Last month, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued our state’s climate report card. It showed that we’re not on track to meet our state’s goal of reducing our economy-wide greenhouse gas pollution 80% by 2050. The lone bright spot was our electricity sector, where emissions have declined by 29% since 2005.
People react to these findings in a variety of ways. Some folks get frustrated. Others despondent. But a few try to change the story, using the success of our electricity sector to “what about … ?” the report: Why should electric utilities have to cut their emissions more when other polluters are the problem? What about the other parts of our economy?
It’s a reasonable question. We should reduce our emissions economy-wide, but our electric sector is unique. Why? Because, for the most part, our electric utilities are monopolies. They control how they generate energy and how it gets to their customers. Their customers, that is, all of us, live in defined service areas where only one utility is allowed to sell. None of us have multiple-choice light switches in our living rooms.
This is not a new arrangement, nor an uncommon one. Triple or quadruple building electric transmission lines to create “consumer choice” would be kind of absurd. Instead, we treat our electric system like public infrastructure. A corporation gets to own the monopoly, then the state of Minnesota gets to regulate it.
Minnesota has been regulating monopolies since 1871, when we decided to check the price-gouging and anti-competitive practices of the railroads. We did it then for the same reasons we do it now: to protect the public’s interest.
Current law dates to 1974
The law we use to regulate utilities today was created in 1974. That Legislature found that it’s “in the public interest that public utilities be regulated as hereinafter provided in order to provide the retail consumers … with adequate and reliable services at reasonable rates.” But a lot has changed since 1974.
First, in 1974, we didn’t fully understand the threat of climate change. John Sawyer’s landmark article “Man-made Carbon Dioxide and the ‘Greenhouse” Effect'” was published just two years before. Since then, climate scientists have reached a global consensus on the role of human-caused greenhouse gases in climate change.
It’s a conclusion that the majority of Minnesotans agree with. Per Yale University’s annual opinion tracking poll, in 2020, 71% of Minnesotans believed climate change is happening. 57% believed it’s mostly caused by human activities. 62% were worried about it. It’s been a sea change in scientific consensus and public opinion.
Second, in 1974, income and wealth were more equally distributed. Then, as now, incomes and wealth were racially disparate. But, in the mid-1970s, Minnesotans were reaching the end of a New Deal-founded, post-World War II-expanded economic boom that raised incomes, built wealth, and consolidated a mostly white middle class.
People’s economic lives: split in two
In the decades since, Americans’ economic lives have been split in two. Union-busting and successive waves of tax cuts for the rich have produced not-since-the-Gilded Age levels of inequality. As the lives of formerly middle-class white Americans have become more like the lives of perennially excluded Black, brown, and Indigenous Americans, we’ve weathered tsunamis of discontent.
The public’s interests have changed since 1974. Users of electricity still have an interest in reliable service. And we’d still prefer electricity to be less expensive. But energy “consumers” are more than switch-flippers. We’re parents and grandparents. We’re students and workers. We’re three-dimensional people who care about each other and worry about the future.
We have interests in avoiding destructive pollution and living in a more equitable state. In fact, our state law and the decisions of Minnesota’s Public Utility Commission (PUC) have been trending in this direction for some time.
- Since 1989, we’ve required utilities to focus energy conservation improvement on low-income families.
- Our 2007 Legislature found that “cost-effective energy savings should … create more energy-related jobs … and reduce pollution and emissions that cause climate change.”
- In 2013, our Legislature created innovative legislation ensuring more homeowners and communities could own their own solar arrays.
- Since 2017, the PUC has been evaluating utilities’ business plans by calculating the long-run impacts of carbon pollution.
- In 2019, our Legislature ordered the PUC to convene a stakeholder group to find ways utilities can recruit and retain a more diverse workforce.
Commitments mark progress, but not enough
The recent commitments of our public utilities are laudable. Great River Energy is planning to cut carbon emissions 95% by 2022. Xcel plans to get to 100% by 2050. And in January, Minnesota Power released its vision for getting to 100% carbon-free by 2050. These commitments mark real progress.
However, these commitments are no substitute for a fair deal written into law. We’re long overdue for an energy update. Reliable and cost-effective, environmentally sustainable and equitable: In 2021, the public has an interest in all four.
The 100% Clean Energy Bill authored by Sen. Nick Frentz and Rep. Jamie Long is a way to get our law caught up with our people. It cleans up our electricity. It aims to maximize the jobs, clean energy, and clean air benefits for everyone, especially the towns with fossil fuel plants and the neighborhoods with extra pollution. If enacted, our utilities would need to report on their efforts to diversify their workforce and how they’re retaining or retraining their existing workforce.
Why should our public utilities do more? Because they can and it’s in everyone’s interest that they do.
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