Minnesotans could feel smug last week as President Trump told the nation’s electrical utilities to disregard climate science and keep pumping carbon-emitting coal into their big generators. Thanks in part to more than 20 years of smart state policy, Minnesota’s electricity providers could respond, “Uh, thanks, Mr. President, but we’re not much into coal anymore. And we’re not going back.”
For example: Xcel Energy, the state’s biggest supplier, is investing so heavily in non-coal generation that by 2021, 60 percent of its power production will come from carbon-free sources. Wind will produce more than half of that total, Xcel regional vice president Laura McCarten advised, with hydro, nuclear and fast-growing solar generation accounting for the rest. Two of Xcel’s coal-burning units have been shut down as wind power ramped up, McCarten said.
It would be a stretch to credit state government policies entirely for that change. It would be a mistake to discount them entirely.
It mattered that in 1994, the Legislature made acquisition of renewable-source generation capacity a condition for approval of additional nuclear waste storage at Xcel’s Prairie Island plant. That jump-started the region’s wind-power push before wind was economically competitive.
It mattered again when, in 2007, a Republican governor and DFL-controlled Legislature collaborated to set in law what was then one of the nation’s most aggressive mandates for regulated utilities: 25 percent of their supply is to come from renewable sources by 2025.
That move sent a positive signal to the marketplace about investing in renewable energy, said Gregg Mast of Clean Energy Economy Minnesota. Wind turbine and transmission technology improved, making them more efficient. The cost of wind-produced electricity fell dramatically, dropping below fossil fuels to become the least expensive way to generate electricity last year.
That economic advantage plus the availability of a federal production tax credit through 2019 for wind power facilities has caused a bumper crop of turbines to rise in rural fields in this and other states. At a time when other crops in Greater Minnesota aren’t so lucrative, lease payments of between $6,000 and $8,000 per year per turbine provide rural landowners with a welcome income stream.
Wind’s economic power is in turn stabilizing small towns near windy Buffalo Ridge in southwestern Minnesota, said state Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne.
“When I was first elected [in 2010], the town of Hardwick had lost its gas station and was debating whether it could keep its post office,” Schomacker said. “Then a wind farm was developed in my second year up here. They started building turbines just out of town and put an office in town. Now the post office is going to stay, the local eatery is thriving, they have a gas station back, and they have their first credit card machine. It’s bringing a lot of life back.”
Hundreds of wind turbines are spinning those results in Schomacker’s district. That’s why he signed on as the cosponsor of a bill that would take the state’s renewable-energy standard, still at 25 percent by 2025, back into a nation-leading stratum. The proposed change: 50 percent renewable by 2030.
The bipartisan pedigree and positive results of the original standard — and my smug awareness of Minnesota’s energy policy smarts — had me thinking a higher standard could become law this year.
That was until I learned that the bill for 50 percent by 2030 is opposed by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which wants the marketplace, not government mandates, to drive energy policy. And that Schomacker is the only member of the House’s GOP majority who signed on as a cosponsor. And that the bill was not even granted a hearing. (Its House sponsor is DFL Rep. Erin Maye Quade of Apple Valley. Bills sponsored by minority caucus freshmen who occupy districts that the majority caucus thinks it can win seldom get very far.)
Maybe Schomacker should tell more of his colleagues his Hardwick story.
The Legislature’s Republican majorities may not be mimicking President Trump’s embrace of coal. But they aren’t exactly pressing forward on renewable energy.
On the larger environmental front, they are producing enough disappointment among advocates of clean air and water for protests to be audible above the usual din of special pleaders. Environmental protectors lamented Republican efforts to roll back the 2015 agricultural buffer strip requirement around public waters, allow polluters to write their own environmental impact statements, and shift authority in several ways from the professionals in state agencies and citizen boards to the politicians in the Legislature. A bill to transform a Renewable Energy Fund that dates from the 1994 Prairie Island storage deal into a broader-purpose “Energy Fund” has already won House approval.
Moves like these might not make a great deal of difference in the short run. They might work to GOP advantage in the 2018 election when spun as restraints on government’s heavy hand.
But the reason Minnesotans could feel smug last week about this state’s increasing reliance on renewable energy is that governors and legislators a decade or two ago enacted policies that prepared Minnesota for a future they couldn’t yet see but believed was coming. What they saw faintly on the horizon is now in sharper focus: The world’s population is straining the planet’s carrying capacity. Human-caused climate change is altering habitability. Air and water pollution are exacerbating diseases and adding to human suffering. Finding ways to thrive without spoiling the planet is a shared responsibility that will produce shared benefits.
Instead of being smug because their predecessors did the right thing, today’s legislators ought to be asking how they can replicate the Hardwick story in more Minnesota places.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.