WRITTEN BY: Leigh Currie, Energy Program Director
I just registered for the St. Paul Winter Carnival’s jigsaw puzzle competition in January. Yep, competitive puzzling is totally my jam. At least I think it will be, I’ve never done it before. But any competition that involves a training regimen of getting together with girlfriends, drinking wine, and doing puzzles has got to be awesome. If you want to follow our success, my team’s name is “double tap”--named for the satisfying double tap of the fingers on the puzzle when you successfully land a piece.
There is such satisfaction in seeing a jigsaw puzzle come together, and I’m hoping that an even deeper sense of satisfaction will be a reality when the chaotic puzzle pieces that currently make up our rapidly transitioning electricity system come together. There are major advancements right now in “distributed energy resources,” “advanced grid infrastructure,” and renewable energy. Distributed energy resources include all sorts of options for producing and managing electricity in ways that don’t involve the large, centralized, fossil fuels plants that we’re used to—things like rooftop solar, community solar gardens, and programs and technologies that control when customers use electricity. Concurrently, the advancements in renewable energy technology have brought down prices of utility-scale wind and solar to the point that they are cost-competitive with fossil fuels.These pieces are new and exciting, but the challenge right now is fitting them together.
I'm convinced that if these pieces are put together in the right way, we can create the electricity system we need to make major strides toward figuring out how to avoid the worst damage from climate change.
The state of the science around climate change suggests that the path to mitigating the most catastrophic damages involves rapidly decarbonizing our electricity system while electrifying everything we can. We have the pieces we need to do this. More renewable energy is being installed than any other type of fuel. Technology already exists to control how and when customers use electricity which can help avoid new investments in the fossil fuel infrastructure. We have figured out how to store electricity and the cost of storage is beginning to fall. For many families, rooftop solar pays for itself, and community solar gardens offer an option for those families where rooftop solar doesn’t make sense. Electric vehicles with 200+ mile ranges at a mass-market price point are now available. And research is being done about how electric vehicles can serve as batteries and provide electricity back to buildings and homes during peak power usage times.
But even though all of these pieces currently exist, it is no small task to fit them together into a decarbonized electricity system that still lets us take our lights, appliances, and devices for granted like we always have. Our public utilities commission is wrestling with this puzzle right now and MCEA is in the thick of it. We just had a major victory along with our energy partners in convincing the public utilities commission to agree to the retirement of two coal units at Xcel Energy’s biggest coal plant. As part of this proceeding, we also succeeded in convincing the commission to avoid locking in a natural gas replacement to provide electricity that will be needed when the second unit is retired in 2026. We argued that it makes more sense instead to look at all of the puzzle pieces and study whether a replacement option could be constructed that provides the energy, capacity, and grid stability that we need while still avoiding carbon. This next phase of determining the replacement resources for Xcel’s Sherco units will begin in the next year, more than likely, and we are already working in several commission dockets including grid modernization, updating interconnection standards, and examining rate design that relate to other pieces of the puzzle.
As we start to dive into the hard work of thinking about how to get the electricity system from where it is today to where it needs to go, I’m hopeful that we will get to do the satisfying "double tap" when the pieces start falling into place; and I’m hopeful that we can figure it out before it’s too late.