U research calls for more renewables amid national policy changes

Findings reveal that renewables have been given too much credit for reducing emissions.

Carter Blochwitz

Amid federal policy changes, University of Minnesota researchers have identified a need for more renewable energy.

University researchers published a study last month in the journal “Environmental Science & Technology,” revealing more renewables are needed to help cut emissions. The study’s results preceded federal policy changes by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which announced plans to repeal former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan on Oct. 10.

Using an improved method to estimate electric grid emissions, the research found renewables have had less of an effect on reducing emissions than previously thought. The research analyzed the Midcontinent Independent System Operator electrical grid, which covers Minnesota, 14 other states and part of Canada.

“We discovered that the old way of dealing with renewables’ importance in this entire system should be corrected and improved,” said Mo Li, the study’s lead researcher and a fellow at the University’s Institute on the Environment. “We pointed it out with an emphasis on our need for more renewables than we previously thought we needed.”

Li said her insights into the distribution and valuation of renewable energy came from her discovery that non-emitting energy sources — including wind and solar — had been neglected by previous calculations by the EPA and other organizations.

“The EPA has used a more average emission factor because it is easier to work with — they haven’t incorporated the increased penetration of renewables on the grid,” said Timothy Smith, research co-author and professor in the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering.

Both Smith and Li expressed concern over the EPA’s plan to repeal the Clean Power Plan, but felt confident in Minnesota and other states’ ability to uphold emission targets established by the policy.

The plan would have set national requirements to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 32 percent by 2030, relative to 2005 measurements.

“Even without CPP, many states have been on track to achieving the goals set by CPP — or even overachieving the goals set by CPP,” Li said.

Smith added that EPA head Scott Pruitt announced the organization would look into other ways to address greenhouse gas emissions.

“There seems to be some door that opened so that maybe there would be a willingness to look at greenhouse gasses and how we might manage them through the electrical system,” Smith said.

Minnesota has historically been aggressive with its renewable targets, Smith said, and has a “reasonable partner” in Xcel Energy, the state’s primary energy provider and a large proponent of wind energy.

Xcel announced plans to build a new 300-megawatt wind farm late last month, claiming it would help the utility provider power “every home in Minnesota and Wisconsin” with clean energy.

Smith and Li hope their research will ultimately influence how policy and market rules are established and modified. 

“It really provides another piece of information in terms of how we manage not only renewables coming onto the grid, but also how we might manage the phasing out of coal,” Smith said.

Ellen Anderson, former senior adviser on energy and the environment to Gov. Mark Dayton, said Li’s research shows a need for more data and analysis.

“I think it is just the beginning in finding out what information we need to manage energy storage in the very best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Anderson said. “It’s complex, and there isn’t a simple black-and-white answer. We really need to pay attention to this.”