Renewable energy advocate says switch would save billions over decades

FARGO -- Imagine if, over the next 30 years, every motorist in Cass County drove an electric car and every resident used electricity generated by renewable sources, such as the sun and the wind.

FARGO - Imagine if, over the next 30 years, every motorist in Cass County drove an electric car and every resident used electricity generated by renewable sources, such as the sun and the wind.

Actually, John Bagu has done that thought experiment for you, and he crunched a lot of numbers to estimate costs and benefits.

He calculates the conversion to electric vehicles and renewable energy in Cass County would cost $15 billion over the next 30 years, create more than 2,000 new jobs and save every county resident $1,600 a year.

On the other hand, he said, simply doing nothing would cost $23 billion, create significant air pollution at an incalculable cost to public health and create no new jobs over the next three decades.

"You can't argue with math, at least if you're a scientist," said Bagu, a biochemist who formerly ran the nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy laboratory at North Dakota State University.

Bagu is a renewable energy advocate who practices what he preaches. He has solar panels on the roof of his south Fargo home and drives an electrical vehicle. His house generates more electricity than his household consumes every year.

He estimates his household is 70 percent weaned from fossil fuels, "which is pretty good for North Dakota." He uses an electric lawn mower and an electric barbecue grill.

The unabashed renewable energy advocate decided to conduct what he calls a comprehensive energy audit for Cass County to calculate the potential costs and savings of a switch from fossil fuel dependence to renewable energy forms.

"All we have to do is commit to doing it," Bagu said. "We have control over our destiny."

Cass County, with a population of 171,512, has 141,471 vehicles. At $3 per gallon, he estimates drivers spend $501 million per year on fuel, a cost that would drop to $334 million per year if the price of gasoline fell to $2 per gallon, Bagu calculates.

Once electricity - $226 million per year - and natural gas costs - $46 million per year - are included, consumers' total energy bill jumps to $607 million to $774 million per year, depending on gas priced at $2 or $3 per gallon.

In other words, the energy costs for driving a gasoline-powered car or truck is more than double what people spend on other forms of energy, according to Bagu's analysis.

"It's really transportation energy," he said. "The spending is incredible. It was just amazing to find out that transportation energy overwhelms other forms of energy in terms of cost."

Also, "All our pollution pretty much comes from cars," he said. He cites studies that have shown air pollution in high-density traffic areas makes children more likely to develop leukemia and asthma, and adults more likely to develop dementia.

Although North Dakota is a major oil and gas state, as well as a coal-producing state, elsewhere the idea of setting a goal to switch entirely to renewable energy sources is catching on and has been embraced by 20 or 30 cities, Bagu said. He presented his findings last fall in a TEDx talk in Bismarck.

"We're kind of addicted to energy in Fargo," he told the Bismarck audience, explaining that Fargo basically produces no energy. "We have a choice in the next 30 years."