Last week, the Minnesota chapter of the Sierra Club announced it was initiating an ad campaign against Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power for continuing to include coal-based generation in their long-term plans. The fact both Minnesota-based utilities are already national leaders in renewable generation and have rightfully been held up as models for their diversified generation portfolios appears to have been lost on Sierra Club.
Most Minnesotans would see Xcel’s desire to keeps its options open with its coal plants as sensible, considering the future of the company’s three nuclear power plants is uncertain after 2030. Xcel is simply making sure it has enough baseload generation – something wind and solar generation can’t provide because of their intermittent nature – to meet its customers’ needs in the decades to come.
Likewise, Minnesota Power has offered a plan to further diversify its generation portfolio and increase its renewable energy resources beyond what’s mandated by state law, and doing it in as cost-effective manner as possible.
None of this appears to matter to the Sierra Club. Instead, it would rather spend its members’ money attacking two of the most environmentally responsible utilities in the country for not adopting an impractical and expensive policy that would do little or nothing to reduce carbon dioxide or other emissions in Minnesota or create and sustain jobs in the state.
In a real sense, the Sierra Club’s actions reflect the policy bankruptcy afflicting so many of the state’s environmental organizations. If you look at their policy and legislative agenda over the past few years, their focus has been on outdated policies developed for different times (mandates for competitive technologies like wind), carve-outs for special interests that write out grant checks (solar mandates and incentives) or policies that seem to have been designed more to sound good on a bumper sticker (40×30) than work effectively in the real world.
Look, we understand the prospect of catastrophic climate change is scary and that electric utilities need to take a leadership role in reducing carbon emissions. Environmental groups have every right to point that out. But the fact is, Minnesota’s electric utilities have been taking a leadership role. They have invested significantly in renewable energy and reduced their emissions from other sources of energy. Emissions from regional coal-based energy production have decreased by over 80 percent over the past 40 years and Minnesota’s air quality has improved significantly over the past two decades. In fact, the American Lung Association just this week gave Minnesota top grades on its air quality.
That progress will continue. Nationwide, the electric industry is investing billions of dollars in new, more efficient ways of generating electricity. In addition to cheaper and more efficient forms of renewable energy, there are also new technologies on the horizon that hold the promise of clean, carbon-free electric generation using natural gas and coal.
Partnering has made a difference
Minnesota has long been the gold standard in forward-looking energy policy — policy that has led to the development of more renewable energy in a cost-effective manner. Minnesota’s environmental community has played a big role in that, partnering with the state’s utilities to create innovative programs to generate and deliver electricity cleaner and more efficiently.
However, too many environmental advocates have dropped that partnership role over the past few years in favor of an adversarial stance to any approach that strays from their “renewables good/coal, natural gas and nuclear bad” dogma.
The fact is, Minnesota needs an all-of-the-above energy approach, one that includes coal, natural gas and nuclear. That approach is the best way to keep electricity prices low, create jobs, and provide necessary power for our communities.
It’s also the best approach to getting where we want to go when it comes to carbon dioxide emission, while still protecting the quality of life we’ve come to enjoy.
Joel Johnson is the director of the Coalition for a Secure Energy Future.
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