Rolf Nordstrom is CEO of Great Plains Institute (GPI) of Minneapolis. Nordstrom, 54, a Northfield native who attended graduate school at the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, studied environmental policy and alternative dispute resolution. He presides over a nonprofit that works in Minnesota and nationally to forge common ground among utilities, business, labor and environmental groups on energy solutions. 

Q: What inspired your interest in conservation and energy work?

A: I spent a lot of time in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and was a Boy Scout. The idea that you leave the campsite better than you found it stuck with me. Same goes for the planet. GPI’s mission is to transform the energy system to benefit the economy and environment.


Q: What role does GPI play in helping power producers make the electrical grid greener without yielding reliability?

A: The century-plus old electric system is undergoing three tectonic shifts: from analog to digital, with millions of new devices attached to the grid from solar panels to refrigerators; from centralized power production to more decentralized, like the shift from mainframe computers to smartphones; and from one-way flow of electricity to having it flow in multiple directions. And … consumers choosing how their electricity is produced. More want it “clean.”

Over the past two decades, GPI has worked with utilities and their stakeholders to understand what works well and not about the existing utility regulatory framework and business model. And how both might evolve to better meet these 21st century challenges.

The Minnesota effort … we convene with the Center for Energy & Environment. GPI combines techniques that are unusual to find in a single organization: energy policy and technology expertise; a nuanced understanding of commercial, local, and political realities … and consensus-building. This enables us to work effectively across political, economic, geographic, and cultural lines to broker solutions.

Q: Advanced Energy Economy (AEE) and Clean Energy Economy Minnesota (CEEM) released a policy road map for the Minnesota gubernatorial candidates designed to accelerate growth of renewables and conservation; cut carbon emissions and continue to grow jobs faster than the overall economy.

A: The AEE/CEEM energy policy road map has some great recommendations. I would offer the following: Establish an energy slot in the next governor’s cabinet to reflect the importance of energy to Minnesota’s economic and environmental future.

Develop a bipartisan economic development strategy for meeting the state’s existing goal of reducing greenhouse gases 80 percent by 2050. GPI has worked with utilities and other stakeholders … to develop a “decarbonization’’ road map in the electricity sector. We know this is doable. And forge a bipartisan “clean-fuel standard” that could make Minnesota a leader in advanced biofuels and electric vehicles, including buses (made by New Flyer in St. Cloud). Lower lifetime costs and be cleaner.


Q: Most of the Fortune 500 businesses and many small companies have “sustainability” plans. What’s happening?

A: More companies see the shift to a make-less-waste economy that uses less energy, water and materials per dollar of output as necessary. You design products to have value at the end of their useful life. Reuse, recycle, conserve and you have a healthier, more productive economy. That’s good business and good for the environment. Consumers support this.

Industry is absolutely taking climate change more seriously, with nearly 500 companies taking climate action and many of the nation’s largest utilities decarbonizing their fleets. And there is an entire industry sector emerging. Some are calling it “Carbon Recycling or Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage.”

The Center for Carbon Removal estimates it to be a $5 trillion-plus global market of companies that capture, transport and convert “waste” carbon dioxide into an array of products, from concrete and fuels to beverages and textiles.


Q: Xcel and Great River have reached their renewable-energy goals early and are now more or less doubling down.

A: It’s a combination of great leadership that sees consumers want cleaner energy, plus unbelievable improvement in the economics of renewable energy. You can build a new wind-transmission facility, in some areas, all in, for less than just the operating cost of a coal plant.


Q: What will it take for Minnesota to continue to be a leader in the clean-energy trend?

A: The single most important factor is a cultural norm of civil debate and bipartisanship. These aren’t really “left” or “right” issues. Increase energy efficiency and productivity across the economy; increasingly “electrify” the economy and low-carbon fuels where electricity won’t work. And capture carbon for [industrial] use and permanent storage. Achieving them would ensure Minnesota’s long-term prosperity and position us to export the know-how and technologies that will power the global economy.