Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Joe Miller Discusses the Power Grid: Where Are We Now and Where Are We Going?

Photo by Mohammad Mardani on Unsplash

In November I was invited to participate in a dialogue titled Shades of Purple: Nuclear Power Dialogue hosted by a group called Project Optimist. I have long believed dialogue, not dogma, is the path to understanding, whatever the issue. The organizers broke us into small groups to field questions related to energy issues in general and nuclear power in particular. 

Joe Miller was one of the people in my sub-group. Miller is director of communications with the Minnesota Rural Electric Association. He has been involved with energy and electric cooperatives for three decades. After the Project Optimist meeting I reached out to Joe that I might share some of his insights and experience with readers here.

EN: What is MREA and what is your role there?  

Joe Miller:  The Minnesota Rural Electric Association (MREA) is a nonprofit trade association serving Minnesota’s electric cooperatives. MREA provides legislative and regulatory representation, director and employee education programs, technical training for electric cooperative line workers, and serves as the focal point for cooperation among cooperatives. Minnesota’s 44 distribution cooperatives serve about 1.7 million Minnesotans in all 87 counties and operate the largest distribution network in the state with more than 135,000 miles of electric lines. 

As director of communications, I and my team help get the word out about all the great things cooperatives are doing in Minnesota.


EN: What is the difference between electric co-ops and the major utility companies like MN Power and Xcel Energy?

JM: Cooperatives operate as not-for-profit utilities. They are owned by those who purchase power from them. They are also governed by a board of directors made up of their consumers. All costs of operating the business are borne by those member-owners. So, cooperatives are truly concerned about the cost of operating, since those consumers end up paying all the bills. They work hard to provide the best value and service levels for their member-owners.


EN: When did you first take an interest in nuclear or atomic energy? How did this come about?

JM: I toured a coal plant in ND when I was about a sophomore in high school. I remember that everything about it was big. The dragline to scoop coal, the trucks to haul coal, the tires, the plant’s generator room, etc. It produced about 1,200 MW of power. Then many years later in my life the first wind turbines went up in MN, near my in-laws by Pipestone. They produced less than 1 MW each. That meant, it would take more than 1,200 of them to do what that coal plant was doing! It just showed me the enormity of the need for power and how it would take LOTS of wind and solar (and land) to meet the need with renewable energy. If we are going to truly produce power carbon-free, we will need other large sources of power. Nuclear is an option, a very valid and important option. I grew up near Monticello, so I grew up near a nuclear plant and have no fear of them, if they are operated correctly. And, today there is new technology that makes nuclear so much safer than even years ago. SMRs are an option that we should be looking at.


EN: Governor Walz has created a 2040 target for carbon-free energy? Realistically, can this target be achieved in MN? Why or why not?

JM: I am a very optimistic person by nature. However, meeting this bill will be a monumental task. I know rural electrics in Minnesota will be working hard to achieve the goal. However, it takes years to permit and build infrastructure in Minnesota. Sixteen years in utility time is tomorrow. What will we build to meet it? We can’t do it with all wind and solar. Batteries are still an experimental technology. Utilities are trying them, so maybe they could help in 5 to 10 years. However, batteries are NOT the same as having a natural gas or nuclear power plant. Once batteries are drained you must take power from somewhere to fill them back up. A powerplant can generate new power and be ramped up and down and turned on and off (peaking plant) as needed to meet the needs. So, I think the goal can be met, but not through only building new infrastructure because there just isn’t enough time. We will need a variety of power sources to continue providing reliable electricity to Minnesotans. One of the tools in the toolbox is the ability to use carbon credits to offset generation sources that emit carbon. These will probably play a role in meeting the goal. 

EN: Why is nuclear power so contentious?

JM: I think nuclear is contentious because of the safety aspect and the waste. We must find a way to handle the waste. If we could reuse it, we could get it down to even a smaller amount than is being produced now. But, I guess we need to change legislation in order to do that. Other countries reuse the fuel and reduce their waste even more. I think the safety record has been amazing with U.S. nuclear, and is even safer today, especially if we look to SMRs. (EdNote: Small Modular Reactors)


EN: Solar only works when the sun is out. How is the energy stored for night-time?

JM: See the earlier answer. With both wind and solar, there is no way around it, they are intermittent sources. AND, those sources are NOT controlled by the generation company like all our other sources. The generation company has to adapt to a continuous fluctuation in power generation. 

Look at any live output graph on co-op websites for solar output. It can dive in the middle of beautiful day, just from a few clouds passing over. (Also check out this interactive chart.)  

Intermittent sources of power are not a way to build reliability into the grid. And for every wind and solar installation, you still need to have resources to back them up as they only count for a fraction of their nameplate capacity with MISO*. For 2022-2023, the capacity factor was less than 16%, so that means a 100 MW wind farm with MISO is rated at around 16 MW.


EN: What is the life span of a solar panel? Do they get recycled? How are they discarded?

JM: A typical solar farm lasts 20-25 years. Then they have to be replaced. Recycling is a challenge and an issue that needs to be figured out. Also, a panels’ ability to turn sunlight into electricity degrades over time. 

EN: Thank you for your insights and for helping us better understand some of the challenges that lay ahead.

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*MISO: Midcontinent Independent System Operator. MISO spans parts of 15 states, MISO is a non-profit agency that balances the load on the large transmission lines within its region and operates the wholesale power markets.

EdNote: The ideas and thoughts expressed here are those of Joe Miller alone and should not be construed as the views of the MREA.

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