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On energy and the environment, Michael Noble keeps politicians honest

When politicians at the Legislature start spouting off, they look around to see if Michael Noble is in the hall. When he is not, they sometimes make things up.

Michael Noble
Michael Noble

The author Edward Arlington Robinson would like the name Michael Noble. Robinson enjoyed giving his protagonists names that reflected their true character. You can’t spend 10 minutes with Michael Noble without recognizing that he is, in fact, a noble man.   

For 30 years, Michael Noble has dedicated himself to a vision of an energy-efficient economy. For 16 of those years, he has been the executive director of Fresh Energy and its predecessor organization. When politicians at the state Legislature start spouting off about energy and the environment, they look around to see if Michael Noble is in the hall. If he is present, they resort to the facts. When he is not around, legislators sometimes simply make things up.

Michael Noble, more than even journalists, keeps politicians honest when they start creating facts out of thin air. That’s because Noble knows more about energy, global warming, state law and the environment than any of our elected officials.  

You don’t think politicians just make things up? When the Legislature was considering what amount of sulfates ought to be allowed in wild rice rivers near a proposed mining site, Rep. Tom Rukavina stood up and said the limit should be 250 milligrams per liter. The current standard is 10 milligrams. Rukavina wants the mine built, so he just made up a number. He said that’s the allowable measure of sulfates in the human body, so why wouldn’t it be good for wild rice? No science. Just politics. The body looked around for signs of Michael Noble, and decided it might be best to wait for some actual research before acting on Rukavina’s suggestion.

Noble tried his hardest last Thursday, but the state Senate voted 42-18 to lift state restrictions on coal plants. The law has been in place since 2007. Out of 201 legislators, 184 voted for the coal restrictions. Times have changed. The Legislature has changed. And, now it appears, Minnesota’s national leadership on energy and the environment is changing. One of those who voted to lift the restrictions was Sen. Julie Rosen, Republican from Fairmont. But Sen. Rosen voted for the restrictions four years ago. Things change.

Noble is noble. “Julie Rosen is a very fine senator,” he told me. “I admire her and how she is managing a good committee. She continues to voice support for renewable energy and energy efficiency legislation.”

Yet Rosen voted to lift restrictions that require any new coal plant to reduce emissions elsewhere in the utility’s system. Noble told me: “She is fond of saying that man can’t live by renewables alone.”

Pawlenty’s leadership
The laws, passed by a super-majority in 2007, came about as a result of then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s leadership on global warming, energy and the environment. That leadership is something of an embarrassment for him now. One poll showed his impressive energy credentials turn out to be his biggest negative among Tea Party regulars. He has a defense. Pawlenty actually started backsliding a long time before this presidential campaign.

Pawlenty put together a group called the Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group (MCCAG). There were 56 members and Noble remembers, “the largest fraction of the group was from business and industry, and the smallest fraction came from the environmental side.”

It was the task of the MCCAG to come up with recommendations to implement the 2007 Next Generation Energy Act. Among other things, like restricting new coal plants without emissions reductions, it required an overall reduction in greenhouse gases by 30 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050. It was a tall order, but the MCCAG went to work and reported out 46 recommendations to help the state reach its goals. Once the recommendations were in Gov. Pawlenty’s hands, he sat on them. He could have given them to the Legislature to debate, but he didn’t. After all of the work of the MCCAG, Pawlenty did nothing.  Actually, he did do two things. He reversed himself on the coal restrictions, and called for a lifting of the moratorium on new nuclear plants.

Noble thinks Pawlenty was scared off the coal restrictions by the governor of North Dakota. You see, this whole coal restriction controversy has little to do with the future of Minnesota coal plants. The argument is really over whether Great River Energy can import coal-fired electricity from the new Spiritwood plant in North Dakota. North Dakota threatened to sue Minnesota. It was going to claim the Minnesota restrictions violated our neighbor’s rights and was a hidden carbon tax on North Dakotans. If that sounds like a weak argument to you, you are not alone.  One senior legislator thought it was a bluff play. But Pawlenty folded his hand.

I asked Noble why everyone was so united back in 2007 and so divided today. He said: “In 2007, the industry was sure there was going to be a carbon cap-and-trade bill at the federal level.” That didn’t happen, and now a slow dismantling has begun. “The upshot of the Legislature’s attempt to lift the restrictions sends the wrong signal to investors in clean-tech global capital, which is, by the way, the fastest-growing segment of the nation’s investment economy. We are giving the signal that Minnesota, once a leader, is backing away from a clean energy economy.”

Xcel as rock star
Another part of Minnesota’s energy picture has to do with efficiencies. It is axiomatic that conserving energy is like finding energy, without building a new plant. Noble has high praise for Xcel. “It is the rock star,” he said. “It is trying to get everyone to conserve energy. If people conserve energy, Xcel doesn’t have to go out and borrow money to build an expensive new electricity plant.”

He has less praise for small co-op utility operations. “They don’t produce the electricity, they buy it, and turn around and sell it. They don’t want to conserve. The more electricity they sell, the more money they make.” And, Noble adds, they don’t have to worry about paying for a new plant. “We know energy savings is the easiest and cheapest way to meet our energy needs, by far.”

The 2007 law was wisely written. It has an anti-backsliding provision, but the backsliders are in ascendance. The dismantlers are concerned that Minnesota will be unable to meet industrial demands, won’t be able to attract business and build jobs. Noble says that’s hogwash. “The renewable energy standard creates a $10 billion new electricity investment at or below market rates.”

At the Legislature, one hears the refrain that renewables cause electricity rates to skyrocket. “That’s not true,” says Noble. “Xcel shows no upward effect on rates as it adds renewables.”

Noble adds: “You always know how much renewables will cost. You have no idea what the upward price pressure will be of coal, whether through regulation or the cost of the product.” No new coal, without emission offsets, is the law of the land, unless Gov. Mark Dayton signs the repeal. Noble says, “It’s going to be a brawl.”

Few people, and certainly not Michael Noble, question Sen. Julie Rosen’s ethics. When it comes to Minnesota’s advanced energy policy, Noble remembers Rosen saying that Minnesota can on longer be out there by itself, an island.

It takes pure courage to lead, to walk the point of a platoon. It is the definition of feeling alone. And, as it concerns her view that man can’t live by renewables alone, I’m reminded that before the Wright brothers lifted off from Kitty Hawk, clergymen of every stripe preached from their pulpits that God never intended man to fly.