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Energy in Minnesota: A history of progress, a future of possibility

Michael Noble and Kate Ellis
Fresh Energy

Over the last two decades, Minnesota has experienced a dramatic change in energy use and energy policies. We are closer than ever to achieving a new energy economy using homegrown resources that create jobs, protect our air and water, and strengthen our state’s economy and communities. However, there is still much that needs to be accomplished to reach our state, regional and national clean energy and global warming pollution reduction goals. Looking back, what are some of the biggest energy changes and successes for Minnesota over the past 25 years, and more importantly, what steps need to be taken to continue to improve our energy use and energy policies?

Twenty-five years ago, the energy landscape of Minnesota and the United States looked much different than it does today. Despite tangible examples of the results of our nation’s fossil fuel addiction, such as the oil crises of 1973 and 1979, the country seemed to be stalled — or even moving backwards — on the path to a new energy economy. As a significant sign of the times, Ronald Reagan famously removed President Carter’s solar panels from the White House. And while the first commercial-scale wind farms were built about 25 years ago, the technology was written off as unreliable and expensive. Massive investments in coal plants to meet electricity needs were the norm, and utilities were far more concerned about finding customers for a glut of coal-fired power than developing energy efficiency measures or renewable energy. Our country was at an energy crossroads. With rising oil, natural gas and electrical prices, it was clear that the American economy was going to feel the energy squeeze if real leadership wasn’t shown. Minnesota’s brutal winters meant that our state would be among those that bore the brunt of these increasing costs.

Over the next 25 years, Minnesota gradually turned its attention to new energy and conservation. Landmark change came in 2007 when the legislature and Governor Pawlenty agreed on sweeping clean energy, energy efficiency and global warming policies. Approved overwhelmingly by a bipartisan Minnesota legislature, this legislation guarantees that 25% of our state’s electricity will be generated from renewable energy by 2020. At the same time, all electric and gas utilities will invest in energy-efficiency measures to achieve a 1.5% annual energy savings. The new laws in 2007 also established global warming pollution reduction goals for 2015 and 2025, culminating with an 80% reduction in 2050. This legislation also instituted a statewide moratorium on new coal-fired electricity for Minnesota consumers, preventing new construction of coal-fired power plants to serve Minnesota or new coal power contracts from existing plants.

Today, Minnesota is among the nation’s leaders in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and as a state we have many victories to celebrate. Minnesota has over 1,800 megawatts of installed wind power — currently generating nearly 10% of our electricity. We also import wind energy from North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa, each of which receives 10-20% of its state’s electricity generation from wind. Additionally, as the energy landscape rapidly changed, investors in 2009 withdrew support from a $1.6 billion coal-fired power plant after protracted delays and organized opposition, and the Upper Midwest’s largest solar farm was recently built near St. Cloud at St. John’s University.

As Minnesota aggressively pursues our statewide energy efficiency and clean energy goals, the cleantech industries have become the one bright spot in a troubling economic landscape. Clean energy developers, installers, component manufactures and agricultural landowners with renewable generation on their land are all growing Minnesota’s economy and creating sustainable, local jobs. Two Minnesota construction companies — Blattner and Mortenson — are top players in a multibillion-dollar wind farm industry, a competitive edge they gained building wind farms in Minnesota in the 1990s.

Minnesota has also seen many advances in how we use energy in transportation and transit. Just this year, the legislature and governor agreed on a new policy called Minnesota Complete Streets. Under this law, when the Minnesota Department of Transportation builds or rebuilds roads, it must make them safe and accessible for all users, including those traveling on foot, bike, bus or wheelchair. Minnesotans can expect more focus on providing sidewalks, crosswalks, safe wheelchair ramps, bike lanes and paths, safe bus stops and other road designs that improve safety and use less energy.

While Minnesota has many successes to celebrate, there is still much to be accomplished. Today, as 25 years ago, our country is at another crossroads on energy. Sixty percent of Minnesota’s electricity still comes from coal-fired power plants that deposit mercury and global warming pollution into Minnesota’s water and air. Worldwide, and right here in Minnesota, we are already starting to see and feel the effects of climate change. Our addiction to oil has only grown, despite record gas prices, and we are now forced to drill the most inaccessible oil in some of the world’s most fragile areas. The Midwest is growing its dependence on the oil from Alberta’s tar sands, some of the most polluting oil left on earth.

During the summer of 2010, with shocking signs of weather havoc all around the world and with oil spewing from a broken deepwater drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, our U.S. Senate was unable to take action on energy — even choosing to skip the debate. Without a clearly defined and stable path set forth by federal legislation, clean energy development on the state level is put in jeopardy. Without federal action, states and industries cannot have the clarity that clean energy is the foundation of our nation’s future economic health. With such uncertainty and additional barriers imposed by fossil fuel interests, Minnesota cannot reach its full clean energy and efficiency potential.

If we are to meet our clean energy and carbon reduction goals, Minnesota needs to continue to lead on smart energy policy and build on our previous success. Making continued progress toward our already-established state goals, pursuing increased and better forms of transit and transportation, developing advanced biofuels and support for electric cars, leading on Midwest-wide and federal carbon reduction legislation and supporting a federal Renewable Energy Standard and Energy Efficiency Standard are just some of the ways that Minnesota can continue to lead the region and nation.

The level of energy innovation and energy policy progress that has been made in the past 25 years is monumental. But now we need to build on and accelerate our past progress to ensure that in the next 25 years we’ll be nearing the finish line and realizing a modern energy system, powered by renewables and efficiency.

Read Up

Coal: A Human History, by Barbara Freese, Penguin, 2004.

The Green Collar Economy, by Van Jones, HarperOne, 2009.

Act Locally

Fresh Energy
St. Paul, MN
651-225-0878
fresh-energy.org

Energy in Minnesota

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