Lead, Follow or Get Out Of The Way?

  • Thursday, 27 September 2018 13:00

ED Column Web

Those were the central questions put to about 60 participants in a recent energy discussion hosted by the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment. The answers to those questions, especially by and for lawmakers, have profound implications for biofuel producers and the future of biofuels in Minnesota.

As the event progressed and information was shared and discussions opened up, an extremely ludicrous notion came up several times – that to support renewable energy was akin to “locking-in certain technologies.”

What exactly does this notion mean? It means – believe or not – that by supporting renewable energy, we could be curtailing support for some yet to be discovered form of energy.

Perhaps calling this notion ludicrous is too kind.

What was more alarming is that this notion came from a Minnesota state senator. He was among the diverse group of participants which also included other Minnesota lawmakers, commissioners and stakeholders from the agriculture industry.

As luck would have it, the aforementioned senator was in my discussion group, which included an investor handling carbon credits, a representative of a non-profit organization promoting renewables, a professor from a renewable energy laboratory and a member of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.

It should be noted that all of us but the senator were having a fast moving, positive, proactive conversation about the role and future of three renewables (biofuels, solar, wind), distributed generation, microgrids and combined heat and power systems. 

It was during this discussion when the senator floored the rest of us by suggesting that any support for renewables is akin to “locking in certain technologies.”

Naturally we were curious about this notion so we peppered him with questions: 

“How do you think supporting renewables would ‘lock-in technology?’”

“And what do you mean by locking in certain technologies?” 

“What problems do you have with supporting renewables, especially when they cut greenhouse gas emissions and bolster the economy?”

“Moreover, how could any future technology be locked out just because one supports renewables?” 

As one would expect, he struggled to provide a logical explanation for his position. Was his judgement clouded because he was biased towards another form of energy? Was his connections to the nuclear industry the underlying reason for his opposition towards renewable energy? Or was he just misinformed?

Equally shocking, during their closing remarks, a few other lawmakers brought up this technology lock-in issue. Simply put, they said renewables are great, but we should not pick winners and losers – a mantra popular with politicians aligned with the fossil fuel industry. 

Had the opportunity presented itself, one could have asked whether the lawmakers realize that finite, carbon-intensive fossil fuels have been picked as winners because they are heavily subsidized through, for instance, exploration, the depletion allowance and the failure to account for externalities such as climate change, polluted air and other related human health problems.

Make no mistake, these lawmakers would indeed hinder the growth of biofuels in Minnesota and they might attack or undermine Minnesota’s Petroleum Replacement Promotion law, which calls for the consumption of at least 30 percent biofuels in transportation fuel by 2025.

Their arguments and “concerns” over renewable energy lock-in and picking winners and losers are red herrings. As such, lawmakers who support renewable energy cannot be silent.

Minnesota’s biofuel industry already faces a multitude of barriers – be it access to E15 or regulatory bottlenecks in the air permitting process. It does not need another and this illogical “technology lock-in” idea is just that. Lawmakers who take seriously their support for renewables must lead and support the Renewable Fuel Standard and the Minnesota Petroleum Replacement laws. We must continually work together to address these and other challenges. That’s how we can keep Minnesota a biofuel leader.