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Air quality in Minnesota: Where we’ve been, and where we are now

Our air is getting cleaner, our electrical grid is getting greener, and we are taking concrete steps to once again be at the forefront of cleaner transportation.

Leaf charging
REUTERS/Edgar Su
Today, there are more than 20,000 electric vehicles registered in Minnesota, and the number of plug-in vehicles continues to grow.
In a few weeks, I’ll be retiring after 20 years with the American Lung Association. Much of my work was in the fields of clean air and alternative fuels and vehicles. Since I joined the Lung Association in 2001, many things have changed, and many challenges remain to be solved. This is a look back at where Minnesota was 20 years ago, and where we are today.

According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s 2001 Report to the Legislature, vehicles represented the single largest source of air pollution in the state. This is still true today, but now vehicle exhaust is also Minnesota’s single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. The 2001 report cited global climate change rather prominently; two decades later the new report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change clearly states just how serious the crisis is. Still, even with the proof literally hanging in our air, there are still some who deny climate change or try to minimize its harmful effects.

There were not many practical all-electric vehicles in 2001; the first Tesla was still seven years away. Today, there are more than 20,000 electric vehicles registered in the state, and the number of plug-in vehicles continues to grow. Evie, a forthcoming electric car-sharing service in St. Paul and Minneapolis, will broaden access to this cleaner transportation option to more people, including more people of color and residents of lower income neighborhoods. The accompanying EV Spot Network will create a network of charging hubs in the Twin Cities to serve not only the Evie vehicles, but also people who don’t have their own garages to refuel an electric vehicle.

Minnesota had fewer than 50 stations that sold E85 fuel in 2001; that was enough for us to lead the nation in the number of pumps offering the ethanol-based fuel. Today, Minnesota has 445 public and private E85 stations, and we still have more than any other state. We are a leading ethanol-producing state as well, creating more than a billion gallons of the cleaner-burning fuel every year.

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Biodiesel was a niche product in 2001. Right now, virtually all the diesel sold in the state contains a 20 percent blend of biodiesel. This is because of a forward-thinking state law passed in 2002 that slowly began increasing the percentage of biodiesel in the fuel that literally moves everything in our state – people, products, food, everything that we make or buy. Critics said the biodiesel requirement would invalidate vehicle warranties, harm engines, and jack up prices higher than in surrounding states. None of that happened.

Robert Moffitt
Robert Moffitt
Twenty years ago, I had never heard of a vehicle that ran on compressed natural gas. A few years later, I was driving one – a Honda Civic, leased to Minnesota Clean Cities by the U.S. Department of Energy in recognition of its leadership in promoting alternative fuels in Minnesota. Today, I see them almost every day, powering waste and recycling trucks, as well as commuter buses in the St. Cloud region.

There have been other things I have been proud to have worked on as a staff member of the American Lung Association – the push for smoke-free air in indoor workplaces, our Clean Cities programs in both North Dakota and Minnesota, and our work in many underserved communities – in urban cores, on remote rural reservations, and everywhere in between. It’s been a great ride.

As I begin the next chapter of my life, I am hopeful for our future, while being mindful of the challenges yet to be met. Our air is getting cleaner, our electrical grid is getting greener, and we are taking concrete steps to once again be at the forefront of cleaner transportation.

It’s an exciting time for all of us. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Moffitt is an outdoor air director for the American Lung Association office in St. Paul.

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