Mayor Dave Kleis of St. Cloud is a renewable-energy ambassador.
St. Cloud has gone from virtually no renewable energy, excluding the city’s hydroelectric dam operated by Xcel Energy, to covering nearly 65 percent of the power for its public facilities over the past three years. The goal is 80 percent over the next several years, including more energy-efficient lighting, conserving natural gas with geothermal heating and technology upgrades.
Apex Efficiency Solutions, which worked with the city on its single-biggest energy hog, the wastewater treatment facility, reports St. Cloud is generating nearly 90 percent of the energy to run the facility, thanks to a generator that powers and heats it with gas synthesized from the waste and solar arrays. Pollution has been cut markedly, with the residue used by area farmers as fertilizer.
The project is paid for out of energy cost savings and should generate several million dollars in additional savings over 20 years.
Kleis, a former Republican legislator and small business owner, testified during a legislative hearing this year that if St. Cloud’s hydropower plant is included, the city now generates a stunning 256 percent of its electrical needs.
That’s a nice start on a green energy future and reducing the carbon dioxide output from coal and other fossil fuels to escape the climate-related disasters that are horribly expensive in human and economic costs. If that doesn’t move you, focus on the economic benefits, particularly in a Minnesota where we still import a lot of oil and coal.
Minnesota power-generation pollution has been cut by a third since 2005 as the economy grew.
Wind, the fastest-growing renewable energy, also is the lowest cost, said a study by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The cost of wind and solar are dropping by double digits every year as they scale up. And wind alone provided 18 percent of Minnesota electricity last year. Power from renewables grew 37 percent between 2013 and 2018.
Employers, from 3M to Cargill to Ecolab and General Mills, are signing up to procure up to 100 percent renewable energy. Two thirds of Fortune 500 companies issue sustainability reports that document their growth while using less energy and water.
This week, Clean Energy Economy Minnesota will announce that renewable and energy-efficiency jobs in Minnesota grew by 4.7 percent to 61,000 jobs last year, nearly 2.5 times as fast as the overall job market.
The nonprofit’s CEO, Gregg Mast, a former corporate finance manager, notes the benefit of solar installations and wind farms around his hometown of Blooming Prairie. More workers and more spending.
Some of these jobs are temporary, tied to construction. However, 75 percent of clean energy jobs are in energy efficiency, arguably the cleanest and cheapest form of energy. About 46,000 Minnesotans make Energy Star-rated appliances, install efficient HVAC equipment, upgrade lighting systems and weatherproof buildings and homes.
Moreover, wind, even sans subsidies, arguably is the state’s cheapest source of new electricity, according to Bloomberg’s annual survey in March of U.S. power generation with help from Clean Energy. The cost of new wind and solar power facilities in Minnesota fell by 16 and 23 percent in 2018 over the previous year.
“We are clearly seeing that these forms of generation are economically competitive,” said Mast.
Solar-energy projects in Minnesota are approaching cost-competitiveness with new gas-fired plants. And gas is much cleaner-burning than coal, and pairs well with wind because of its flexibility in powering on and off.
Coal is still king in producing Minnesota power, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce. But it dropped from 66 percent of the fuel mix in 2000 to 39 percent in 2017. Renewables rose from 6 percent to 25 percent over the same period.
Gov. Tim Walz has called on Minnesota power producers to produce 100 percent carbon-free power by 2050.
That’s aspirational. And Walz doesn’t want to dictate how utilities get there. The Legislature is considering related bills.
Xcel Energy, the state’s biggest power company, recently announced it will deliver 100 percent carbon-free juice by 2050 and cut carbon output by 80 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Great River Energy, the second-largest producer, plans to deliver 50 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030.
Minnesota is a leading state in energy efficiency and renewables. Ryan Butterfield, director of energy services at Werner Electric of Cottage Grove, a Clean Energy member, last month called the growth of cost-declining renewable energy, battery storage and energy-efficiency technology good for job creation.
Clean energy is increasingly popular with voters and the public who recognize that a cleaner, low-carbon economy produces growth and jobs.
Clean Energy Economy Minnesota has outlined six priorities to grow Minnesota’s clean-energy industry that should be read by elected officials and voters.
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.