As a lifelong northern Minnesotan, I have never experienced a holiday season without snow.
It always arrives just in the nick of time to blanket the land in sparkling brilliant white that offsets the reds and greens of twinkling holiday lights. On Dec. 15 we saw a stark contrast.
An unprecedented storm carrying lightning, thunder, rain and damaging winds whipped through the state. Southern Minnesota experienced tornado warnings — a first in recorded weather history for such a late calendar date. While this storm was a shock to many, those of us who recognize the reality of the climate emergency saw it as a warning for what is to come if we do not literally clean up our act.
The earth is in crisis. While we have been steadily marching down a long road of progress toward decarbonization and a clean energy future, this march has proven too slow and has taken too many detours. Since the collapse of the 2009 Waxman-Markey Climate Bill, Congress has had a dismal track record for supporting broad climate legislation. In the absence of federal directives, many states have led the way by instituting clean energy standards and goals. In Minnesota, utilities have surpassed the 25 percent by 2025 standard that is currently on the books. While this progress is commendable, it is evident that the current standard, and the current pace of change, are not enough to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change.
Case in point: Xcel Energy’s Integrated Resource Plan, which is currently being considered before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. There’s no question that Xcel has taken some positive steps — most notably, by abandoning plans to build the gas-fired Sherco plant. The plan still does not go nearly far enough in decarbonizing our state and building a thriving, clean energy economy. Instead of going all-in on renewable energy, Xcel is taking half-measures and undermining its own progress. Its proposed addition of two gas-powered peaker plants would do untold harm to our climate action and Minnesota communities already overburdened by pollution.
I worked in the utility energy policy sphere for more than a decade. As a person who believes fully in climate change, and the value of not only renewable energy but distributed and equitable clean energy, I viewed my role as an agent of change within a flawed system. I spent a decade advocating for progressive policies within the utility, to little avail. The unfortunate reality of a corporate institution is that it bends to the will of outdated regulations, status quo and wealth. The pace of change is often slow and the benefits to the institution need to be guaranteed before any movement is made.
I encountered many like-minded utility employees throughout the years who had exciting ideas for how to create the paradigm shift needed to move into an equitable and fully decarbonized future. These employees often don’t quite “fit the corporate mold” and can sometimes be seen as troublemakers. The consequence is often a stagnating career and stifled motivation and creativity. I have witnessed these talented, optimistic individuals leave utilities in droves in search of something that fulfills their drive to ensure the health of our planet for themselves and future generations.
Right now, Minnesota’s investor-owned utilities have an opportunity to rise to this make-or-break moment by making bold investments in distributed and equitable clean energy. I know from experience that there are forward-thinking changemakers currently employed by Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power, poised to bring these utilities into the future. However, their critical voices will continue to be stifled without a fundamental shift in values and culture, and a willingness to be clear-eyed about what we’re facing and what it will require of us.
Utility companies, and their regulators, urgently need to shift their mindset from fighting to protect their market share in traditional ways to facilitating a model where they are stewards of communities and ensure the benefits of clean energy are distributed equitably. Continuing to grasp at power and wealth by clinging to models of the past will ensure a certain demise — for both the companies and the planet.
Jenna Warmuth is the Midwest regional director at Vote Solar, a national nonprofit advocating for a 100 percent clean energy future. She lives in Duluth.