Right now we’re feeling an annular solar eclipse of the sun, other things too, it’s an intense time for everyone, time to wake up, face reality, do it different, get with the program and get a grip on life! In the words of Eric Francis:

For sure, eclipses can SUCK. They can be wrenching, they can derail us, they can induce amnesia, they can portend locusts and pestilences. And this can be fabulous, too: they are, very consistently, those times in which we put the past behind us, as Sting said: sooner or later, just like the world’s first day, sooner or later, we learn to throw the past away.*

Rarely is this simple, or one-dimensional: Ah, how nice, the past is over. Time to move on. It can be…! Truly.

But not always. Sometimes all the agonizing on the way to getting to the point of letting go can leave us with some post traumatic stress. But not always; not even usually; we are living in the times of It Is Time, and that’s what an eclipse says. Andiamo, allons-y, on with the show, or, in the immortal words of my brother, broadcast authoritatively from the roof-mounted loudspeaker of his van (generally reserved for traffic jams), “Move your fuckin’ parade!”


The eve of an eclipse was a fitting time for the Solar Tour, we need to do energy differently and it feels to me like a binary time — we cannot continue on this fossil fuel/central station power path. I’d sent this Guest Column in to appear as a prelude to the Solar Tour, oh well, here it is in today’s Northfield News — can’t have me sharing Guest Column space with Ray Cox after all!


Looking at our energy future through solar

Saturday was the Solar Tour, where homes and businesses were open to see what’s possible, from commercial buildings filled with solar panels to passive solar additions and home-sized installations for homes like yours.

Solar isn’t anything that complicated or odd or arcane; renewable energy is a solid investment, complete with rebates, to take control of energy generation.

It’s everywhere you look, and each day people are conserving and generating their own electricity.

But on the other hand, from the transmission owners recently released plans to build a web of big transmission lines in Minnesota to those who continue to buy SUVs, I’m shaking my head a lot lately … whatever are they thinking?

This is not the energy future I envision, it’s not what I’m working for, and it’s not the world I want to live in. Yes, I’m utterly disgusted with this direction and looking at tico houses in Costa Rica but my work here isn’t done yet. How ?bout each of you? Are you accepting this energy nightmare or are you doing something about it. Energy is binary!

What’s got me reeling is the speed with which the utilities are taking advantage of the transmission policy gains made last legislative session, specifically the announcement of “Phase I” of the transmission owners’ plan to cross the state many times over with big lines that enable bulk power transfers. The primary legislative changes that make this possible are the switch from requiring a Minnesota-based need demonstration to a demonstration of regional need; enactment of an “automatic adjustment” for transmission claimed to be for renewable energy; and legislative approval of transmission only entities that will trigger the shift of control over transmission from state to the feds.

These policy steps were part of a 2003 agreement that utilities made with environmental groups that should know better; they have now become law after being ushered through the legislature by these same groups. We’re starting to see the utility horses launching themselves out of the gate.

Who cares about electric transmission? It’s not something people think about; it’s just there, everywhere we go, and becomes part of our assumptions. It’s a subtle thing. Someone I know urges surreptitiously painting transmission lines on the masters’ landscapes, and decades ago in China, government directed transmission lines be added to artists works to promote electrification of the country! A former state energy policy wonk now working for a utility put it simply: “If you let us build transmission, we’ll build coal plants, and if you don’t, we’ll have to do distributed generation.”

Electricity is indeed binary; if we build billions of dollars of transmission infrastructure with its 35-year financing and 50-year life span, we are committed to 50 years of coal plants and central station power, big power plants with big long transmission lines. Do we want big, long transmission lines? Do we want more coal plants? Do we want re-licensed nuclear plants? They have the go-ahead for transmission; it’s being built; and the big generating plants will come.

What’s wrong with that? Ask the women of the Northfield area who are advised by their prenatal care providers not to eat fish. Ask the residents of Becker who are neighbors of coal plants who every morning sweep coal plant emission dust off their cars. Ask the residents of Prairie Island Indian Community who learn of an “incident” at the nuclear plant by the rush of employee cars out of the plant. Ask the Minnesota landowners with $1 easements for the new Arrowhead transmission line about the recent Douglas County settlement for “under $1 million” for easements for that same line. Ask the municipal utilities and co-ops who fight to get their share of transmission to serve their customers when transmission owners want to increase bulk power transfers for export.

By each of us doing our part, we can shape a hopeful energy future, whether by solar and geothermal installations in our home for electricity and heat, or by enabling local-distributed generation or advocating sensible energy policy. Our energy future must be one of distributed generation with small plants built near the load, one of non-toxic generation, transmission and distribution that builds our local economy. That’s an energy future we can live with.

— Carol Overland is a utility regulatory attorney and a Northfield business owner.

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