jobs were created; many of which exceeded the state’s average wage.
- In 2017 alone, Minnesota added enough solar power for 53,000 homes.
- Statewide productivity (GDP) increased even as electricity use remained about the same from 2007 to 2016.
- And we can celebrate that 12 coal-burning power plants will be retired in our state.
More good news comes from Xcel Energy. According to Hamilton, they’ve already reduced carbon emissions by 30% since 2005. They will have reduced emissions 45% by 2021, and they have a business goal of 60% carbon reduction by 2030.
That’s real progress, but there are some challenges. Wind is going strong and solar installations at the utility or large commercial scale are going up, but there are roadblocks for residential and community solar gardens and that could have a negative impact on local clean energy jobs.
While the economics of solar are strong, I don’t believe we are out of the woods. Our government continues to heavily subsidize oil and gas production, and to underfund and under-incentivize renewables like solar. We need to keep pushing our legislators to commit to and protect our clean energy economy, or our homegrown renewable energy companies – and their jobs – will suffer.
Step 1: Make Your Own Clean Energy at Home
Solar is an investment in your future – and your children’s future. The price of solar panels has fallen precipitously since 2012. It IS possible for many people to do their part by creating their own clean, renewable energy to feed into the grid (or to go off-line with batteries).
It’s a bit early to say what will happen with panel prices following the president’s tariff on and trade war with China, but most of the cost of solar panels is in the installation, not the panels themselves. Before you write off rooftop solar, talk to a solar company and get the facts.
Take a look at the information provided by the MN Department of Commerce. You’ll find an app that can help you determine if your home is suitable for a solar installation. It also provides a link to a database of state and federal financial incentives that can drastically reduce the cost of solar for your home or business.
With 3.8 million residents in the Twin Cities, imagine what we could do if all the homes that could take advantage of solar technologies did so.
What We Did to Create Clean Energy
- First we signed up for Windsource. We pay extra every month to help our utility company install more wind power, but it’s only a few bucks more. Most people can afford to do this.
- Then we installed 12 solar electric panels. This April they produced 350 killawatt hours of energy while offsetting 533 pounds of carbon. It was a snowy winter, but they’ve produced 893 kWh so far this year. (To put that in context, the typical MN home uses 800 kWh a month.)
- Then we installed solar hot air, which has kept us toasty warm.
- We purchased some affordable, small-scale solar technologies for charging phones and other battery-operated technologies as well as a Solavore solar cooker to cook meals on sunny days and when camping, avoiding the use of fossil fuels altogether. You can even build a box cooker yourself!
We Can Help Others Clean Up Their Energy
We have a small roof and couldn’t put up as many panels as we need to offset all our electricity usage for four adults so we invested in a community solar garden. While we waited through several years of political wrangling between our state and Xcel Energy, the project we invested in was sold; the new company was terrible; the project fell through.
We’d still like to invest in solar on a community scale. It’s a new model in our area and it’s been a rollercoaster ride, but it fits our goals to support local, renewable energy and to create local jobs that keep dollars in our local economy. I will be looking to CERT to help me make a decision about a solar garden.
While we’re at it, we’d like to help people in developing nations (or hard-hit Puerto Rico) access cleaner energy. We’re fans of the BioLite Company, which has a unique business model. Products sold in developed nations for solar charging and outdoor recreational cooking fund the development and distribution of products to bring light, power and much cleaner cooking technology to people in developing nations.
Step 2: Electrify Everything
Electric power is more efficient that combustion power. For example, an electric car is 85% efficient compared to a gas-powered car that uses 20% or less of its energy to actually move the vehicle. And according to an article in Forbes, we’d save 13% of all the energy worldwide if we’d just stop mining, transporting and refining fossil fuels.
Electrification also achieves “emissions efficiency” – doing the same amount of work with fewer greenhouse gases.
Here’s Where My Life Changed
When Mark Jacobson said we needed to electrify everything, I knew I had a plan. Where are the fossil fuels in my life and what end-use technologies are available to help us shift to electricity?
When we did our home remodeling project four years ago, we made the shift from a gas stove to an induction cooktop/convection oven. Cooking fuel ✓
In the kitchen remodel, we added a hot-water-on-demand spigot to our sink. This was inexpensive and is powered by electricity. This year we had to replace our water heater. We looked at tankless whole-house water heaters but most were gas powered and our electrician had nothing good to say about the electric ones. Ultimately we chose a glass-lined, super-insulated electric water heater with a warranty for our lifetime. Added bonus, it’s a source for an emergency water supply. Hot water heating fuel ✓
It was an expensive year last year. We also replaced our furnace. We’ve looked at high-efficiency wood-burning stoves but were told by the fireplace store that they do not work well in a basement – and furthermore, without an easy source for wood it’s not sustainable.
We know we can’t afford to add geothermal. We seriously looked at heat pump technology, interviewing a friend who had made that switch. We didn’t choose it because it would make our already cold basement even colder.
Instead, we chose a high-efficiency natural gas furnace that direct vents to the outside, solving a back-drafting problem we had experienced with our older furnace. We are told a high efficiency furnace does not last as long as older models. Our hope is that there are new technologies heading for market. Home heating fuel ✗
Yes, we have a clothes dryer. It’s old and we do use clothes lines to dry all year round. The decision we’ve made so far is to keep it until it breaks, then switch to electric if we feel we need it (but maybe we don’t). Dryer fuel ☐
We switched to an electric lawn mower two years ago and love it, though cord management can be a challenge. Lawn mower ✓
We tried an electric snow blower, too, but found it underpowered for heavy snowfalls and a corner lot with lots of sidewalks and a big parking area. If we need to give up our gas snow blower, we’ll have to hunt high and low for someone to shovel. Snow blower fuel ✗
From my research, it appears it’s better to keep an old car with okay mileage than to buy a new car because of the energy and environmental costs of manufacturing and putting it in the waste stream. We should use it as little as possible. Auto fuel ☐
When we do get rid of it, mass transit and an Hour Car membership seem like the best way to go. Hour Car has partnered with Xcel to convert their entire fleet to electric cars by 2020.
In the meantime, there is work to be done encouraging the addition of more charging stations in our state. Stay up to date on electric car issues with PlugIn Connect.
Make Electricity Work Better
If the grid goes down, so do we. Our solar panels can’t be used in case of emergency, which is a real shame. With battery prices dropping, it’s time to investigate a solar powered electric backup system. We saw new technologies at the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair. Add it to the list.
What’s your plan to Electrify Everything?
Now you’ve seen what we considered as we faced recent energy choices. What could you do to support the creation of clean energy? How can you make the switch to electrifying everything?