When Minnesota Power flipped the switch on the Nobles 2 wind farm in southwestern Minnesota last December, it became the first Minnesota utility to generate 50% of its electricity from renewable sources.

The Duluth-based utility also is driving an accelerating trend. Clean energy grew in Minnesota last year despite the pandemic and recession, according to the 2021 Minnesota Energy Factsheet commissioned by the Business Council for Sustainable Energy. It uses research by BloombergNEF.

In 2020, zero-carbon electricity (of renewables and nuclear) generated 55% of Minnesota electricity, up from 48% in 2019. Renewables as a group — wind, solar, hydro — became the single-biggest source of state electricity at 29% of the total generation. Wind constituted 22% of total generation.

Of the 588 megawatts of new generation capacity built last year, all was in solar and wind.

"With the right policy levels in place, businesses can fully leverage the clean energy transition and ensure that jobs continue to grow and that the economic benefits are extended to everyone who lives here," said Gregg Mast, executive director of Clean Energy Economy Minnesota.

Moreover, the U.S. had "blockbuster" growth of 34 gigawatts of renewable energy last year, disproportionately in the Southeast, said Melina Bartels of Bloomberg.

As zero-carbon sources rose, Minnesota's power from coal, considered the single-largest contributor to greenhouse gases and climate change, declined from 38% in 2018 to 25% in 2020. The report and utility executives said coal operates at relative economic disadvantage, in addition to environmental considerations.

Since 2005, carbon emissions from electrical generation are down by more than 30%, according to the division of energy resources at the Minnesota Department of Commerce, a key regulator.

Minnesota consumption of natural gas in the power sector, less polluting than coal, has tripled over the last decade, even though it shrank 6% last year. Gas is relatively cheap and flexible, making it a good combination with the intermittence of wind and solar energy.

Natural gas critics point out that a lot of methane, a greenhouse gas, historically is lost to leakage and flaring in the oil fields of North Dakota, a major Minnesota supplier. North Dakota oil producers have historically struggled to keep pace with the state's tightening regulations on the environmentally harmful flaring of natural gas. However, the state has steadily raised gas-capture goals and producers have topped the state's recently adopted 91% capture rate, according to North Dakota regulators.

Overall, Minnesota since 2011 has produced more economic output from a cleaner mix of electrical energy. The state's economy contracted by about 3.5% last year, while power consumption fell nearly 7%.

Becky Wacker, area general manager of Trane Commercial HVAC, called the increase in clean energy "phenomenal progress," saying customers want more efficiency and renewable power.

Minnesota average electricity prices of 10.8 cents per kilowatt hour are slightly above the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) regional average of 10.7 cents.

And Minnesota created some 60,000 jobs in energy conservation and renewables over the last 15 years.

The work toward the most-efficient, job-producing and pollution-free Minnesota economy is far from over. And power production is the brightest scene on the Minnesota energy-environmental landscape.

My colleague, environmental reporter Jennifer Bjorhus, wrote in January that Minnesota is missing its targets for cutting overall greenhouse gas emissions, thanks partly to natural gas, emissions from vehicles and methane emissions from farms, including livestock. The state's latest inventory of the heat-trapping emissions from the governor's climate change subcabinet is challenging.

The state is supposed to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions 30% by 2025, from 2005 levels. Instead, emissions have dropped just 8%. Minnesota missed its 2015 goal of a 15% reduction from 2005 levels. The Environmental Defense Fund said most states that set greenhouse gas emissions targets are falling short.

There is encouraging work going on; from battery storage of renewable power to farms where manure is converted to fuel, to growing sales of thousands of electric vehicles annually, to capturing methane gas at the huge Pine Bend landfill and elsewhere for processing into renewable gas that fuels trucks.

The Minnesota Legislature and an engaged business community are wrestling with proposed solutions this session to expedite the transition to a lower-carbon economy.

This is a tremendous environmental challenge and an economic opportunity.