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With U.S. absent from global climate accord, time to up Minnesota’s local game

Taxes and payments from wind energy producers hold property taxes down in Greater Minnesota while keeping rural economies healthy and vital.

Looking at recent events in clean energy and climate, Charles Dickens comes to mind: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ...” Dickens’ contradictions referenced another revolution, long before the current energy revolution — but it’s easy to see our own “winter of despair” in today’s U.S. federal energy policies, while Minnesotans take pride in a well-earned “spring of hope” here at home.

Mike Bull

Still, even in Minnesota, the “best of times” is something we need to earn every day.

In his short time in office, President Donald Trump has authorized remarkably bad decisions to undo the federal Clean Power Plan and pull out of the Paris climate agreement. His actions abdicate any and all U.S. global leadership on climate and clean energy, notably isolating us among the planet’s top greenhouse gas emitters.

10th anniversary of bipartisan act

This comes in sharp contrast to this year’s 10th anniversary of Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s Next Generation Energy Act, which passed on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis in 2007, with fewer "no" votes than another proposal that year to make the Honeycrisp our state apple. The act sought to cut energy waste and costs; deploy more homegrown renewable resources; and gradually decrease reliance on traditional energy sources like nuclear, coal, and natural gas.

Pawlenty called the Next Generation Energy Act a “win-win-win-win” for Minnesota — good for our state’s energy customers, environment, economy, and energy independence. And after 10 years of steady progress, it has emerged as the single-most successful energy initiative in Minnesota history.

Trump asserts that attention to the economy drives his decision-making, so let’s take a look at the impact of clean energy on Minnesota’s economy so far: 

  • Clean energy jobs contribute more than $1 billion in wages to the Minnesota economy.
  • Taxes and payments from wind energy producers hold property taxes down in Greater Minnesota while keeping rural economies healthy and vital.
  • For every dollar spent on energy efficiency, Minnesotans receive at least $4 of benefits in the form of lower customer bills, more competitive businesses, and fewer utility infrastructure investments.

Utilities' achievements

Our state’s energy utilities have already cut carbon emissions 23 percent below 2005 levels. And the largest electric utility, Xcel Energy, will achieve 60 percent reductions by 2030, thanks to recent approval of its plans to retire coal, aggressively reduce energy waste, and add huge amounts of increasingly low-cost wind and solar. The last piece of Xcel’s plan was approved last February, securing Minnesota’s biggest clean energy win since 2007.

And Xcel Energy is not alone. Across the state, Otter Tail Power, Great River Energy, Minnesota Power, Rochester Public Utilities, and more are tracking the same course — retiring coal, capturing efficiencies, and investing in wind and solar technologies. What’s more, these utilities are keeping average residential electricity costs below those in our neighboring states, and well below the U.S. average.

If Minnesota’s impressive track record is to continue, local leadership will hold an ever-increasing share of responsibility to squeeze out energy waste and invest in our renewable economy. The cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, as well as Minnesota’s state government, have each pledged adherence to the goals of the Paris accord, despite bad decisions out of Washington.

What we still need to do

Aligned with this important step, we will need to up our local game: 

  • To keep pace with national peers, we’ll need to build on past success and do more to save energy. Our largest city, Minneapolis, ranked 11th in a recent national assessment of local energy efficiency — but that’s four slots lower than the city ranked in 2015.
  • Statewide, local governments can take steps to reduce carbon in municipal operations.
  • Minnesota’s cities can double down on efforts to improve efficiency in large commercial and industrial buildings, which often account for 50 percent or more of cities’ energy use.
  • Although building codes come with restrictions, cities can do more to leverage regulatory processes and increase energy transparency and investments.
  • Community leaders can leverage utility conservation funds, and target city incentives to help residents and businesses who struggle most with energy costs.

Ten years ago, the Next Generation Energy Act put Minnesota on a course that allows us to praise noteworthy progress here at home, even while acknowledging the worst of times in Washington. But now is not the time to rest on our laurels — because that very same Minnesota hallmark of civic commitment, bipartisan buy-in, and local government leadership is needed now if we’re to maintain the best of times in our own backyard.

Mike Bull is the director of policy and external affairs at the Center for Energy and Environment, a Twin Cities nonprofit that provides practical energy solutions for homes, businesses, and communities. Bull also served as senior policy adviser to Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

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