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Local view: Common desire for sustainable energy fuels cause for hope

Reading three recent columns from three very different writers, I was struck by how much agreement there was, just under the surface, between all of them. When you have a politician taking the long view, a labor leader and a nuclear-power enthusiast all basically agreeing that burning carbon is a problem, that is real progress.

Dr. Eric Enberg

(State Rep. Erik Simonson’s Aug. 1 commentary was headlined, “Minnesota can follow Germany’s lead in combating climate change.” International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 31 Business Manager Will Keyes’ Aug. 13 commentary was headlined, “Carbon is concern; a multifaceted approach can help to address it.” And George Erickson’s Aug. 13 commentary was headlined, “Pretty windmills can’t compare to nuclear.”)

We all grope for the right as we see the right, but, at last, we are all moving in the right direction.

I just want to clarify a few points and then point to a brighter future for Northeastern Minnesota and, in particular, for the Iron Range if we put our heads together now and price carbon appropriately.

It should be noted that Germany is burning more coal these days because it closed all of its nuclear plants in response to the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. It wasn’t planned to turn out that way, but internal political pressures caused the essentially carbon-free nuclear power to be turned off before the renewable sector was ready to take up the slack. These are growing pains, and Germany should be commended for its courageous renewable policies.

In the U.S., nuclear power is running into economic difficulties. Basically since 1956, the cost of nuclear power has risen three times while solar has fallen 2,500 times. Cheap, hydraulically fractured, natural gas is displacing both coal and nuclear. Yes, renewables are somewhat to blame, but both nuclear and renewables are the beneficiaries of government subsidies.

My preference would be to price carbon, return the proceeds to the American people directly, and drop all the subsidies. Then let the capitalistic chips fall where they may. It would be interesting to see what would happen, particularly if the nuclear industry had to pay for the storage of its waste for the next 250,000 years.

Nuclear also labors under the burden of political unpopularity, and there is such a long lead time (10 to 20 years) to build a nuclear plant that by that time wind and solar simply will have taken over. Think about it; Minnesota went from 8.9 percent of its electricity generated from renewables to 21 percent in just five years. Nevertheless, the existing nuclear plants form a strong base of carbon-free power, and they should be maintained whenever possible.

As for wind power, Keyes correctly noted that there are not many jobs attached to maintaining a wind turbine. The jobs are in the construction of wind turbines. Here, northern Minnesota is at something of a disadvantage.

Thirty years ago, Iowa began to require wind power. Through an ongoing cooperation between government and business, Iowa now has over 6,000 wind-related jobs. The same could be done here in Minnesota. Take a look at the wind maps produced by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory by Googling “NREL” and “wind maps.” The amazing thing is that northern Minnesota has the best wind resource at 300 to 500 feet in all of Minnesota. The turbines would operate 65 percent of the time (almost as good as a coal plant), which is perfect for Minnesota Power’s industrial customers. Meanwhile, we could use direct-reduced-iron technology to transform iron into the millions of tons of steel needed for properly sited wind turbines that would minimize bird losses.

But none of this will happen unless there are far-sighted people such as the gentlemen mentioned in this article along with entities such as the IRRRB and mining companies to create on the Iron Range the miracle that occurred in Duluth with the aircraft cluster of businesses or in Iowa with the wind industry.

Let’s make it happen.

Dr. Eric Enberg practices family medicine in West Duluth and is the group leader of the Duluth Citizens’ Climate Lobby ( chapters/MN_Duluth/).