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On energy and the environment, Michael Noble keeps politicians honest

Michael Noble
Michael Noble

The author Edward Arlington Robinson would like the name Michael Noble. Robinson enjoyed giving his protagonists names that reflected their true character. You can't spend 10 minutes with Michael Noble without recognizing that he is, in fact, a noble man.   

For 30 years, Michael Noble has dedicated himself to a vision of an energy-efficient economy. For 16 of those years, he has been the executive director of Fresh Energy and its predecessor organization. When politicians at the state Legislature start spouting off about energy and the environment, they look around to see if Michael Noble is in the hall. If he is present, they resort to the facts. When he is not around, legislators sometimes simply make things up.


Michael Noble, more than even journalists, keeps politicians honest when they start creating facts out of thin air. That's because Noble knows more about energy, global warming, state law and the environment than any of our elected officials.  

You don't think politicians just make things up? When the Legislature was considering what amount of sulfates ought to be allowed in wild rice rivers near a proposed mining site, Rep. Tom Rukavina stood up and said the limit should be 250 milligrams per liter. The current standard is 10 milligrams. Rukavina wants the mine built, so he just made up a number. He said that's the allowable measure of sulfates in the human body, so why wouldn't it be good for wild rice? No science. Just politics. The body looked around for signs of Michael Noble, and decided it might be best to wait for some actual research before acting on Rukavina's suggestion.

Noble tried his hardest last Thursday, but the state Senate voted 42-18 to lift state restrictions on coal plants. The law has been in place since 2007. Out of 201 legislators, 184 voted for the coal restrictions. Times have changed. The Legislature has changed. And, now it appears, Minnesota's national leadership on energy and the environment is changing. One of those who voted to lift the restrictions was Sen. Julie Rosen, Republican from Fairmont. But Sen. Rosen voted for the restrictions four years ago. Things change.

Noble is noble. "Julie Rosen is a very fine senator," he told me. "I admire her and how she is managing a good committee. She continues to voice support for renewable energy and energy efficiency legislation."

Yet Rosen voted to lift restrictions that require any new coal plant to reduce emissions elsewhere in the utility's system. Noble told me: "She is fond of saying that man can't live by renewables alone."

Pawlenty's leadership
The laws, passed by a super-majority in 2007, came about as a result of then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty's leadership on global warming, energy and the environment. That leadership is something of an embarrassment for him now. One poll showed his impressive energy credentials turn out to be his biggest negative among Tea Party regulars. He has a defense. Pawlenty actually started backsliding a long time before this presidential campaign.

Pawlenty put together a group called the Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group (MCCAG). There were 56 members and Noble remembers, "the largest fraction of the group was from business and industry, and the smallest fraction came from the environmental side."

It was the task of the MCCAG to come up with recommendations to implement the 2007 Next Generation Energy Act. Among other things, like restricting new coal plants without emissions reductions, it required an overall reduction in greenhouse gases by 30 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050. It was a tall order, but the MCCAG went to work and reported out 46 recommendations to help the state reach its goals. Once the recommendations were in Gov. Pawlenty's hands, he sat on them. He could have given them to the Legislature to debate, but he didn't. After all of the work of the MCCAG, Pawlenty did nothing.  Actually, he did do two things. He reversed himself on the coal restrictions, and called for a lifting of the moratorium on new nuclear plants.

Noble thinks Pawlenty was scared off the coal restrictions by the governor of North Dakota. You see, this whole coal restriction controversy has little to do with the future of Minnesota coal plants. The argument is really over whether Great River Energy can import coal-fired electricity from the new Spiritwood plant in North Dakota. North Dakota threatened to sue Minnesota. It was going to claim the Minnesota restrictions violated our neighbor's rights and was a hidden carbon tax on North Dakotans. If that sounds like a weak argument to you, you are not alone.  One senior legislator thought it was a bluff play. But Pawlenty folded his hand.

I asked Noble why everyone was so united back in 2007 and so divided today. He said: "In 2007, the industry was sure there was going to be a carbon cap-and-trade bill at the federal level." That didn't happen, and now a slow dismantling has begun. "The upshot of the Legislature's attempt to lift the restrictions sends the wrong signal to investors in clean-tech global capital, which is, by the way, the fastest-growing segment of the nation's investment economy. We are giving the signal that Minnesota, once a leader, is backing away from a clean energy economy."

Xcel as rock star
Another part of Minnesota's energy picture has to do with efficiencies. It is axiomatic that conserving energy is like finding energy, without building a new plant. Noble has high praise for Xcel. "It is the rock star," he said. "It is trying to get everyone to conserve energy. If people conserve energy, Xcel doesn't have to go out and borrow money to build an expensive new electricity plant."

He has less praise for small co-op utility operations. "They don't produce the electricity, they buy it, and turn around and sell it. They don't want to conserve. The more electricity they sell, the more money they make." And, Noble adds, they don't have to worry about paying for a new plant. "We know energy savings is the easiest and cheapest way to meet our energy needs, by far."

The 2007 law was wisely written. It has an anti-backsliding provision, but the backsliders are in ascendance. The dismantlers are concerned that Minnesota will be unable to meet industrial demands, won't be able to attract business and build jobs. Noble says that's hogwash. "The renewable energy standard creates a $10 billion new electricity investment at or below market rates."

At the Legislature, one hears the refrain that renewables cause electricity rates to skyrocket. "That's not true," says Noble. "Xcel shows no upward effect on rates as it adds renewables."

Noble adds: "You always know how much renewables will cost. You have no idea what the upward price pressure will be of coal, whether through regulation or the cost of the product." No new coal, without emission offsets, is the law of the land, unless Gov. Mark Dayton signs the repeal. Noble says, "It's going to be a brawl."

Few people, and certainly not Michael Noble, question Sen. Julie Rosen's ethics. When it comes to Minnesota's advanced energy policy, Noble remembers Rosen saying that Minnesota can on longer be out there by itself, an island.

It takes pure courage to lead, to walk the point of a platoon. It is the definition of feeling alone. And, as it concerns her view that man can't live by renewables alone, I'm reminded that before the Wright brothers lifted off from Kitty Hawk, clergymen of every stripe preached from their pulpits that God never intended man to fly.

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Comments (9)

I am so glad that Shelby is free to comment. He reports candidly and accurately about Noble, who is truly one of our state's guardians of wise energy generation and sustainable energy use. Shelby could also affirm that Noble is a real gentleman and wise advocate in the way he relates to state entities.

Thanks for reporting on this, Don. I am mortified by the wanton ignorance in our legislature regarding environmental issues. We need to hold their feet to the fire bad. On that note, MinnPost please make these articles Facebook-able (?) so that we can spread the word. Keep up the good work.

"Noble told me: 'She is fond of saying that man can't live by renewables alone.'"

That's an odd thing to say, because the Next Generation Energy Act only calls for 25 percent of our electrical power to come from renewable sources, and not until the year 2015. The bar is a little higher for Xcel Energy, which has a 30 percent goal. The state Commerce Dept. reports that all of the utilities are on track and on target to making their renewable energy goals. So why change a law that is working?

The American Lung Association in Minnesota (my employer) stands with Noble and Fresh Energy on this issue, and we have testified in opposition of the pro-coal bill in House and Senate committee hearings. I wrote an op/ed in the Star Tribune on the topic (March 13, 2011 "Coal served its purpose, but let's move on")and you can expect to hear more from us in the future.

Kudos to Shelby for another fine post, and to Michael Noble and the many good folk at Fresh Energy and other organizations that help protect the air, water and land that Minnesotans love so dearly.

A noble man, indeed. Michael Noble provides vision and inspiration along with calm, clear facts. He is our leading model for how to work for policy change. Plus, he is just so damn smart. Thanks for a profile that reveals the stark contrasts with today's backsliders at the Legislature.

We need more people in the legislature who can make sound decisions based on facts, not on figures they pull out of their posteriors. Bring back reason and logic to debates, not sound bites, innuendo, and threats.

"Michael Noble, more than even journalists, keeps politicians honest when they start creating facts out of thin air."

Don, I think you have too high of an opinion concerning journalists.

And coincidentally, on the topic of Energy, Conservation, and the Environment, the National Press Club had on two speakers today. They are both dedicated, resourceful, and hopefully influential. They are Ted Turner and T. Boone Pickens.

Strange bedfellows on a similar mission!

You can listen to them at...
http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2011/04/19/midday2/

Dear Mr. Shelby,

Your profile of Michael Noble, the CEO of Fresh Energy, was very interesting. I’ve known Michael for years and he is indeed an impressive gentleman. He, like his other environmental counterparts, can also rightfully claim to keep politicians honest. However, the same is true for the hundreds of other lobbyist representing the vast interests of Minnesota.

However, Mike was wrong on two counts: The first was his contention that increased development of renewable energy isn’t negatively impacting rates in Minnesota. While that may be true for Xcel Energy – and I’m not sure that it is – it definitely isn’t true for Minnesota’s electric cooperatives.

Minnkota Power Co-op, which serves the northwest corner of the state, is a good example. After the 2007 Renewable Energy Standard passed, Minnkota signed power purchase agreements for 357MW of wind representing some 30 percent of its overall generation.

Shortly after Minnkota signed the agreements, the electricity market crashed along with the economy. That meant Minnkota was buying wind energy it couldn’t use and couldn't sell into the market. Subsequently MPC has incurred over $40 million in wind-related losses. Because Minnkota is a non-profit, those costs have had to be absorbed by its 116,000 customer/members in the form of higher electric rates.

Mike second misstatement is small electric co-ops aren’t interested in conservation because we “can’t make any money at it.” Minnesota’s electric cooperatives are non-profits. Our goal isn’t to make money, it’s to provide safe, affordable and reliable electricity in areas of the state that for-profit utilities didn’t want to serve because they couldn’t make money at it.

Noble was correct in saying that we have issues with the state’s “one-size-fits-all” 1.5 percent conservation goal. However, our struggles aren’t because we can’t make money at it. It’s because the program is proving to be too expensive for our members. In 2009, state mandated conservation cost co-ops about 20 cents for every kilowatt saved, nearly twice the cost of our average retail rate. Think about that for a second. The state is mandating that cooperatives spend 20 cents of their members’ money to save 11 cents.

Unlike Xcel Energy, which Noble called a conservation “superstar,” electric cooperatives don’t have a large percentage of industrial and commercial loads on our lines, which is where the real cost-effective conservations savings are found. In fact, Xcel testified in the Senate Energy Committee that it gets the vast majority of its conservation savings from those types of accounts and only a fraction from residential sales. Mike, of course, knows this.

I should also add that Xcel is provided with rate incentives and bonuses for its conservation investments, which provide a healthy return for its investors. Again, because we’re non-profits, those incentives and bonuses are meaningless to us. We’re only interested in conservation that makes fiscal sense for our members.

I would appreciate the opportunity to discuss these issues further and show you some of the innovative approaches the state’s electric cooperatives are taking to renewable energy and conservation. I also think your readers would benefit from hearing the other side of the story.

Respectfully,

Mark Glaess, Manager
Minnesota Rural Electric Assn.
11640 73rd Avenue N
Maple Grove, MN 55369
mglaess@mrea.org
763.424.7233 (office)
763.913.9683 (mobile)
www.mrea.org

Don Shelby’s articles about energy and the environment have been good reading. It’s great that Michael Noble is trying to keep us informed with the correct facts of these disciplines. There is no excuse for promoting or passing legislation without factual considerations from our best sources. Prior to this article, I had no knowledge about his work or organization. The post after the article by Mr. Mark Glaess of the MREA is very interesting to me becaue I have a place in Western MN that uses electricity from a Great River Energy coal fired plant distributed to me by a co-op represented by MREA. Mark’s suggestion about “his side of the story” would be very interesting to me, I hope Don Shelby follows up with Mark and completes this side of the story. I also believe that Don Shelby has a lake place in Douglas County that uses electricity from the same co-op that serves my place in Western MN that delivers coal fired electricity to that area of Minnesota.