‘Renewable Energy, It’s Not for You’: A Critique of Public Utilities’ Approach to Renewables

Reader Contribution by Toby Grotz
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Governor Evers addresses the Summit. Photo by Toby Grotz

The RENEW 2019 Renewable Energy Summit was held at the Monona Terrace conference center in Madison, Wisconsin. The building is on the shores of Lake Monona and was was inspired by the Frank Lloyd Wright 1955 Night Rooftop Rendering and design of a gathering space as shown in the drawing below. This futuristic vision and space was the ideal location for a conference on renewable energy.

At the Summit, a strange and distorted message emanated from some of the invited speakers. It seems that the current approach of the utilities is “Hey! We got this! We’re building solar and wind because — why?”

The so-called “public utilities” — a term in code often meaning not public, but rather investor-owned — want to keep a centralized and controlled energy system without rooftop solar on your house so they can pay, in the case of Xcel Energy, their CEO $12 million a year and the next four men under him $2 million each a year and pay stock dividends to investors on Wall Street. Xcel Energy President for Wisconsin and Michigan announced during the RENEW conference that Xcel will be fossil free by 2050. The promise was light on details, and I walked away with the impression that the utility does not currently have a committed plan to achieve the goal.

The Good, The Bad, and the Hopelessly Dirty

My criticism comes from having heard promises like this from power companies over the years: They’re the good guys now, even though they opposed emission-monitoring on coal plants, the addition of precipitators to remove coal fly ash, the addition of scrubbers to remove sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide, and the addition of carbon injection into flue gas to remove mercury. They fought every suggestion to make their fossil fuel plants safe*.

Not only does burning coal release mercury, lead, and arsenic, but also uranium and radioactive isotopes of other elements measured in a coal ash analysis at 4 to 10 parts million, which means fossil fuel technology is operating using many ways that threaten our communities. Now that the United States has been blanketed with mercury and heavy metals from coal plants, with one externality being that pregnant women are advised against eating freshwater fish in Wisconsin and other states, all of a sudden utilities champion efforts for clean energy and a reduction of carbon emissions.

Currently, the public utilities do not have a safe and cost-effective method of generating energy except for wind and solar. Nuclear, of course, is the most dangerous of all ways to generate power. Coal plants have wreaked havoc on the environment with their toxic emissions and CO2 contributions to greenhouse gasses and natural gas power plants result in methane emissions that are 86 times more potent over 20 years than CO2.

The most egregious logic I heard during the conference, during a time when facts often don’t matter, came from the Chair of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, Ellen Novak (below left) and State Representative Mike Kuglitsch (below right, R- Assembly District 84).

Appointed by Governor Scott Walker, and outspoken climate change denier, Ms. Novak suggested several times that “government needs to get out of the way” on the path to clean, safe, reliable energy generation and distribution.

‘Science is Back’?

It is striking that the Public Service Commission (PSC) of Wisconsin has no technical expertise on the board — not an engineer or physicist in sight. One of the eyebrow-raising moments of the RENEW conference came when Governor Evers addressed the gathering. One of the most significant statements made by any candidate post-election was the Governor’s saying that “Science is back.” Let’s hope that the next appointment to the PSC is a scientist or engineer with expertise in energy and infrastructure.

Getting government out of the way was also a message repeated several times by Mr. Kuglitsch. By this time, some members of the audience were squirming and agitated. Although they remained polite, most of us heard the mantra repeated several times during the day that getting government out of the way was an answer to rapid development of renewable energy. The irony here is that government has been out of the way ever since the municipal power companies were buried by the investor-owned utilities and Public Service Commissions and state and federal regulatory agencies were stuffed with fossil-fuel industry staff.

Cities and towns that own, operate and maintain their roads and bridges, water supply, sewer and sanitation systems also used to own, operate, and maintain electric generation and distribution.The companies that buried the municipal utilities and opposed renewable energy now want to profit from renewables and control the market, because the cost has come down to the point that they can maintain their monopolies and make the enormous amounts of money on the backs of their customers that they were able to do in the era of cheap coal.

The utility industry has a talking points list that promotes the concept of a mix of sources. This was promulgated by Ms. Nowak and Mr. Kuglitsch, who both mentioned nuclear, coal, natural gas and renewables. This mix is touted as being safe, reliable, and of reasonable cost. We know that the most dangerous, not so safe source, is nuclear. This is followed by coal which, along with petroleum, has resulted in dumping 200 million years’ worth of stored carbon into the atmosphere in only 200 years. We know this has led us lead toward catastrophic climate changes long before the 2050 goal Xcel has set for zero carbon emission.

Avoiding catastrophic climate change will require violation of the mantra of no government involvement and requires the government to mandate that industry come up with a way to cut emission to zero by 2030 or lose their charter to do business in the State of Wisconsin.

I’ve worked in coal, gas, and nuclear power plants and for the companies that design and build them. During a breakout session on Utility-Scale Solar and Wind, concern was expressed about the negative comments circulating in social media and on certain networks about renewable energy. I’ve heard from purveyors of fear over the years stating that there is a “war on coal”, and pushing out fiction (“volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans and trees pollute”) about renewable energy. From the C-suites on down in the utility and fossil fuel industry comes the negative information that is fed into social media and into the networks.

Demanding a Renewable Energy Future Now

We can’t wait for the government or industry to get it right.  We must demand that plans be made to convert to renewable energy by 2030 or sooner. If renewable energy is for the power companies and not for you, they will maintain their monopoly while dragging their feet to lessen the impact of climate change. You can fight back. Get your own solar system. MOTHER EARTH NEWS has been at the forefront of this effort since it’s inception. Find more information here. You can take a solar energy design classes at the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, get involved with community solar efforts, and help build a sustainable future.

Long before there were power companies and coal companies, Sitting Bull described the men who would run them saying, “They make rules the rich may break, and the poor may not. The love of possession is a disease with them.”

Sitting Bull by artist Elliot Meadows as shown at theViva Gallery.

References:

The Last Energy War, Harvey Wasserman, Seven Stories Press in association with Open Media, 1999.

 “SHAM? SHAME! Inside the Electric Power Industry”, Jack Casazza, American Education Institute, 2001.

 Xcel Executive Compensation PDF, see page 41.

We Only Have One Chance to Get It Right: Transition to Renewable Energy, MOTHER EARTH NEWS

OSHA cites Xcel for electrical explosion at Sherco, Star Tribune.

Toby Grotz is an electrical engineer who has been involved on both sides of the energy equation: exploring for oil and gas and geothermal resources and in the utility industry working in coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants. He has been a community garden advocate and organizer ever since. Recent projects include lecturing for the Food Not Lawns classes sponsored by the University of Missouri, Kansas City Communiversity. He is a member of the Sierra Club and past officer of the Kanza Group. Read all of Toby’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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