When it comes to solving our climate crisis, talk is plentiful and cheap, but real gains are harder to come by. The good news is that Minnesota Power, which provides electric service to Duluth, the Iron Range and much of Northern Minnesota, is moving the ball forward by committing to achieve 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050 as part of an ambitious Energy Forward plan.
Minnesota Power is not alone in proposing 100 percent by 2050. Minnesota’s own Xcel Energy was the first major U.S. utility to make such a commitment in 2018. But Energy Forward is nonetheless historic due to the unique challenge of decarbonizing a system that powers Minnesota’s energy-intensive mining and paper industries.
Over the past year, I had the opportunity to contribute in a small way to the development of the Energy Forward plan on behalf of several hundred members of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), who interact with Minnesota Power not only as residential customers, but also as workers who maintain the utility’s power plants and labor in the mines and mills that consume roughly three-quarters of the electricity they produce.
The Energy Forward stakeholder meetings brought together community leaders, environmental and labor advocates, and representatives of residential and industrial customers. While the discussions did not always yield a consensus, they helped all of us to better understand the needle Minnesota Power must thread as the utility seeks to balance affordability, reliability, economic sustainability and environmental progress.
It would be nice if utilities could decarbonize with the flip of a switch, but the Minnesota Power case shows how unrealistic that can be. For starters, Minnesota Power and the regional economy depend on a handful of industrial customers, led by iron mines, facing stiff global competition and relying heavily on affordable, high-quality electric service.
The departure of even one large customer could not only damage the region’s economy, but also push up electric rates — increasing the financial pressure on remaining large customers while making it more difficult to justify investment in new carbon-free resources. And because our industries operate under some of the world’s toughest environmental standards, the loss of production in Minnesota almost certainly means an increase in greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution from exploitive and less-regulated global competitors.
Reliability is another key consideration for industrial customers, for whom a temporary loss of current or voltage can be much more than an inconvenience. But reliability is also a growing concern for retail customers as they decide whether to switch from a diversified energy portfolio — electric lights, natural gas heat, and internal combustion vehicles — to greater if not total reliance on electricity.
Fortunately, Minnesota Power has demonstrated over the past decade that it is possible to run an affordable and reliant electric system that depends increasingly on variable renewable power generation. In 2020, Minnesota Power became the state’s first utility to cross the 50 percent carbon-free threshold, and Energy Forward promises to continue expanding that renewable portfolio — maintaining Minnesota’s leadership as a producer of climate-friendly iron ore.
If there is one aspect of Minnesota Power’s progress that has disappointed LIUNA members and other local stakeholders, it is the fact that the company’s investments in renewable energy have overwhelmingly been made far outside its Northern Minnesota service territory. Fortunately, Energy Forward recognizes the need to balance affordability, reliability and climate goals with the impact of energy transition plans on local communities and workers who have quite literally kept the lights on for generations.
Minnesota Power has achieved this balance by proposing a realistic 2035 date for the retirement of all remaining coal-fired units, giving the community of Cohasset a chance to plan. And the utility has shown a willingness to invest in the communities it serves in the form of increased local generation of solar energy and construction of the Nemadji Trail Energy Center, a gas-fired plant that will back up variable renewables while creating hundreds of jobs in the Duluth-Superior area.
Over many decades, Minnesota Power has earned the trust of Northern Minnesota communities and customers, as well as the workers who keep the system operating. In Energy Forward, we believe the utility has selected the right path to meeting carbon-reduction goals without sacrificing the region’s economic vitality and ability to produce the iron, copper, nickel and other materials needed to build a clean energy economy. We urge the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to approve the Minnesota Power’s plan so our members and others can get to work making it happen.
Kevin Pranis is marketing manager of LIUNA Minnesota and North Dakota, which represents more than 12,000 construction laborers. He also serves on Gov. Tim Walz’s Climate Advisory Council.
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