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In crafting energy policy, remember the ‘Minnesota Way’

The Next Generation Energy Initiative — proposed in 2007 by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and passed on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis — spurred development of clean, renewable sources such as wind and solar at very competitive costs.

With the Legislature under split-party control, conversations about several big issues are likely to get contentious before the 2015 session comes to a close, but things don’t have to work that way. In the case of energy policy, Minnesota has become a national and global leader, not because of knockdown, drag-out fights, but because of our history of policymakers from both parties coming together with diverse stakeholders to work diligently together on energy issues, often negotiating to the highest common denominator, rather than the lowest.

Mike Bull

Amid often heated debate at the Capitol, it’s easy to forget that Republicans and Democrats collaborated on initiatives like the Metropolitan Emissions Reduction Project (enacted in 2001 and completed in 2009), which converted two aging coal plants in the Twin Cities to cleaner-burning natural gas with half the carbon content of coal. More recently, the Next Generation Energy Initiative — proposed in 2007 by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and passed on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis — established the most aggressive energy efficiency and renewable energy utility standards in the country, spurring development of clean, renewable sources such as wind and solar at very competitive costs.

That is the Minnesota Way to get things done.

A far-reaching example

In 2007, a Republican governor and DFL-majority Legislature came together to create a far-reaching package of bills designed to create new businesses and jobs while reducing our reliance on imported energy and cutting our emissions. It wasn’t easy — it took the hard work of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and advocates on all the sides of the issues. In the end, that package of energy initiatives passed with fewer “no” votes than the 2006 law declaring the Honeycrisp our state apple.

It’s a story worth revisiting (see the oral history released this week by Fresh Energy) not just because it helped put Minnesota at the forefront of national energy policy, but also because it should serve as a shining example of what we can accomplish when we do things the right way, the Minnesota Way.

Since 2007, the provisions of Governor Pawlenty’s Next Generation Energy Initiative have helped spur the creation of businesses and jobs in manufacturing, construction, and engineering across Minnesota. They’ve helped attract billions of dollars in private investment for projects that pay out millions in taxes to our local communities. They’ve helped us cut waste from our electrical system while becoming more energy independent.

We still have a way to go.

The path forward

Every year, Minnesota continues to spend billions of dollars importing energy. We should shift more of those dollars away from imports and toward more homegrown energy, creating more jobs here rather than North Dakota or Wyoming. And customers need more tools to control rising energy costs, as utilities seek and receive rate increases. We can continue to improve our energy system by further reducing energy use, saving consumers and utilities money.

Such practical, affordable strategies are hallmarks of our work at the Center for Energy and Environment. Even when the going’s tough, we’ve seen firsthand that Minnesotans can accomplish the extraordinary when we work together to pursue common goals.

As with the prior decade’s accomplishments, future advances in clean energy and sustainability in Minnesota will not come easily. We’ll need the same forward-thinking collaboration that resulted in today’s nation-leading achievements. To continue making progress we’ll need to work with, and really listen to, a broad cross-section of stakeholders and leaders from across the political spectrum.

Willing partners, working together. That kind of cooperation is how we have already accomplished so much in Minnesota. Remembering how well our Minnesota Way has served the state’s energy policymaking in the past gives me great hope for our future.

Mike Bull is the director of policy and communications at the Center for Energy and Environment, a nonprofit organization that promotes energy efficiency to strengthen the economy while improving the environment. Bull also served as senior policy adviser to Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/27/2015 - 09:25 am.

    Smarter energy

    Absolutely we should be focusing on getting our energy at home rather than boosting other states’ and foreign economies. However, we need to be smart about it, too. Those wind turbines are beautiful, but if they’re placed poorly, they’re inefficient and can be deadly to migrating birds. And solar is a great idea, but should be even more local–on an individual home or business level. But solar is still ugly and the technology for storing the energy for a rainy day is still very inefficient and expensive. Not that we can’t supplement for the time-being, but the up front expense for individuals and the ongoing maintenance costs are prohibitive. Solar farms are not terribly great because it requires wasting space to have them (see the Great River Energy property in Maple Grove). The best use of solar is part of useful structures, not stand alone panels.

    • Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 04/27/2015 - 10:11 am.

      Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

      Some people find the wind turbines you admire an eyesore, others see solar gardens (aka community solar) as a sensible alternative to residential rooftop panels. It’s all a mater of taste.

      Yes, both wind and solar have potential drawbacks and limitations. But instead of scrutinizing the alternatives, I suggest that we look closer at coal, our single largest source of electricity, and its many drawbacks. We can also look at natural gas, nuclear, hydro…no matter which energy source we look at, we will find pros and cons.

      What we have to ask ourselves is, are we moving in the right direction. Our destination isn’t perfection — no “perfect” solution exists — but are we moving toward energy that is less polluting, locally sourced; more renewable? If the answer to any of these is “yes,” then we are on the right path.

      • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/29/2015 - 01:18 pm.

        Perfect solutions

        I agree that perfect solutions don’t exist. But we need to stop looking at the easy solution as a step forward. Remember ethanol? Turns out there are a whole lot of cons to the easy solution, and very few pros. If we’d taken the harder path, we might have found a better path. Cellulosic ethanol might be a solution, but all of the infrastructure built up around ethanol is incapable of making it happen without some pretty big investments and a lot of pushback from those who made money on the conversion of food to fuel.

        The eye of the beholder is all about beauty, not practicality. Building “solar gardens” is an exercise in space waste. It does nothing to address the issue of getting the power to more and more distant users because it actually encourages space waste rather than population density. To top it all off, it shades all the area underneath it so that the land can’t be used for community gardens of the plant type.

        I’m not criticizing the new availability and affordability of greener technologies. I’m criticizing the path to energy independence as taking the easy way out rather than the smart and sustainable way. Sure, solar is getting cheaper, but without investing more (and faster) into a more attractive and space-efficient version, you’re alienating a large population of people who would love to use it. And, without smart energy storage solutions (which is slowly moving forward with the help of companies like Tesla), having solar power or wind power is an unreliable solution, at best.

        Let’s not forget that someone is making money off of green technology, too. While I would hope that their guidance for use of green technology for energy is driven by smart stewardship of our planet and our health, it is for sure driven by profit. We, as consumers need to be smart and demand the RIGHT solution rather than just the easy solution.

        • Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 05/04/2015 - 02:33 pm.

          Its not just the gardens, its the grid

          Our electrical system (ie, ‘the grid”) was designed to take electrical power from a few large generating sources and deliver it, 24-hours a day, to our homes, schools and businesses. It was a world-class system in the first part of the last century, but today it seems to be holding us back from doing some innovative new things. I think we are still a long way off from having to worry now about “storage” issues for wind and solar, but I agree eventually they will have to be addressed.

          I do remember ethanol, and I’m not alone. Minnesota drivers bought 16 million gallons of E85 just last year. It’s not a lack of investment or “pushback” that has held back cellulosic ethanol. Simply put, cellulosic ethanol takes more time, more energy, more water and more money to make than starch or sugar based ethanol. Until that changes, it will always be a great idea that can’t quite get out of the laboratory. That said, I am watching the few commercial scale cellulosic plants that have opened recently using corn stover as a feedstock.

  2. Submitted by Tom Karas on 04/27/2015 - 06:43 pm.

    Mr. Moffit has a great point

    When you look at all generation projects there are pros and cons, it is the nature of the industry. and back in the kumbyya days it was easy for the utilities to show a little acceptance to renewable because they just that the clean energy stuff would never really materialize as cost competitive.
    Well, like Ms Kahler above, they did not stay current with progress and realize what a force in the marketplace all that tree-hugger energy could be. Well folks, the day has come and clean is not only healthy but it is cheap too. If you look at the generation over time, as you get 25 year production warranties on solar panels these days, solar energy is a great price hedge against rising costs for those who can afford to build it.
    The real question is whether the general public will be able to exercise their choice in a market that is not constrained by utilities or their politicians. The free market is now on the side of the commoners much to the dismay of the original power brokers. Minnesota is still a national leader in energy policy, it just might not be of the original design.

    • Submitted by Steve Vigoren on 04/28/2015 - 03:28 am.

      They may have been slow

      to realize what was coming, but some of them are wide awake now. The big utilities have banded together with the fossil fuel industries and they are actively (= giving money to politicians) seeking to legislate financial burdens on small scale solar installations by home owners and small businesses nation wide.

      So stay tuned, when you hear someone that has been voted into office talking about how those solar panels are costing the rest of us a lot of money, you will know they have been paid well to say it. And the next rate increase on your power bill, that just may have some blame pointed at your neighbor, or you, for those dang solar panels.

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