After the one-two wallop of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, I was sure state Sen. David Senjem would be game to talk a little climate change with me.
After all, the 74-year-old Rochester Republican may be his caucus’ most vigorous advocate for a Minnesota conversion to alternative energy — the kind that doesn’t put greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. As a former environmental affairs officer for Mayo Clinic, he’s conversant with scientific concepts, such as the fact that warmer oceans spawn larger hurricanes. As chair of the Senate’s bonding committee, tasked with funding Minnesota’s future infrastructure needs, he’s aware that what some are calling “climate breakdown” would take a big toll on public resources.
Six times since 2010, Senjem has participated in a Minnesota-Germany exchange funded by the German government to study Germany’s rapid conversion to wind and solar power. He was instrumental in enlisting Rochester in the Climate Smart Municipalities exchange program organized by the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota.
Senjem lights up when he talks about generating electricity with the sun and wind rather than coal and gas. But his smile fell at last week’s postmortem on the latest Minnesota-Germany exchange when I mentioned climate change.
“I approach this from an economic point of view,” he said soberly. “That’s a better argument for a Republican.”
Well, it’s a valid argument. Last year, the price of new solar and wind electricity generation in the U.S. either matched or fell below that generated with fossil-fuel sources, according to a respected industry analysis. The number of Minnesota jobs related to renewable energy grew 5.3 percent last year, four times faster than overall job growth.
Renewable sources are no longer minor contributors to the state’s total electricity generation picture. As of this spring, they were still in second place to the dirtiest source, coal. But coal-burning plants are becoming ripe for conversion to cheaper natural gas — or, in Senjem’s vision, to be decommissioned some years hence in favor of more wind and solar generation, particularly in southeastern Minnesota.
“This is coming,” Senjem said confidently. “Let’s be first! We have a chance to capture the economic virtues that come with this conversion and take a winning approach for Minnesota.”
Renewable-energy skeptics likely think the way he did when he first signed on to the Minnesota-Germany policy exchange, yielding to the arm-twisting of one of its founding board members, the late Connie Perpich. Germany had just committed to decommissioning its 17 nuclear power plants by 2022 and replacing their power generating capacity largely with wind and solar power.
“That seemed crazy to me,” Senjem recalls. “I thought it would put a highly industrial society at risk.” Instead, he said, he has seen the nuclear plants’ share of Germany’s total electrical power fall to 14 percent this year, while renewable generation is approaching 40 percent. (The comparable figures in Minnesota are 22 percent and 26 percent, respectively.)
“Their economy is still a powerhouse” and shows no sign of being hampered by electricity that’s either unreliable or too expensive, Senjem said. The German people have embraced the change with a sense of common purpose that he speaks about with evident envy in his voice. “They are absolutely convinced that as a society, they need to move in this direction.”
Can Minnesotans be similarly persuaded with an argument solely about economics, not about the need to preserve the livability of the planet?
If enthusiasm can make it so, Senjem has the requisite spirit. He’s working to engage the Journey to Growth regional-planning venture in the Rochester area in a plan to make renewable energy an integral part of its economic-development strategy. He envisions windmills and municipal solar fields popping up near small towns, attracting residents and industry, and becoming “the energy mecca of the Upper Midwest, or maybe the nation.” (“We don’t want to be wed solely to health care,” he added.)
He’s touting an idea for the University of Minnesota to cement its leadership in connecting this region with European energy innovation. He wants the university to establish what he’s calling “The International Center for Energy and the Environment.”
He’d also like to consolidate energy policy into a separate, more visible state Energy Department. (I advised him that in 1978, Minnesota had a Department of Energy and Economic Development. Its commissioner: Mark Dayton.) The next bonding bill could finance the installation of solar panels on state building rooftops, Senjem added.
“We could be the center of the universe on this!” he enthused.
Would that could be so. But with a pack of climate-science deniers installed in high places in the federal government, even progressive states like Minnesota are hobbled in their ability to compete globally with societies that acknowledge the larger urgency attached to alternative energy.
Senjem is right: There’s money to be made in getting off fossil fuels. That’s a good reason to move in that direction. But as back-to-back Category 4 hurricanes showed, there’s also a fearsome price to be paid if the United States does not move far and fast enough. It’s too bad that Minnesota Republicans like Senjem aren’t willing to make the whole argument.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.