Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has set an ambitious but needed goal for this state: carbon-free electricity within 30 years.
By then, electrical needs would be met by a mix of renewable sources — wind, solar and others — along with nuclear energy, whose role is likely to fade over time as renewable energy becomes even less expensive. Also part of the plan: increased emphasis on conservation and greater efficiencies. All three will be critical elements in weaning an energy-hungry society off fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal.
Minnesota is not alone on this. At least a half-dozen other states are moving ahead with energy reforms. Washington is looking at eliminating coal-based energy by 2030. New Mexico is considering a standard of 80 percent renewables by 2040. California is aiming for zero carbon by 2045. Illinois is looking at the more aggressive approach of 100 percent renewable sources by 2050.
Walz’s plan has some important distinctions that make it both more moderate and more flexible than those of some other states. By putting the emphasis on eliminating fossil fuels, Walz allows for continued use of nuclear energy, which supplies about a fifth of Minnesota’s energy. The state’s Monticello and Prairie Island nuclear power plants, with some upgrades, can continue providing a steady supply of baseload energy while the state transitions to greater reliance on renewable energy as technology allows.
That technology is evolving rapidly, making renewable energy from wind and solar both cheaper and more reliable as storage capacity improves. The naysayers trading in such oversimplifications as “the wind doesn’t blow 24/7” are doing a disservice on this vital debate. The fact is delivery of renewable energy comes from a broad region and a mix of sources, not just the wind turbine down the road.
Among those who consider the 2050 goal eminently doable is Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility, which adopted that timeline on its own. Smartly, the Walz administration is giving smaller utilities the flexibility to reach the new standard in their own way, without the kind of stricter benchmarks seen in some other states.
Critics who claim costs will skyrocket seem to be operating off an outdated playbook. The cost of renewable fuel is dropping, not rising. “That’s an old narrative that’s not yet fully dispelled,” said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership. “The price trends are all downward, to the point where it’s cheaper to put in new wind than operate old coal.”
In many ways, Minnesota is well-positioned for such a transition. The land here carries no natural reserves of coal, natural gas or petroleum. Every bit of fossil fuel this state uses must be imported from elsewhere. What is its natural energy resource? Endless, renewable wind rolling across its broad expanses of prairie.
Walz’s vision, while laudable, is skimpy on details. That needs to be addressed if it is be to be taken seriously. Walz and supporters should not underestimate the need to educate consumers on this new and changing terrain, to forthrightly address their concerns about cost and reliability. Failure to do so will only make the public more vulnerable to ill-founded arguments.
In 2006, when he proposed a goal of 25 percent renewable energy by 2025, then Gov. Tim Pawlenty was bludgeoned by critics who said it would be too hard, too expensive. Well, Minnesota met that goal years ahead of schedule in 2018, and is primed to do more. But it will require a sustained vision and commitment that must extend not just years, but decades.