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About those anti-wind power billboards on I-35...

Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune

Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune

Look up while traveling on I-35 in southern Minnesota, and you’ll see ads for steakhouses and can’t-miss campgrounds. You will also see a handful of billboards with the message, “Wind energy is NOT the answer.”

Smaller text invites you to a website, MNGreenEnergyFails.com, where you’ll find a 24-page report—“The High Cost of Failure”—detailing the evils of wind power in Minnesota.

While once we enjoyed electricity prices 20 percent below the national average, the report says, that differential was erased by “enormous investments in wind energy.” This $14 billion-plus lean into the wind is little more than a “grand exercise in virtue signaling.”

Both the paper and the billboards come from the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank known for its paradigm-shifting theories, like how teaching Edina kids about racism is a form of racism, that the solution to traffic is more cars, and that the Met Council is going to bus poor people into your living room.

This time it commissioned outside help from Steven F. Hayward, a climate change denier-for-hire who co-authored the report, which was then trumpeted in newspaper op-eds penned by “policy fellow” Isaac Orr. Both men have backgrounds in science. Political science. Which may be why the paper mentions “climate change” exactly once, and then only in reference to the “outcry” from “activists.”

This spring, the center’s “scholars” testified at the state Capitol about the renewable energy folly. Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, remembers looking at another legislator, one of Minnesota’s “sharpest on energy policy,” and watched as he “just rolled his eyes at these guys.”

Back in 2007, the year the center starts its analysis of rising electricity costs, Minnesota was a “big coal-burning state,” Mahoney recalls. Watt-for-watt, there’s nothing cheaper than shoveling coal into a burner, as industrialized countries have done since Napoleon ran France.

But there are a few side effects: At its production height a few years ago, a single big coal plant—the Sherco station in central Minnesota—was blamed for as many as 1,600 asthma attacks and 92 deaths a year, while spitting out as much carbon dioxide as all three million vehicles in the state combined. Then there was the 700-some pounds of mercury it was sending airborne.

The center’s start date of 2007 coincides with the passage of goals calling for 80 percent renewable energy in Minnesota by 2050. The law was signed by a man we don’t remember as a hippie: Tim Pawlenty.

What changed since then? The fossil fuel industry began dumping money not just into politics, but “research” papers as well. Buying Congress costs millions. What’s the going rate for some skeptical research and a few billboards?

The center won’t disclose its backers. President John Hindreaker says the think tank gets a “small amount from companies and nonprofits,” and the “overwhelming majority” from individuals.

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, doesn’t know who paid for the center’s “science” but does know who stands to benefit. When even the smallest energy rate increase is proposed, no one fights harder than Koch Industries’ oil refinery in Rosemount—the 12th-largest in the country, and believed to be Xcel Energy’s biggest customer.

In truth, utilities have raised rates often over the past decade to pay for repairs at two nuclear plants, to retrofit coal plants and eliminate mercury pollution, and invest in wind energy. Each hiked prices. “Folks complaining about wind should look at how much we’ve spent on coal and nuclear plants,” says Marty.

Today wind is the cheapest kind of energy to produce. Xcel says wind energy costs about $15-$25 per megawatt hour (an hour’s worth of electricity for 300-some homes), cheaper than solar ($45-$55), nuclear ($40-$45), and even coal ($25-$35).

Wind does have its drawbacks: We can’t effectively store it for later use and, as anyone who’s been outside knows, it’s not always blowing. Some sites have been disasters. Early this decade, Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens spent years fighting state regulators for approval of a wind farm near Red Wing, sued landowners when they started pulling out, and finally abandoned the project altogether without erecting a single turbine.

This year, small but vocal opposition to a project near Albert Lea effectively caused it to stall. In response, the developer simply built 58 more turbines across the border in Iowa.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, a Farmington Republican and chairman of the House energy committee, says, “Iowa and North Dakota tend to have better wind resources than Minnesota, with the exception being southern Minnesota.” Precisely where a Golden Valley think tank is trying to make people wary of wind.

With 2,300-some turbines already churning, Minnesota generates 18 percent of its electricity from wind. That lands us in the nation’s top 10, but behind North Dakota (22 percent) and Iowa, which gets a nation-leading 36 percent of its electricity from wind. If “frac-baby-frac” North Dakota and “let-farmers-farm” Iowa are ahead of Minnesota, maybe capturing wind won’t turn us into communists.

Garofalo says Republicans “want cleaner and cheaper energy,” period, and can make an economic case for using as much wind and solar power as possible.

For what it’s worth, “The planet is warming,” Garofalo says, “and it is caused by humans to a certain degree. I’ll let others debate it... it’s become a talking point to get people motivated or opposed to things.”

Solving the sustainable energy problem is less like flicking a switch, and more like untangling Christmas lights—all while your aunt yells that the tree is about to burn down, and your uncle shouts back that fire is a myth, as he recently learned from a richly informative website.

“As with all things to do with energy, wind is complex,” Garofalo says, and not easily captured in slogans.

Especially not the ones hovering above I-35.

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