Saving our energy for the future

PHOTO: Thomas Hawk, Flickr BY-NC

The other day actor Will Ferrell appeared on my television screen to say that General Motors is going electric. You don’t have to be a business expert to realize that by the time a company hires Buddy the Elf to star in a Super Bowl ad, a large strategic move is already well underway. 

Within the decade, electric cars will become mainstream — even here on the Iron Range. It won’t be easy. A lot will change. There will be winners and losers. And yet, this will occur.

People I know seem divided over the mere notion of electric vehicles. It’s particularly contentious in places where people drive trucks that weigh almost three tons to and from work every day. Because going electric often gets pitched as environmentalism, the reactions often correlate with political views.

But electric vehicles aren’t really a political concept. They’re part of a transition that will define the coming century. Discord always accompanies periods of great change.

In the early 1900s, the adoption of gas-powered automobiles defied partisanship. Democrat and Republicans alike became excited to own one of these interesting contraptions, even though most people couldn’t afford one at all.

People who owned horses resisted the change, both out of custom and to protect their existing investment. Early automobiles were unreliable and the roads weren’t built for them yet, which caused some to hold off on buying them. But public and private investments improved both cars and roads, unleashing mass adoption.

That’s where we are with electric vehicles today.

It’s hard to move away from something we consider normal. But “normal” is just behavior repeated over time. Given the choice, would we tie our transportation system to heavily refined liquid fuel delivered to millions of locations by a trillion-dollar industry that holds disproportionate influence over our government? Sounds shady. It is shady. But I like to get fancy coffee at the Holiday station when I fuel up and would miss that.

The age of electric vehicles will bring changes beyond which cars we buy and drive. We often get hung up on the idea that we’ll need “electric gas stations.” That reminds me of how early gas stations were called “auto liveries” to help horse people understand what they were for. In a few years that practice was no longer necessary.

EVs will be mostly charged at home, the office, at hotels, parking garages and in places where people spend time — perhaps parks, schools and libraries. 

And, just like there are still horses today, we wouldn’t see the end of internal combustion engines. They’re still useful. Certain kinds of equipment and functions would still require them. But they’re going to become less common.

Beyond the installation of charging stations, one of the most important changes is the need to store energy. This matters for the batteries that propel EVs and for an electrical grid powered by many increasingly renewable sources. None of this works without efficient storage.

This is where the Iron Range should be most receptive to electrification. It’s in our interest.

New iron-air batteries, such as ones developed by the company Form Energy, use pure iron to store energy. Rust stores energy in the iron and then chemicals release it when needed. Vast amounts of iron ore would be needed for large scale adoption of this technology, which could easily be built and used right here on the Mesabi.

The advantage of this change, however, comes not from limitless energy, but from how we conserve it. New heat pump technology helps houses stay warm while running furnaces less. Tech leaders are finding ways to reduce the taxing energy usage of cloud servers.

By bringing energy production closer to home and finding better ways to store it, we bring down costs and sustain our world long into the future.

The first generation of electric vehicles won’t be for everyone. But they will get better and we will become more ready. So will our energy storage, one of the biggest areas of industrial research and development right now.

This kind of change should not elicit fear or anger. Rather we should be curious about this new opportunity for our region and humankind.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, March 11, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Without question, there is going to be some kind of resistance with electric vehicles. However, by looking into the facts, you start to see just how beneficial they can be, not just for the user but the environment at large.

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