CROSBY — With decades in the energy industry under her belt, it may seem like the more things change, the more they stay the same for Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative CEO Sarah Cron.
Sure, advancements and proliferation of technology, juxtapositioned with the impending issue of climate change, means energy providers are struggling to find ways to provide more power from a supply of less energy to begin with, Cron said during an Unlimited Learning seminar Tuesday, Feb. 11, at Heartwood Senior Living Center in Crosby.
At the same time, Cron said, it’s been the same old debate since the late ‘70s through the ‘80s: Is there a looming natural gas or gasoline shortage? Is nuclear power a safe and viable option for renewable energy? Is coal the only reliable source of energy, despite its shortcomings? Can the United States transform its energy market to be more Earth-friendly and self-sufficient, or is it fated to be plagued by moneyed interests here and abroad as it has for decades?
“I find it personally ironic that 40 years later, we're still having the same discussion,” Cron told an assembled audience of about 50. “Nothing's changed. Nothing has changed.”
A veteran of 22 years in the industry, Cron was clinical and unsparing in her assessment of the current state of energy in the United States. Spurred by largely fabricated notions of natural gas and gasoline shortages in the ‘70s — it was more a matter of distribution than supply, Cron said — and coupled with anxieties about nuclear energy in the wake of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl overseas, coal became king.
“It nearly halted all nuclear construction,” Cron said. “And then after that, Chernobyl happened, and basically, nuclear went down the drain. … That's why there’s such resistance to all of the environmental regulations, the renewable energy and all those things. (That’s) why the money isn't being put into finding methods of storage.”
This was reflected in a well-organized push for coal by the fossil fuel industry, Cron said, which was picked up by federal lawmakers and agencies, who built on faulty data with faulty legislation like the 1978 Fuel Use Act.
Members of the audience spoke out, in particular Al Martin of Merrifield who compared the fossil fuel industry’s bad faith campaigns to those of Big Tobacco during the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“That was the fight,” Martin said. “And, you know, they saw the end coming, and they just got as much money out of it as they could before the whole thing collapsed. And we're facing the same thing with the fossil fuel industry, the Koch brothers and people like that — a lot of investors in all the fossil fuel programs and they're making a lot of money.”
Still, there are other practical concerns, said Cron, who noted solar arrays and wind turbine installations across the state failed during the polar vortex that swept through the region early last year. When temperatures dipped so low that even diesel fluid congealed and wouldn’t ignite properly, Cron said, entities like the Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative had no choice but to lean on coal to power homes. There are also newer and cleaner methods of burning coal, she added.
While the science of climate change is well documented and irrefutable at this point, Cron noted there has to be a wholesale examination of where greenhouse gasses are produced. It’s not only the concern of local energy providers like her company, she said, but a problem that has deep roots in public and personal transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, international corporations and other countries as well.
Storage is key, Cron said. In the absence of a viable nuclear energy baseline to fall back on, and to avoid burning coal, the focus has to be on developing batteries capable of storing renewable energy during low points — like the 2019 polar vortex — for large portions of the population.
And, with that in mind, the state’s long-term efforts to establish renewable energy only become more reachable, said Cron, who iterated at multiple points that reforming entire sectors of the energy industry into a cleaner, more efficient model isn’t only possible, but inevitable.
Prior goals like 30% renewable energy by 2030 have already been achieved ahead of schedule, Cron noted, so what’s stopping the state from aiming higher?
“They have made a commitment to 40% renewables by 2050. And all indicators are that they're going to far exceed that goal,” Cron said. “They're gonna get there way faster than 2050. So the question may be, if you're doing so good at getting to renewable mandates, why not just allow the mandates?”