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Minnesota’s big opportunity to address the climate crisis: Use solar panels and wind energy at wastewater plants

Energy is one of the major costs of operating treatment facilities. Using renewable energy at these plants would help our state save money and address the climate crisis at the same time.

Solar panels
Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

Throughout our state, country and world, the impacts of climate change have become more evident and alarming. Rising temperatures, drought, rising sea levels, floods and other effects foreshadow a grim outlook for future generations, along with direct health effects to children, elderly people and vulnerable members of our society.

While world leaders came together last month in Glasgow to work toward the goals of the Paris Agreement and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, Minnesota must come up with real, practical steps to tackle this crisis. We don’t have time to continue appreciating the problem or to study it without acting. Real action is critical and necessary.

One often-overlooked way to combat our climate crisis is utilizing renewable energy at our wastewater facilities. Such plants treat water that’s been used in our homes, schools, restaurants, factories and businesses, before it’s returned to rivers and the land. These vital plants are key to economic activity, and help protect our waters from spreading disease, excessive nutrients and toxic substances that harm fish, wildlife and people.

In the next 20 years, Minnesota cities will have an estimated $4.3 billion in wastewater infrastructure needs, such as replacing and improving aging treatment plants. Energy is one of the major costs of operating these facilities. Using renewable energy at wastewater treatment facilities would help our state save money and address the climate crisis at the same time.

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This is not a new concept. The Metropolitan Council has increased energy efficiency and advanced the use of renewable energy sources at their wastewater treatment plants. For example, the Metropolitan Council uses a community solar garden at its Empire Wastewater Treatment Plant and solar panels at its Blue Lake Wastewater Treatment Plant. In total, the Metropolitan Council hosts more than 9 megawatts of solar panels at its facilities, generating enough electricity to power more than 1,500 homes. The Metropolitan Council also subscribes to more than 20 megawatts of solar projects across the greater Twin Cities. We should give more communities a chance to use solar panels or other forms of renewable energy at their wastewater treatment plant.

As a member of the House Capital Investment Committee, I’ve traveled the state and seen many wastewater treatment facilities seeking public dollars for infrastructure improvements. Many of these facilities have flat roofs, which would make using solar panels practical, easy and efficient. Many are on large campuses with a large tract of land. This would also make using wind or solar energy feasible.

State Rep. Rick Hansen
It’s a win-win situation. Solar power is the cheapest source of electricity, and wind power is becoming more and more affordable. Using renewable energy at wastewater treatment facilities reduces operating costs and makes them more energy-efficient, all while protecting clean water. This is a major opportunity to rethink what policymakers could do at a state level to address the climate crisis.

This past session, the Minnesota Legislature took an important step on this issue. We voted to invest a little over $1 million from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund in grants for renewable energy demonstration projects at wastewater treatment facilities. The Legislature should build on this work.

Moving forward, if the state provides funding for wastewater infrastructure improvements, we should also require the use of renewable energy when constructing these improvements. “Climate change is the greatest risk facing us all” is what we heard at the climate summit. We must act now.

Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, is a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives and the chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee.