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This Earth Day, imagine a new energy economy

What Earth Day needs is a credible narrative that the world can change the old energy economy for a better one that solves our world’s most pressing economic and security challenges — and is good for the environment to boot.

Michael NobleMichael Noble

Fossil fuels — oil and coal and natural gas — are the central energy source of the world’s economy. No wonder there’s a credibility problem with swapping the old system for a new one, in spite of abundant evidence that the Earth’s climate will change radically due to carbon pollution from those fossil fuels. Add the reality that the Earth’s 7.008 billion people all want the same standard of living that we Americans have, and it’s easy to see why some people tune out the climate-change message.

The task of changing the world’s energy economy seems too big to imagine, so on Earth Day people may think about buying a hybrid car or changing their light bulbs to LEDs, but more likely, don’t think about energy at all. What Earth Day needs is a credible narrative that the world can change the old energy economy for a better one that solves our world’s most pressing economic and security challenges — and is good for the environment to boot.

Can we tell a persuasive story about a prosperous world not dependent on fossil fuels? We can, and the story starts right here in Minnesota.

Big growth since 2007

Minnesota is already quietly under way toward an electric system not dependent on coal. In 2007, a bipartisan bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty made a commitment to draw a quarter of the state’s electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020, mostly wind power. Other states have done the same — 24 states now have renewable standards. Since then, wind power in our regional electric grid in the upper Midwest has grown tenfold, now topping 12,000 megawatts, about a $25 billion private investment.

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This year, voters expect to more than double the renewable electricity standards in Michigan and Missouri, reaching the 25 percent threshold in 2025, the same as Illinois. Those four Midwestern states alone will drive $60 billion dollar private investment in innovation and new technology.

The best news yet: Early analyses show no pattern of upward pressure on electric bills from these laws; in fact, in some electric systems — such as Xcel’s — renewable power is helping keep electric bills lower than they would otherwise have become.

The solar-energy story

How about the solar energy story? For the fourth consecutive year, polls show 9 in 10 Americans think it’s important to develop America’s free and abundant solar energy resources, and huge bipartisan majorities want 10 percent solar energy added on top of Minnesota’s nation-leading renewable standard. Meanwhile, the cost of solar panels is falling so fast that it has bankrupted some manufacturers. While that was a bad outcome for some investors, it portends an electricity market in which solar power is the cheapest source of new electricity. If we eliminate the red tape required to connect solar power to the electric grid, the industry will explode in Minnesota and around the country.

In early December, a $5 billion plan to modernize the electric grid of the upper Midwest to accommodate all the new renewable energy was approved by the regional grid operator — about 17 new transmission lines that will take a decade to build. As renewable energy grows on the grid from 20 percent to 30 percent and beyond, advanced battery and energy-storage technologies will come online to stabilize the ups and downs of renewable energy production.

Transforming transportation

On the transportation side, it’s also not hard to imagine a world that doesn’t run on oil. By crafting a deal with the automakers that will drive corporate average fuel economy to 54.5 MPG by 2025, the Obama administration more than doubled the useful work we’ll soon get from each gallon of gas. By building a world-class public transportation system in Minnesota by 2020 instead of 2030, more and more families will find housing and work that is more transit-friendly and less car dependent.

Many young families are already opting for lifestyles where they drive fewer miles, own fewer cars, and increase health and vitality with more walking and more bicycle use. And more retired couples will stay in Minnesota if they can have neighborhoods that do not require driving to every needed service. As oil prices inevitably rise with rising global demand, electric motors will take an increasing market share. Despite some hostile press, first-year sales of electric vehicles far outpace the early growth trend for hybrid vehicles, as drivers love that they almost never visit the pricey gas pump.

So this Earth Day, don’t just think about the environment. Earth Day is also about the economy.

Michael Noble is the executive director and CEO of Fresh Energy, a nonprofit working with leaders in the private and public sectors to move toward better energy and transportation systems.

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