An electric car charging station now stands in the Willie’s Supervalu parking lot in downtown Morris, Minn., population 5,300, 45 miles from the South Dakota border.
City officials there are awaiting word on their application for federal funding for two electric buses to add to Morris Transit’s six-bus fleet.
City government’s rolling stock already includes a Chevy Volt (a plug-in hybrid), city manager Blaine Hill reports. It was among the 11 locally owned vehicles, two electric bicycles and one electric riding lawn mower that were on display at a city-sponsored hybrid and electric car show Feb. 26. It was the warm-up act for that evening’s unanimous City Council approval of Morris’s first-ever sustainability strategic plan. Among its goals: By 2030, 80% of the energy consumed in the county are to be produced within the county. That rules out fossil fuels.
These are developments that deserve the attention of Minnesota’s elected officials — particularly the Republicans seeking to hold on to their party’s state Senate majority in the 2020 election.
To be sure, Morris isn’t a typical western Minnesota town. It’s the home of a University of Minnesota campus, populated by people professionally inclined to give credence to scientific consensus. It’s one of six Minnesota cities that since 2015 have exchanged ideas about energy policy and practices with municipalities of similar size in Germany, through the university’s Climate Smart Municipalities program.
But Morris is also the seat of Stevens County, which President Donald Trump carried by nearly a 13-percentage-point margin in 2016.
That fact augurs a conclusion that Morris isn’t an outlier among greater Minnesota cities in its response to climate change. It’s more likely that it’s a harbinger.
That possibility ought not go unnoticed by among state Senate Republicans. This year, their resistance blocked efforts emanating from the DFL-controlled House and DFL Gov. Tim Walz to set a new state goal: 100% carbon-free electricity generation by 2050.
Senate Republicans also stalled a comparatively modest bill sponsored by one of their own, Rochester Sen. David Senjem. A former Senate majority leader, Senjem told a Senate committee that he deemed his Clean Energy First bill the most important he’d ever sponsored. It would bolster existing statutes requiring electrical utilities to consider wind, solar and biomass first when they seek to increase their generating capacity, asking that they justify any alternative choice to the Public Utilities Commission.
That bill got a Senate hearing, which is more than can be said about the Walz/House DFL proposals.
“Senjem deserves credit. He put a lot of personal political capital on the line,” said Michael Noble, executive director of Fresh Energy, a Minnesota-based clean energy advocacy group. But it was for naught. “There were 100 pages of good policy coming out of the House. Almost all of it wound up in the dustbin,” Noble said.
Republican legislators from greater Minnesota may believe they’re on safe political ground when they spurn policies that would push Minnesota to more quickly curtail fossil-fuel consumption. They may put climate science in the same category as other perennially partisan issues, say legal abortion or gun control — matters on which opinion in the state’s rural, Republican-leaning precincts is fixed and firmly opposite the views of urban Minnesotans.
If that’s their thinking, this would be a fine time for them to think again.
Nationally, polls are showing a surge in the number of Americans who believe climate change is both real and man-made, and who believe doing something about it should be a government priority. While a partisan split persists in Americans’ thinking, a Pew Research survey last year found that millennial-generation Republicans are twice as likely as their elders to believe that climate change is caused by human activity, and that fossil-fuel use should not increase.
In Minnesota, farmers have been rattled this year by persistently wet weather that perilously postponed planting. It comes on the heels of a number of years of steadily increasing precipitation and worsening storms, all in keeping with the predicted consequences of the 25% increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since 1970.
On June 14, 380 people — a hefty turnout — registered for an all-day conference at the University of Minnesota to examine the prospects for a Minnesota transition to clean energy. Conference-goers learned that it’s already too late for this state to claim nation-leading status with Walz’s aim to become 100% carbon-free in electricity generation by 2050. Eight states and/or territories have already set that goal, and 17 others (Minnesota among them) are considering such a move, including politically red or purple states like Montana, Texas and Florida.
Hill, the Morris city administrator, was one of the conference presenters. He said that several years ago, ideas for reducing carbon emissions locally were met on the City Council with concern about their upfront cost. Today, he said, council members are well-versed in how a transition to more wind and solar power promises to save money over time.
“They want to know when we can put solar panels on City Hall,” Hill said with a chuckle. “We still talk about clean energy and conservation more than we do about ‘climate change,’ ” he added. “That’s OK, as long as it doesn’t slow us down.”
Therein may lie advice for Republican elected officials who see that even in greater Minnesota, just-say-no resistance is no longer a politically safe response to climate change. Voters who consider climate change a liberal delusion might nevertheless be persuaded that more wind turbines and solar gardens might save them a few bucks down the road.
Another conference speaker was Charles Hernick, policy director at the Washington-based Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions. He was an unsuccessful Republican candidate for Congress in Virginia in 2016. Unlike his party’s standard-bearer that year, Hernick doesn’t claim that climate science is a hoax.
Rather, he urges his fellow Republicans around the country to get out of denial mode and focus on crafting a conservative response to the scientific consensus. Like Republicans of yore in this state, he holds that his party should strive to empower states and local governments more than the federal government, invite experimentation, and seek cooperation from business.
“A page has turned” on clean energy, Hernick said. “If you don’t see more genuine leadership from Republicans on this issue, they won’t win elections.”
Maybe not even in places like Morris, Minnesota.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer and was the moderator of a panel at the June 14 Clean Energy Future conference at the University of Minnesota. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.