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Benefits of renewables

Published October 31, 2022

Written by Akia Vang and Austin Northagen

Renewable energy has become more prevalent and integrated into the grid over the past few years– and is expected to become more abundant in the years to come. In Minnesota, the share of renewable energy generation has grown steadily over time, from 16 percent in 2016 to 29 percent in 2021. However, general concerns persist that when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, renewables will not generate enough electricity to meet our everyday needs. Some also worry that the cost to transition to renewable energy will cause electricity bills to increase due to new construction and maintenance costs. The purpose of this blog post is to dispel some misconceptions and to showcase how renewable energy can be a reliable source of electricity generation, lower costs for consumers, and provide public health benefits. 

Reliability  

Those concerned with the implementation of renewable energy resources often point to a perceived lack of reliability as the primary flaw in their operation. While it is true that renewable energy resources—specifically wind and solar—are intermittent resources and do not generate electricity on demand like fossil fuels, they still provide effective contributions to the electricity grid and can be especially valuable sources of energy during high peak times. One example comes from this summer’s heat wave in Texas. An unusually early heat wave caused many homes and businesses in Texas to turn up their air conditioners, increasing energy demand and the risk of grid failure and blackouts. However, wind and solar energy performed exceptionally well. Energy derived from renewable resources contributed to 25% of Texas’ energy demand, and 50% of that demand was supported by natural gas. In fact, having a more diverse system of energy resources increases overall reliability because there are more generation options available if one generation resource is not producing to its full capacity. 

In addition, battery storage technology, which can be used to store electricity generated from renewable resources, is becoming cheaper and more prevalent in utility planning. For example, Xcel Energy recently issued a request for proposals for a solar and storage project in Minnesota. The cost to deploy utility scale battery storage has dropped dramatically in recent years and is expected to continue to drop due to incentives passed in the Inflation Reduction Act.

These examples demonstrate that renewable energy cannot only be reliable when electricity demand is at its highest, but that battery storage technology can help store electricity for when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Moreover, when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, renewables continue to produce a quarter of the electricity generated in the midwest. 

Costs 

Another primary benefit of renewable energy is the ability to stabilize energy prices against the rising costs of fossil fuels. For instance, the price of natural gas is dependent upon the market.  As seen most recently from Winter Storm Uri in February 2021, and in sustained high natural gas prices recently, when the price of gas skyrockets, that cost is generally passed through onto customers. This cost structure leaves customers vulnerable to unpredictable and costly market fluctuations. (Though some blamed frozen windmills in Texas as the reason for blackouts during Winter Storm Uri, Texas’s problems were more related to a lack of planning for cold temperatures than an overreliance on fossil fuels. Minnesota’s windmills are winterized such that they operate effectively through the coldest temperatures we experience here.) However, integrating more solar and wind energy into the electricity grid helps alleviate reliance on fossil fuel generation resources. Because they require no fuels, the price of solar and wind power remains consistent and is not subject to the kinds of price fluctuations that affect gas and coal. 

As recognized above, an example of renewable energy keeping costs low for customers was seen this summer in Texas. Gas and coal plants had to purchase fuel at unusually high prices due to unstable market conditions this year. But consumers did not feel the brunt of those unusually high prices because wind and solar energy were “acting as a hedge against high fuel prices.” As a consequence, customers experienced relatively flat electricity rates and saw minimal increases even in the face of rising fuel prices. More locally, in Minnesota, Connexus Energy has not increased rates in the previous five years in part because of a large-scale solar and battery energy storage project. Connexus Energy was able to accomplish this because the cost to install solar and storage was cheaper than buying energy generated from fossil fuels available from the grid, particularly during peak use hours. 

Consumer Solar Options

Many consumers who would like to go beyond the solar energy supplied by their utility can do so through rooftop or community solar. While many customers may be hesitant to finance rooftop solar, the cost of the system can be partly or even entirely offset by the immediate reduction in monthly electricity bills. A policy called “net-metering” allows consumers to receive a credit back from the utility if their rooftop solar system produces more electricity than the household consumes. Federal tax credits can also provide consumers with a 30% rebate for rooftop solar. 

As for community solar, if a consumer enrolls in a community solar garden, it allows them to experience some of the same benefits of rooftop solar without the cost of installing the equipment. To participate, Xcel Energy customers can contact a local community solar developer directly and subscribe to a community solar garden in an approved service area served by the utility. Some other utilities offer community solar options directly to their customers. After a consumer subscribes to a community solar garden, their monthly electricity bill will be reduced through credits on their bill that reflects the amount of solar production from their solar subscription. How a subscriber pays for their community solar subscription can vary, but subscribers often pay a separate subscription fee to the community solar garden. (If you’re considering it, read more in CUB’s Consumer Guide to Community Solar.)

Public Health  

Fossil fuel sources such as coal and natural gas historically have a long list of adverse health impacts associated with them. The combustion of fossil fuel releases toxic chemicals, air pollutants, and other byproducts harmful to both human health and the environment. Many communities located around coal plants know this firsthand as the health effects are materialized in lung diseases, increased asthmatic rates, and higher premature death rates. Many studies and reviews, such as one by Duke University School of Medicine, have shown time and time again that there are negative health impacts directly caused by fossil fuel energy sources. In addition to that, coal ash waste that results from the coal generation pollutes the environment by making air unhealthy to breathe and water unsanitary to consume. Even far away from power plants, natural gas (also a fossil fuel) delivered to homes via pipes is capable of causing significant harm. The combustion of natural gas for heating releases air pollutants into the home that can exacerbate asthma and lead to various respiratory complications.

While no energy source has zero impact on health and the environment, solar and wind power generate electricity with processes that do not pollute the local water, soil, or atmosphere. As photovoltaic panels and wind turbines do not utilize fuel combustion in the power generation process, the harmful effects of fossil fuel derived air pollutants are removed. This makes them safer and healthier energy sources. Although there are certain issues specifically related to wind and solar such as mining for critical mineral components or hazards for flying birds, that does not mean that renewables should be disregarded. Fossil fuel resources have comprised most of the energy we have historically used and we have seen the consequences of what that can do to the environment whereas renewable energy sources have had a less environmental impact. These renewable energy resources and their technology will require further innovation and engaged policy design to ensure that harmful impacts are minimized while uplifting the benefits that they already do provide and expanding beyond that.  

Aside from direct public health benefits, there are several instances in which renewables can work hand in hand with many sectors for dual benefits. Agrivoltaics is one such instance where crops can be planted along rows of solar panels. This system can generate electricity while simultaneously providing shade that reduces water usage for the production of food. Similarly, this scenario works as well for prairie restorations that increase biodiversity and much needed pollinator services. A number of Minnesota state agencies already have guidelines for best practices for the integration of solar and habitat for optimal use of the land and for yield of benefits. 

Overall, Minnesotans have benefited and will continue to benefit from integrating renewable energies into the grid. With changing climate conditions, this work towards a more sustainable and diverse energy system will be vital to ensuring public health and other benefits. More integration of renewable energy will create more energy generation options, thus improving reliability while generating lower-cost energy for consumers from carbon-free sources. Renewable energy is expected to grow in the coming years in Minnesota, and consumers will continue to benefit as it does.  

Author: Austin Northagen

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