While I am known for many firsts on my arctic expeditions, I also have been one of the first eyewitnesses to the devastating effects of climate change. These experiences compelled me to establish the Will Steger Foundation and spend the last eight years sounding the alarm bell and calling for action.
Today, I am celebrating. It’s because of people like Jon Kramer, whom I first met on Saganaga Lake, where he installed solar on a wilderness cabin. In 2010, Sundial Solar was a two-person company. Now it employs 20 and is one of the bigger solar installers in Minnesota. TenKsolar, a Bloomington-based company that produces solar panels, has had similar growth; it started in a garage in Lakeville half a dozen years ago. Now it employs more than 80 and ships its product worldwide.
These businesses tell the story of a burgeoning Minnesota clean-jobs economy that’s attracting young people, including two aspiring new employees of Sundial Solar whom I know well. They dreamed of good-paying jobs that would make a difference, and they are now part of an energy revolution that is occurring across our state, from Ely to Worthington.
Today we can celebrate more than 15,300 Minnesotans working in a clean-energy economy that is creating an increasing number of high-paying jobs, decreasing dependence on fossil fuels, and improving air and water quality in the state. A detailed report released by the Minnesota Departments of Commerce and Employment and Economic Development on Oct. 1 documents this economy, which sustains local jobs and attracts investment across clean-energy sectors, including energy-efficiency, wind, solar, bioenergy and smart grid.
The report tracks the rapid growth of the clean-energy market, which is reducing the state’s dependence on imported energy. Biofuel production capacity, energy-efficiency savings, and solar and wind installations all had triple-digit percentage jumps between 2000 and 2012. As of 2012, annual energy-efficiency savings and renewable-electricity capacity in Minnesota was enough to power more than 1.4 million homes in the state for a year. State biofuel production capacity was enough to replace fossil fuel for 1.7 million vehicles for one year.
In addition, employment in clean-energy sectors is growing faster than total state employment. Clean-energy employment in Minnesota surged 78 percent between January 2000 and the first quarter of 2014, growing steadily through the recession.
And these jobs pay well. Minnesota workers in the clean-energy economy earned more than $1 billion in wages in 2013. Average annual wages in the clean-energy economy reached more than $71,000 in 2013, which was 42 percent higher than the statewide average of about $51,000 for all jobs. These jobs range from installation and maintenance to manufacturing and research.
Forward-thinking public policies helped guide our state to this new economy. In 2007, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed Minnesota’s Next Generation Energy Act into law. This law set nation-leading goals for clean-energy growth and carbon reduction, including a 25 percent by 2025 renewable-energy standard. Seven years later, Minnesota’s utilities are all on track or exceeding the renewable-electricity schedule, at little or no negative cost impact on Minnesota customers.
In 2013, Minnesota adopted its most significant clean-energy reforms since 2007, including a first-ever solar standard — an important first step in answering Gov. Mark Dayton’s call to transition to a cleaner-energy future that creates thousands of jobs for Minnesotans. We now have a 1.5 percent solar standard and a goal of 10 percent solar by 2030.
Minnesota has established a common-sense foundation for its clean-energy future, and we deserve to commemorate that accomplishment, but we still have work to do. All of the state’s utilities are facing decisions about the future of their aging coal plants in light of new national carbon-pollution standards. States are now in the driver’s seat, and Minnesota is working to implement the Clean Power Plan. We have the opportunity and challenge to create a Minnesota path that will meet and exceed the federal carbon-reduction targets for our state in a manner that will be least-cost and that will grow efficiency and renewable-energy jobs in the state beyond business as usual.
Thanks to robust developments in the last 25 years, along with public- and private-sector expertise and strong leadership from Dayton, Minnesota is well-positioned for the future. So today we rejoice, and tomorrow we can continue the good work of building our new clean-energy economy.
Will Steger is an accomplished polar explorer, educator and author, and is the founder of the Will Steger Foundation, dedicated to engaging people in climate change solutions.