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Whaling on the Prairie

Date Published: 03/28/2017

Author: Chuck Brown

Chuck Brown is a Minnesota writer and the retired manager of a manufacturing company who served 12 years on the Olivia City Council.   He is a Growth & Justice Policy Fellow advising on rural issues.

There was a time, in America’s early years, when a fellow could get a job going to sea on a wooden sailing ship, and when they came upon a whale the fellow and his mates would lower away in boats and row out with their harpoons, and if the whale didn’t kill them first, they would try to kill the whale. Dangerous work, to be sure, but hey, it was a job. More to the point, it was a business model operating in a market, a market having both a supply and demand function. The supply function was complex, as supply functions tend to be, and entailed ships and sails and sailors and harpoons and grog, not to mention propagating whales. The demand function rose from a human desire, as demand functions usually do, in this case the desire to not sit around in the dark after sunset. The whales were harvested chiefly for their blubber, blubber that was then refined into oil and sold to folks who then burned it in their lamps. Let there be light! What could possibly go wrong with such a well-balanced market?

The problem, of course, is that the demand for illumination soon outgrew the whale oil market’s ability to supply it. Trouble loomed, especially if you happened to be a whale, but then technology and innovation saved the day, as technology and innovation usually do. New methods for lighting up the night were devised and that eventually brought us to electricity, and that greatly increased our use of coal.

The country once pretty much ran on coal. It was burned to generate the steam that powered the railroads and ships at sea. People burned it to heat their homes. Those functions have since switched to other energy sources, but the steady increase in the demand for coal-fired electricity positioned coal as our chief source of power for many years. 92% of U.S. coal consumption in 2016 went to the electric power sector according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA). But total U.S. coal production has dropped steadily over the past ten years, with a remarkable 18% decline in 2016 alone, and with the loss of production has come a significant loss in coal mining jobs.

2016 also saw natural gas overtake coal for the first time as the country’s number one generating fuel. This was largely driven by the new abundance and affordability of natural gas, but there is no denying the environmental benefit as gas is a much cleaner fuel than coal.

After natural gas and coal comes nuclear as the next largest source of electricity followed by renewables (wind, solar and hydro). Nuclear electrical generation has been flat for many years now, but innovation is driving a recent surge in renewables. EIA reported that for the first half of 2016 renewables provided 16.9% of U. S. electrical generation, an increase from 13.7% the year before. Non-hydro renewable energy grew from 7.6% in 2015 to 9.2% in 2016. This trend is expected to continue as more and more large-scale wind and solar projects come on line, a trend that bodes well for future energy usage and its impact on climate change.

Still, no one should expect coal to disappear from our energy mix anytime soon. Coal’s role in the world’s biggest economy is simply too large to replace quickly, but hopefully that role will continue shrinking year by year with new investment in gas-fired plants and renewables. The harsh economic reality of this trend is that we’ll continue losing coal mining jobs, but innovation and progress always alter the employment landscape. It’s called the destructive creativity of capitalism—think whalers. It does become important to retrain workers for the new jobs that technology and innovation create, the jobs that caused the old ones to go the way of whalers.

And that brings us to economic opportunity in Greater Minnesota, especially the vast stretches of southern and western Minnesota dominated by agriculture. Given the cyclical swings common to ag markets, these areas would clearly benefit from the diversity gained by adding energy to the economic mix. Transportation energy is already in the mix with ethanol production, but many view ethanol as a short to intermediate term solution. With the world’s ever-growing population we might not long be able to divert resources from the food supply into energy production.

Renewable electricity generation might be a better long range plan for economic diversity in Greater Minnesota. The countryside has been dotted with wind farms for years with more coming, and now we’re beginning to see large-scale solar installations as well. These areas have ample sunshine and wind, and the land needed is more affordable than in urban areas. But what about the land? Won’t these applications divert land from food production too? Only to a very small extent, and nowhere near the land required to grow the corn going into ethanol production.

The processes leading to these future-friendly investments are largely economic, but they’re also political, and while politics invariably faces skeptical headwinds, it’s politics that makes civil life possible. Politics done well paves the way for innovation and prosperity. Politics done badly blocks them. And so the task is clear: avoid nostalgic longing for the workforce of the past and focus instead on educating, training and investing in the workforce of the future. It’s a whale of an idea.

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