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Instead of better utilities, what Minnesota needs are better environmental groups

The fact is, Minnesota’s electric utilities have been taking a leadership role on climate change.

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.

Joel Johnson

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.

Misplaced focus

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 If you look at their policy and legislative agenda over the past few years, their focus has been on outdated policies developed for different times (mandates for competitive technologies like wind), carve-outs for special interests that write out grant checks (solar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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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 05/21/2015 - 10:19 am.

    As I have noted before….

    …good grades in our State of the Air Report does not mean that we are not generating air pollution in our state, nor does it let coal off the hook as a major source of air pollution in Minnesota and other states. Our geography and weather tends (thankfully) to limit the “bad air” days here.

    Coal has been a useful servant to us for centuries, but it is time to give this fossil fuel a gold watch and retire it, once and for all. We have cleaner, more sustainable ways of keeping the lights on now.

  2. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/21/2015 - 10:28 am.

    More details

    Who is behind the “Coalition for a Secure Energy Future,” as if we couldn’t figure that one out?

    Mr. Johnson is spending a lot of time grousing about those mean ol’ environmentalists hurting the delicate feelings of electric utilities. Sure, good for Xcel and Minnesota Power for being “two of the most environmentally responsible utilities in the country (kind of a low bar when you look at other utilities), but it sounds like he is saying there is no room for improvement. His piece is awfully light on facts that aren’t platitudes, and heavy on the cliche dropping.

    Incidentally, a spokesperson for electric utilities (don’t deny it, sir) has no call to snipe about “carve-outs for special interests.”

    • Submitted by Mark Snyder on 05/21/2015 - 11:47 am.

      Surprisingly (or perhaps not)

      The source of funding for the COALition for a Secure Energy Future is none other than the “Lignite (aka coal) Research Council” which, according to their web site is a “private/public partnership to promote a coordinated research program to preserve and enhance the lignite industry.”

      Huh.

  3. Submitted by Ed Kohler on 05/21/2015 - 10:40 am.

    Mandates are practical when dealing with utilities

    I agree that mandates for specific renewable energy solutions isn’t the best way to go about reducing carbon. The more common sense way to do it would be to tax carbon, which is something I’ve never ever ever never ever ever heard a utility support. So, instead, we mandate baby steps.

    And, obviously, here’s a way to tell that utilities haven’t taken a leadership role: mandates. Leaders don’t require mandates to do the right thing.

  4. Submitted by Tom Karas on 05/28/2015 - 06:25 am.

    3 quick points-

    1. Thank you for admitting that climate change is scary and utilities need to provide leadership, please spread that word to the utilities, especially the rural cooperatives.

    2. Utilities in MN enjoy a monopoly, as such like my friend Glenn Cannon (past president American Public Power Asso) was fond of saying they also need to accept a greater level of scrutiny and responsibility.

    3. “there are also new technologies on the horizon that hold the promise of clean, carbon-free electric generation using natural gas and coal.” So remember back in the 2008 election cycle we were all treated to that fun advertisement of the extension cord plugged in to a lump of coal and then the graphic that showed Co2 being pumped underground…. Dude, its been 7 years the reality of carbon capture and sequestration is really dragging your credibility down. The taxpayer money wasted in that utility subsidy makes Solyndra look like cake walk.

  5. Submitted by Alan Muller on 05/30/2015 - 06:46 am.

    Both sides need to clean up their act

    This screed from a coal lobbyist is unconvincing, to say the least. But much is unconvincing about the Sierra Club’s anti-coal campaign. For instance, why is Sierra harping on Sherco units 1 and 2, but not Unit three? Thus unit, after Xcel nearly destroyed it, has been rebuilt at great expense. I don’t recall hearing enviros asking that this unit be permanently shut down rather than rebuilt.

    But most disgraceful, I think, is the endless lobbying of “public power” organizations for coal and against environmental improvements. These irresponsible positions are hardly an argument for “public” power.

    From both sides, we need better thinking and fewer slogans and cliches.

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