Minnesota surging on clean energy growth

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

A new factsheet from Clean Energy Economy Minnesota shows that the North Star State is doing much better than the nation as a whole at decarbonizing our electricity sector.

The 2024 Minnesota Energy Factsheet reports that last year, Minnesota generated 54% of its electricity from zero-carbon sources, and has now cut its electricity emissions by 54% of 2005 letters. The United States as whole only generated 41% of its power from zero-carbon sources and has only cut sector emissions by 42% in the same timeframe.

Geography and economics have played a big role in this success story. Minnesota is blessed with abundant wind rolling across our farmland, providing readily available clean power and extra income for many farmers. We’ve also benefited from the plummeting cost of both wind generation and solar panels, making clean energy projects far more economical than fossil fuels.

But policy has played a big role in allowing us to take advantage of these opportunities. The 2007 Next Generation Energy Act and last year’s 100% carbon-free energy law have helped spur progress by utilities at decarbonizing the grid. State funding, including the Minnesota Climate Innovation Finance Authority (MnCIFA) is also investing in cleaner, cheaper energy, with MnCIFA making its first loan just over a month ago.

The decline of coal

Coal trains still travel through Minnesota, and lakers carrying it eastward over Lake Superior can still be seen docked in the twin Ports (albeit alongside wind turbines coming the other direction). But there’s little doubt that coal is on its way out. The expensive, emissions-heavy fuel only generated 22% of Minnesota’s power in 2023, less than half of its share ten years prior. The factsheet reports that all of Minnesota’s coal plants will be retired by 2035.

Beyond the clear climate win of shutting down coal, it’s a slam dunk for human health. Coal emissions contribute to asthma, lung cancers, cardiovascular disease, neurological problems, and various other ailments. Coal plants also pump mercury into the atmosphere and the water cycle, adding to Northern Minnesota’s mercury pollution woes.

Obstacles remain

One asterisk on this good news is that it wasn’t only renewables contributing to coal’s steep decline. While Minnesota’s two nuclear plants remained steady – as they have for years – at around a fifth to a quarter of our power supply, natural gas increased from 18% in 2022 to 25% in 2023.

There’s no question that burning natural gas produces less carbon emissions than burning coal. But producing, storing, and transporting natural gas inevitably leads to leaks. Because natural gas is mostly composed of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, it has an outsized impact. The EPA estimates that 4% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2022 resulted from methane leaks.

It’s also important to recognize that reducing emissions somewhat isn’t enough – science tells us that we need to cut our greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero as fast as possible to stave off climate catastrophe. In the long run, natural gas plants won’t cut it, and expanding it in lieu of full buildup of renewables is a dead-end pathway. Fortunately, more and more authorities – including in our own Twin Ports – are recognizing that gas plants are a poor use of our time and land.

Where we go from here

Fortunately, we don’t need fossil gas to sustainably meet our energy needs. Minnesota utilities are investing in new storage infrastructure to help maintain stability in the electricity sector, powered by remarkably cheap renewables. The Legislature is also looking to pass policies favoring necessary grid infrastructure for our renewable future, as well as investments in geothermal systems that could help power, heat, and cool our communities.

We’re proud that Minnesota has leaned into the job of clean energy leadership, showing other states and countries that a cleaner grid is possible. Over the next few weeks of session and beyond, we’ll keep advocating for ever more action to power our state on clean, safe, affordable energy.

For previous columns, visit mepartnership.org/category/blog/. If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

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