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To be a true clean-energy leader, Minnesota has a lot more work to do

REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
Nearly half of Minnesota's electricity still comes from burning coal.

Polluters often try to distract the public by propagating doomsday scare tactics about the reliability of our electric grid as we make the crucial transition to renewable energy. In response to the recent op-ed (“Instead of better utilities, what Minnesota needs are better environmental groups,”) by Joel Johnson, the director of the Coalition for a Secure Energy Future, a utility front group, I would begin by pointing out that Johnson should have disclosed that he is a paid lobbyist for the Minnesota Rural Electric Association, a rural co-op advocacy group. This is an important lens through which to examine his point of view about burning coal for electricity in our state.

Jessica Tritsch

Johnson has painted a gross oversimplification of what’s really going on in Minnesota. His broad brush strokes ignore the reality of communities that are most impacted by coal pollution. When you put a finer point on it, there’s a lot more that we must keep in mind about coal:

  • Nearly half of Minnesota’s electricity still comes from burning coal. Coal is a leading trigger of asthma attacks. According to a new American Lung Association report, Minnesota has more than 78,000 children and more than 220,000 adults suffering from asthma.
  • Xcel Energy’s Sherco coal plant in Becker, Minn., is the state’s most dangerous coal plant, posing serious health threats to surrounding communities. Sherco is the single, largest source of greenhouse gases, mercury and soot pollution in the state. Yet Xcel is planning to continue operating Sherco 1 & 2 coal units indefinitely, rather than replacing them with renewable energy investments and helping the citizens of Becker thoughtfully prepare for the plant’s retirement. In other parts of the country, developing long-term economic transition plans have proven successful. For example, several years ago in Washington State, TransAlta announced it would phase out the state’s massive 1600-megawatt coal plant between 2020 and 2025, giving the nearby community about 10 to 15 years for the transition. On top of this, the retirement agreement included a $60 million transition fund to be invested back into the community.
  • Meanwhile, Northern Minnesota’s biggest energy provider, Minnesota Power, wants to continue operating its old, dirty coal plants, wasting hundreds of millions of dollars that could be invested in clean energy and energy efficiency. Minnesota Power still draws 75 percent of its power from coal, an addiction that sends our hard-earned dollars out of state, instead of investing more in homegrown, job-creating power sources like wind and solar.
  • Fossil fuel power pollution costs Minnesotans $2.1 billion annually in health and environmental impacts — 94 percent of this impact is from coal pollution, according to a 2013 report cited in MinnPost. Minnesota utility companies use pollution cost numbers to estimate the true cost of power in their long-term energy planning. However, Minnesota’s cost values have not been updated in nearly 20 years, ignoring two decades of research that helps us better understand how pollution affects public health. Accounting for these hidden costs in utility energy plans will help demonstrate how renewable energy protects Minnesotans’ health, unlike fossil fuels.
  • Gov. Mark Dayton has called on Minnesota to further establish sustainable energy by moving beyond coal. Renewable energy has bipartisan support, and the majority of Minnesota voters support it. Together we’ve already created thousands of jobs in the clean energy economy, with at least 16 facilities in Minnesota that are currently manufacturing components for the wind energy industry and more than 100 renewable energy contractors offering solar energy services. Increasing wind, solar and energy efficiency helps protect our health, our climate and our economy while creating good paying jobs and keeping our dollars in state.

We can agree that Minnesota should be proud of its successes in renewable energy. We have tremendous potential to be a true clean-energy leader in our country. But let’s acknowledge that there’s a lot more work to do, and let’s not ignore the plight of families across the state whose lives are impacted by coal pollution.

Jessica Tritsch is a senior organizing representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in Minnesota.


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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Bill Willy on 05/29/2015 - 04:31 pm.

    Remember whale oil?

    Can’t say for sure, but it’s probably a safe bet the lobbyists from the Whale Utilization Institute said the same kind of things:

    “Forget about it. It is unproven, far too expensive, thousands of people will lose their jobs, and, most importantly, all research into so-called ‘electricity’ proves it simply cannot be made to work on a broad enough basis to rely on.”

    Can’t imagine what the Railroad boys had to say when they heard about the Wright brothers getting off the ground.

    And then, a short 100 or so years later, this cropped up today:

    “Regulators give green light to largest Minnesota solar energy project – $250 million plan, state’s largest, to include 21 sites.

    “This signals that something big is happening in solar energy in Minnesota,” said Michael Noble, executive director of Fresh Energy, a St. Paul nonprofit that advocates greater reliance on renewable energy.

    “It is by far the largest solar project approved in Minnesota, and in one sweep increases the state’s solar output sevenfold. The combined 100 million watts is the equivalent of a small traditional power plant. The largest of the 21 solar sites, near Paynesville, will cover an area the size of Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis.”

    Only “criticism”:

    “Renewable energy has bipartisan support, and the majority of Minnesota voters support it.”

    It would be great if you could check with Pat Garofalo on that point and let us all know what he has to say about it in a future piece.

  2. Submitted by Alan Muller on 05/30/2015 - 06:51 am.

    Stop promoting “renewable” energy

    The biggest weakness of the “enviro” energy position in Minnesota is the continuing support for “renewable” sources that are actually much worse than coal, such as “biomass.” Increased investment in wind and solar (properly sited, with the consent of host communities!) makes good sense. Investment in highly-polluting and excessively expensive wood burners, garbage burners, etc, only accelerates climate change with damaging peoples’ health. More clarity and better thinking urgently needed.

    • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 06/01/2015 - 09:22 am.


      I wouldn’t say that at all. Wind and solar are extremely limited, space using, and expensive while biomass burning may not be the answer fuel from biomass is not worse. You’ve lumped energy from biomass in with fuel from biomass with your comment and it should be separated. There are efficient uses of biomass such as burning turkey litter for energy(it takes good management though).

  3. Submitted by rolf westgard on 05/30/2015 - 03:08 pm.

    Replacing coal

    One new Westinghouse AP 1000 nuclear plant could replace Sherco.
    That nuke will provide 8-9 billion reliable round the clock kwh per year, more than all the solar panels and wind turbines you could plant in Southern Minnesota. It would also please the birds and bats.

  4. Submitted by Tom Karas on 05/31/2015 - 07:38 am.

    Cost of nukes

    Once again, just looking for the actual cost of the kWhs coming out of that new nuke plant including insurance and waste containment. Expect the cost is always left out of the suggestion to go nuclear as it would make the case for renewables and storage look that much better. But I could be wrong.

  5. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 06/01/2015 - 09:17 am.


    Dayton has proposed zero legislation to correct the mercury pollution in MN waters yet has proposed buffers for farmers. Mercury is the leading cause of waters in MN that are polluted and comes from coal burning plants. Where are Daytons priorities?

  6. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 06/03/2015 - 08:55 am.


    For one MN needs to be pushing the RFS to be to the law rather than the currently proposed EPA standards that are well below the standards the law requires.

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