The Beginning, Rapid Progress, and Big Future of Clean Energy in MN
President Obama's Clean Power Plan
In 2015, President Obama announced the Clean Power Plan which required greenhouse gas to be reduced by 32% below 2005 levels by 2030. Before the announcement, around a dozen clean energy leaders were invited to a social. J. Drake Hamilton was one of the guests. Others included Ben Fowke, President of Xcel Energy, the nation's 4th largest utility, and Harold Wimmer, National President and CEO of the American Lung Association. President Obama told them he wanted to invite leaders from the Heartland because they were the states central to the move to clean energy.
Harold Wimmer emphasized that respiratory illness would decline from the reduction in air pollution. The American Lung Association estimates that in 2030 there will be 3,600 fewer premature deaths, 90,000 fewer asthma attacks, and 300,000 fewer sick days at work and school. Ben Fowke stated that "coal is going away . . . it's just a matter of time." In 2016, the nation employed 4 million people in the clean energy sector with wind energy technicians the leading job.
Background of Clean Energy in Minnesota
Ten years ago in 2007, the Minnesota legislature passed the Next Generation Energy Act. The Act required that MN get 25% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025. It had bipartisan support, and Governor Pawlenty (R) signed the bill. In 2004, 67% of MN's electricity was produced by coal. The use of coal decreased to 39% by 2016. Renewable energy, 2% of MN's electricity in 2004, had already increased to 23% by 2016.
Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
Clean energy jobs grew 78 percent from 2000 to 2014, compared to 11 percent for total employment in the state. MN currently has 15,000 clean energy jobs, paying an average of $71,000 a year, 42% more than the average job in MN. The job categories include:
construction operations modeling operations modeling modeling
programming finance planning finance planning
marketing accounting transportation accounting transportation
design manufacturing legal manufacturing legal
700 MN companies provide these clean energy jobs. Many of them started as construction companies, including the largest, Mortenson Construction which employs 2,600 people, 1,600 in permanent union jobs; Blattner Energy near St. Cloud with full union jobs; and Geronimo Energy in Edina. Geronimo Energy, which installs wind turbines and solar panels, decided to hire an employee who had worked at Xcel Energy and could help identify which substations could accept more energy. Geronimo was interested in installing large utility solar in areas where the transmission stations still had room for energy. The employee identified 25 such substations near which Geronimo has installed utility solar. As a result of wind and solar energy installations, local economies across Minnesota have been revitalized, graduates can return to good jobs in their home towns, and support for renewable energy in rural MN has increased.
Raising Minnesota’s Renewable Energy Standard to 50% by 2030
Raising Minnesota's Renewable Energy Standard (RES) to 50% by 2030 has bipartisan support in the MN House and Senate. House Bill 1772 and Senate Bill 1531, which will be considered in the next legislative session, has authors on both sides of the aisle, support in both rural and urban areas, and strong support by the public with 43% strongly favoring the increase in RES and 23% somewhat in favor. Increasing renewable energy is cost effective. Renewable energy is currently cheaper than gas and coal, including coal produced in older plants, and is expected to continue to decrease in cost. The increase in MN's RES would create about 1,500 new jobs in clean energy a year. Xcel Energy expects to have a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions and to decrease the use of coal to 15% by 2030. J. Hamilton noted that Xcel Energy gives conservative estimates. Its actual reduction in CO2 emissions is likely to be considerably higher.
Solar Energy Soars
Solar energy is expected to provide 10% of MN's energy by 2030 and will probably provide a much higher percent. Larger solar projects are cheaper to build per kilowatt or megawatt than smaller projects. Thus utility solar projects are cheapest to build. MN's largest solar farm in Chisago County powers 20,000 homes with 440,000 solar panels on 1,000 acres. They are surrounded by pollinator flowers, which Minnesota now requires to be planted as part of utility solar projects.
Community solar is next in cost, and individual residential rooftop solar panels are most expensive. The higher cost of solar on a home roof is reduced through federal and state rebate programs. However, only about 20% of homes are appropriate for solar panels. For most homeowners and for renters, participating in a community solar project is the best alternative. MN's community solar program stands out in the nation. John Farrell, Director of the Energy Democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, explains why: "Because there are 10 times more community solar projects in the queue—400 megawatts—in Minnesota than have been built in the history of community solar in the United States—40 megawatts. Minnesota’s program is a comprehensive approach that makes developing community solar projects economically viable and—most importantly—that does not cap the development of community solar projects. The latter is the key."
The Energy Revolution: Electrifying the Economy, including Transportation, Heating, and Cooling
As MN's electricity becomes free of greenhouse gas pollution, other aspects of the economy, including transportation, cooling, and heating, will become electrified over the coming decades. Electric vehicles, which currently put about 1/3 less CO2 in the atmosphere than gasoline cars are becoming more common. It is estimated that MN will have between 770,000 and 1 million electric cars on the road by 2030. Utilities are interested in promoting electric cars because it brings them business. Providing electricity for one car is equal to providing electricity for two homes.
Solar water heating and conversion of wasted energy to heat will become more widespread, and eventually GHG free electricity will be used for heating and cooling. Recently Fresh Energy referred an engineer to the Science Museum in St. Paul to suggest ways the museum could convert wasted energy in the building to heat. The engineer was successful so that in February on a 4 degree day, the museum was heated through conversion of wasted energy without any need for additional gas heat.
J. Hamilton noted that we need to be sure that policy makers do not have a head full of outdated information. The cost of clean energy sources has gone through big price reductions during the last three years. All of the earth's energy needs could be produced by using .3% of the land for solar energy.
With J. Drake Hamilton - Science Policy Director, Fresh Energy
Forum on May 25, 2017 at the Maple Grove Library
Sponsored by NW Climate Action - Notes by Carol Woehrer