Frontiers: Transporting energy

Energy Transformation

In an age when debates over fracking and renewable energy dominate the news, it’s increasingly clear that the United States is in the midst of an “energy renaissance.” Along with a host of environmental concerns, the nation’s changing energy system faces a new, often overlooked, challenge: How can we get energy from its source to the people who need it?

Portrait: Alexandra KlassThat was the topic of Institute on the Environment resident fellow and University of Minnesota Law School professor Alexandra Klass’ Frontiers in the Environment lecture Dec. 4.

In “Transporting Energy: U.S. Infrastructure Challenges,” Klass discussed her research on the physical and regulatory system in place for moving oil, natural gas and electricity and possible changes needed as the nation’s energy sources diversify.

“We have more natural gas than we know what to do with, our ability to produce oil is higher than it has almost been in a hundred years, and that is all because of hydraulic fracturing,” Klass said. “We also have new sources of electricity – wind and solar – on a major scale like we have not had before. The problem is that these new sources of energy are not always where we have previously built our energy transportation infrastructure.

“We don’t have a lot of interstate transmission lines from North Dakota and South Dakota and Kansas and Montana to bring wind to population centers. We don’t have oil pipelines in North Dakota, which is the center of the new oil boom.”

The lack of infrastructure in areas of fossil fuel extraction is leading to inefficient use of natural resources. For example, producers at the Bakken oIl field in North Dakota flare away $100 million of natural gas each month because it’s cheaper to burn than capture and store it until it can be transported, according to Klass.

Renewable energy sources face a similar challenge. With most wind energy being produced in sparsely populated regions of the Midwest and West, getting the power to major population centers using the current infrastructure is difficult.

“It’s not that we can’t generate enough wind to power the whole country,” Klass said, “it’s that we don’t have the transmission in place to bring it to the people who need it.”

Getting that infrastructure in place could take awhile with the current regulatory system, Klass said. Unlike natural gas pipelines, which are regulated at the federal level, oil pipelines and transmission lines are regulated on a state-by-state basis, requiring different standards in each state through which they travel. And while oil pipelines can be buried and out of sight, the unsightly nature of transmission lines makes them controversial to construct.

To combat the issue, Klass thinks it’s time to discuss regulating transmission lines at the federal level. That conversation will be tough to start in the current Congress, she noted. But that doesn’t mean renewable energy sources don’t stand a chance.

“It’s easier now to say no to coal, right?” Klass said. “We know the environmental impacts of coal and now, all of a sudden, we have alternatives to coal. Wind is pretty cost competitive with coal here in Minnesota – that’s not true in other parts of the country – and natural gas is as well. I think there is a lot of pressure on the public utilities commission that’s more effective than it was in the past to say no to coal because we can do natural gas and we can do wind. So, you can see it on a small scale when the resource is there.”

Watch Klass’ full presentation online.

John Sisser is a communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment