John Dunlop, engineer and energy consultant, is a 45-year pioneer of the renewable-energy movement in Minnesota. He also was the chairman of the recent national conference of the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) in Bloomington that drew 300 energy experts and others focused on “ramping up the use of renewable energy to attack the climate crisis.” Gregg Mast, a business veteran and CEO of Clean Energy Economy Minnesota, also addressed the conference. This conversation is edited from prepared remarks and an interview.

Q: John, what was the upshot of the conference?

A: Urgent action is needed using renewable energy to eliminate carbon emissions from electrical generation and transportation and new buildings … within just two decades. We need to ramp up production of renewable electricity immediately. That will require support from elected officials at the national, state and local level to provide guidance to transform our electric supply system. 

Q: Any other challenges?

A: The biggest impediment to massive investments by businesses to increase the generation of renewable electricity was recently covered in the Star Tribune by [energy] reporter Mike Hughlett. We need to rapidly expand our ability to get electricity from where it will be generated to where we use it. We need transmission … to expand the generation of very low-cost electric power from wind and solar installations.

Q: Minnesota and Upper Midwest utilities will study how to bolster transmission networks to meet aggressive renewable-energy goals. They are focused on a safe, reliable, cost-effective electric grid as the system adds more carbon-free energy. What else, John?

A: I attended the celebration of Minnesota’s first wind energy “repowering” project near Lake Benton [this month]. NextEra Energy has removed 173 600-killowatt turbines on 50-meter towers that were installed in 1998 and will replace them with just 44 2.5 MW turbines on 90-meter towers. They will generate more electricity from the same generating capacity. We heard from NextEra, Xcel and county officials that further wind development in Lincoln and Lyon counties is inhibited because of transmission constraints. The challenge to quickly convert our entire electric system to no-carbon electricity is large. The business and job-creation opportunities are equally large.

Q: Did this come up at your conference?

A: At the ASES conference this month, James McCalley, an electrical engineering professor from Iowa State University [said] the U.S. needs a new, high-voltage direct current (DC) transmission network across the entire country in order to ship low-cost renewable electricity from resource-rich areas across the “seams” between the three electrically independent areas of the country: eastern, western and Texas. [Those seams] limit long-distance transport of power. A two-wire, 800 kV DC line carries 10 times the current that is transmitted by the typical three-wire 350 kV alternative current (AC) lines. DC lines have less “line loss” and do not generate pulsing electromagnetic fields. Further, DC lines are strung on narrow single poles with a small ground footprint, in contrast to the lattice towers on broad bases for AC lines.

Q: Gregg, you have pointed out that the cost of solar energy has dropped by 80% over the last decade and wind by about 65% since 2009. The state’s utilities are exceeding goals for renewable-energy use and cutting carbon emissions. Renewable-energy advocates want the solar industry to increase its share of electrical output from 2% to 10% over the next decade.

A: Addressing the climate challenge is simply smart business. Two-thirds of Fortune 100s and nearly half of Fortune 500s have energy-efficiency, renewable-energy or sustainability goals. Taking action reduces costs, mitigates business risks, and provides significant market opportunities for responding to consumer demand. As our energy system transforms to low and zero carbon, there are also tremendous opportunities for entrepreneurs and small businesses to bring innovative products and services to market.

Energy efficiency and clean energy has been an economic growth engine for our state. These jobs [should] increase over 7% next year. Increasingly, consumers want more clean energy as well as options over how energy is generated. Minnesota has been a hotbed for solar development. Growth opportunities include expanding access to community solar gardens, pairing solar with energy storage, and addressing demand for commercial and industrial solar.

Q: Gregg, What is needed from state government?

A: Having policy certainty is essential for our businesses to invest and grow in Minnesota. The Walz-Flanagan administration’s “One Minnesota Path to Clean Energy” is a long-term vision and policy proposal that provides a critical investment signal for our companies. Its passage this coming legislative session would provide Minnesota with a significant competitive advantage to attract more clean energy jobs and expand economic opportunities that will help our state thrive and prosper.