President Donald Trump’s efforts to roll back clean power standards will probably have a minimal effect on Minnesota, since state policy — combined with changing energy economics — has already been leading utilities away from coal.
As expected, Trump on Tuesday signed an executive order aimed at rescinding former President Barack Obama’s climate-change initiatives, including the Clean Power Plan.
But many utilities in Minnesota are already on a clean-power path. “They are going to make the [carbon] reduction that would be required under the Clean Power Plan anyway,” said Will Seuffert, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board, which coordinates environmental policy across state agencies.
The utilities’ decisions are “influenced by what their customers want; the price of renewables; and how natural gas has been able to out-compete against coal,” Seuffert said.
Natural gas emits half as much greenhouse gasses as coal, and is generally cheaper, he said.
Also, states across the country have been increasingly adopting clean-energy policies, prodding utilities to act.
“Minnesota was already on track to meet the Clean Power Plan because of the existing bipartisan legislative policy we have,” said J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director for Fresh Energy, a renewable energy group in St. Paul. “The pull is toward renewables.”
The 2007 Next Generation Energy Act signed by former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty required that utilities generally get 25 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2025. It also aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.
So far, the law has led to a slight decrease in overall greenhouse gases — about 4 percent from 2005 to 2014, according to a January report from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Department of Commerce.
Still, the report noted there had been “significant emissions reductions in some areas, especially in electricity generation where emissions decreased 17 percent from 2005 to 2014.”
Gov. Mark Dayton panned Trump’s executive order, saying it will do “irreparable” environmental and economic damage and give industries a “license to pollute.”
Trump argues that Obama’s Clean Power Plan would cost up to $39 billion a year, increase electricity prices and reduce the amount of U.S. coal mined annually by 242 million tons.
The plan — which dictated specific targets for states in reducing carbon dioxide emissions — had not gone into effect as challenges worked their way through the federal courts.
In Minnesota, coal fueled 39 percent of the power generated within in the state last year, followed by nuclear at 23 percent, wind at 18 percent and natural gas at 15 percent, according to the state Department of Commerce.
Coal was the source for 62 percent of the power in 2006 and 53 percent in 2011, according to Commerce Department data. Meanwhile, wind and natural gas generation have risen respectively from 4 percent and 5 percent since 2006.
Those trends should continue.
Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy, by far Minnesota’s largest utility, recently announced 1,500 megawatts of new wind projects that will produce electricity for Minnesota and the Dakotas.
A megawatt is 1 million watts; by comparison, Xcel’s two large coal generators in Becker each produce 680 megawatts (albeit not variably).
By 2021, Xcel — already the nation’s largest wind-producing utility — expects that wind will become its largest power source in Minnesota and the Dakotas, producing 30 percent of its electricity. Coal and nuclear will each contribute 27 percent by then.
Last fall, Minnesota utilities regulators approved Xcel’s decision to retire its two Becker coal generators, one each in 2023 and 2026.
Xcel plans to build a 786-megawatt gas-fired power plant in Becker to help replace the lost coal power. It has also switched on nearly 240 megawatts of solar power in the past few months, including a massive project in Chisago County.
The company says it is on target to meet the Clean Power Plan’s standards regardless of its fate.
“At this point, we really don’t see that it will affect our plan,” said Laura McCarten, a regional vice president for Xcel.
Other power companies in Minnesota also have added significant wind power capacity in recent years, while retiring coal-fired generation.
John Linc Stine, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said it makes far more economic sense for the state to build a renewable energy infrastructure than importing coal or oil from other states or countries.
“Our state doesn’t produce any fossil fuels,” he said. “We should consume fuel that comes to us at no charge.“
The effect of climate change in Minnesota is already significant, Stine said. Northern forests are changing rapidly with oak, red maples and birch moving into the pine forest, while warming lakes are increasing the spread of invasive aquatic species.
“Climate change is not somewhere else,” he said. “It’s here, too.”