How feasible is Walz’s goal of making Minnesota’s energy sector carbon free by 2050?

Gov. Tim Walz
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Gov. Tim Walz, joined by political allies at the state Capitol, told reporters weaning Minnesota off fossil fuels was necessary and doable as scientists predict dire consequences of Earth’s rapid warming.

To get a sense of how monumentally difficult it would be to wean Minnesota off fossil fuels, one only needs to look at climate change politics in St. Paul.

On Monday, Gov. Tim Walz called global warming an “existential threat” in need of an “immediate” response and proposed the state’s electric sector rid itself of coal and other greenhouse gas producers … over the next 31 years.

For those counting, that deadline is toward the later end of what would be Walz’s eighth term in office. Still, 2050 has been at the center of the debate over how fast the state can politically and logistically move toward clean energy. It’s also turning into something of a rallying cry for Democrats around the country, like the $15-per-hour minimum wage but for climate change.

Republicans, who have a majority in the state Senate, were largely skeptical of Walz’s energy plan on Monday and have already painted it as an unrealistic mandate that would raise energy bills for homes and businesses. But Walz, joined by political allies at the state Capitol, told reporters the strategy was necessary and doable as scientists predict dire consequences of Earth’s rapid warming.

“This is not just aspirational,” Walz said. “This is operational.”

Can it be done?

Besides setting a hard deadline for utility companies to provide carbon-free power by 2050, Walz’s plan, introduced in the Legislature by Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, comes with some new regulations and legal changes.

First, it would bar utility companies from adding new fossil fuel power — or replacing existing fossil fuel sources with new ones — unless they can show it’s necessary to “ensure reliable, affordable electricity,” according to Walz’s office. This would be a stricter standard for state regulators, who currently do take clean power into consideration when approving energy projects. Next, Walz’s legislation looks to increase energy efficiency for utilities and customers, including by expanding a program that helps homeowners save power.

Minnesota is already moving toward clean energy quickly in some respects. A 2007 law signed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty required utilities to get at least 25 percent of their power from renewable energy sources by 2025, a goal the state achieved at the end of 2017. In fact, between 2005 and 2016, greenhouse gas emissions coming from the state’s electricity sector fell by nearly 30 percent.

The state’s largest energy provider, Xcel Energy, announced last year it plans to go carbon-free by 2050 on its own, with a mix of energy that includes a fair amount of nuclear power. Some research suggests the 2050 deadline is possible across the state thanks to factors like new technology, dropping prices for wind and solar and aging coal plants that are set to retire anyway.

But there are headwinds. Minnesota’s power sector is made up of a complex mix of for-profit utility companies and smaller nonprofits run by cities or cooperatives. About 70 percent of the state’s power is distributed by the for-profit companies, Steve Kelley, Commissioner of the Department of Commerce, told MinnPost.

One of those private utilities, Minnesota Power, ran on 95 percent coal as recently as 15 years ago. But the company has since retired seven of its nine coal units and has increased its share of renewable energy to 30 percent. Even so, the utility — which serves a region that includes Duluth, International Falls, Grand Rapids and Little Falls — has only committed to reach 45 percent renewable energy by 2025. Kelley said some small, rural cooperatives with fewer customers also might be more hesitant to switch to renewables.

Can it be done politically?

Walz is not the first to propose stricter deadlines for carbon-free energy in the state. Long, the DFLer from Minneapolis and Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, introduced their own 2050 bill earlier this year with just a sprinkle of GOP support, and Frentz introduced a bill in 2017 for 50 percent renewable power by 2030 that did not pass.

Walz’s proposal brings extra political heft, but his bill has some key differences. Walz’s plan does not set new targets between now and 2050 for utility companies to meet along the way, giving those power suppliers more wiggle room on the path away from fossil fuels. Walz said the change “shows the good faith effort that we are partnering with our utilities and our energy generators.”

A statement issued by ALLETE, the parent company of Minnesota Power, did not endorse the plan, but thanked Walz for the “flexibility” in it. “We especially appreciate that the proposal is not a “one size fits all” approach, taking into account utilities across the state are different in size, energy supply portfolio and the customers they serve,” says the statement, signed by Al Hodnik, ALLETE’s chairman and CEO, and Bethany Owen, the company’s president.

The stronger standard for new fossil fuel production has similarities to a bill introduced last year by Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, and cosponsored by a slate of Republicans, Kelley added. And Walz included measures to promote high-wage, union jobs for construction and operation of energy infrastructure, including by allowing power companies to recoup costs of those hiring efforts from their customers.

Nationally, efforts to limit fossil fuels in the electric sector have gained considerable momentum. Hawaii and California have 2045 deadlines for total renewable energy use in their electric sectors and Washington state appears poised to follow. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers also proposed a 2050 target on Friday, and Democrats in the Illinois Senate this year proposed a 2030 deadline for its power sector to be carbon free.

But Walz’s legislation likely still faces an upward climb in St. Paul. David Osmek, the Mound Republican who chairs the Senate’s Energy and Utilities Finance and Policy Committee, told MinnPost he was concerned renewable energy isn’t reliable enough during severe cold and doesn’t want energy mandates to burden Minnesotans with higher costs when the state only emits a small fraction of global emissions. Solutions must come from talks that include other countries with high emissions, he said.

Pinning down the cost of a 2050 deadline for carbon-free energy is difficult. Kelley said the Commerce Department did not have an estimate for the price of Walz’s plan. And various research and partisan organizations have said deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions might either raise bills or save households hundreds of dollars per year.

“Nobody debates whether we should have a cleaner environment,” Osmek said. “The problem is how much are we going to spend?”

Walz, ever optimistic, told reporters Monday was the start of Minnesota’s path to a complete overhaul of its power sector, even if the end date is far in the future. “I hope someday, when the story is written, that March 4th of 2019 is when this turned and when Minnesota took its rightful place, as it always has been, of being innovative, solving problems and creating a better, more equitable and cleaner future,” he said.

Comments (43)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/05/2019 - 10:29 am.

    He better speed things up — we only have 12 years!

  2. Submitted by David Broden on 03/05/2019 - 11:34 am.

    A visionary plan such as that proposed by Walz and similar to that of Excel is a valid roadmap for all of MN to support- we have good start and like most plans such as this the last 10-20% will be the hardest due to some of the unique barriers– good objective and non obstructionist approach will show and confirm progress. With that said — concurrently we need a plan to evolve and redefine the economic shape and actvvities of the state as climate change will have a significant impact on what grows, how we move around, what we eat, what we do. If we do nnot begin this process the zero emission plan may not be vaild. The plans of General Mills supporting agricutture change is a major move that should be recogizned by all ctiizens and server as a catalyst for other.

    DAve Broden

  3. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 03/05/2019 - 11:58 am.

    It’s not only not feasible but will destroy MN’s economy. Solar and wind combined only work 40% of the time at best. Neither can provide baseload power because of that. Our electric bills would more than double.

    To replace Sherco with solar, it would require at least 21 sq miles of land. For wind it would be on the order of 224 sq miles. There isn’t enough land to supply both food an power. And none of that accounts for a backup system that must be in place for when those 2 forms aren’t producing.

    Germany learned the hard way and is now going back to nuclear and fossil fuels because they can’t affford the power costs. Wind and solar have always been Nothing more than a fad.

    The real future of electricity generation is liquid salt Thorium reactors. China and India are both pursuing that tech. We had a working reactor in the 60s but abandoned it.

    • Submitted by Joey Senkyr on 03/05/2019 - 12:18 pm.

      Well, gosh, you better call up Xcel’s CEO and warn him, since he committed his company to the same goal well before Walz’s proposal came out. He’ll probably trust his system planners more than some random internet commenter, but at least you’ll have tried.

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 03/05/2019 - 02:13 pm.

        Excel gets massive subsidies. We all saw how well their wind farms and solar farms worked recently. Excel will be changing their plans as well. Baseload power comes form nuclear and fossil fuels. It can never come from wind and solar as neither are 24/7 nor are they reliable.

        • Submitted by Marc Post on 03/05/2019 - 04:08 pm.

          Climate denier nonsense. Huge strides have, and are, being made in energy storage. You also ignore geothermal and hydro power.

          While I agree some nuclear may be needed for a while, fossil fuels are an energy dead-end.

          • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 03/05/2019 - 05:47 pm.

            Hydro is the way to go given how many dams that used to produce electricity have been removed. We certainly have plenty of rivers to draw from and it is important to decide which ones we will use so that all citizens affected can adjust.

          • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 03/05/2019 - 07:11 pm.

            I’d refute your first line but… geothermal and hydro are such a tiny fraction of power generation that they aren’t a blip on the radar. Energy storage is still a joke. Battery tech is maxed out unless they come up with some revolutionary breakthrough. But even then, the laws of thermodynamics limit them. Batteries are extremely inefficient so you then have to generate not only double the energy when solar and wind work (to make up for the times when they aren’t working) but you also have to generate beyond that to make up for the inefficiencies in storage etc.

            Fossil fuels will be our primary source for many years to come because the only thing that comes even close to them in energy density is Nuclear. There isn’t enough land for wind and solar and food all at the same time. Not to mention all the pollution created to make that many windmills and solar panels. Here is an article by a “greenie” on why renewables won’t work: https://quillette.com/2019/02/27/why-renewables-cant-save-the-planet/

            This chart should be plenty for you: https://medium.com/@ghornerhb/heres-a-better-graph-of-co2-and-temperature-for-the-last-600-million-years-f83169a68046

        • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 03/05/2019 - 08:09 pm.

          The point being that fossil fuels don’t get subsidized?

    • Submitted by Alex Schieferdecker on 03/05/2019 - 12:28 pm.

      If you’re worried about threats to Minnesota’s economy, you should really check out this climate change thing that all the people are talking about.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 03/05/2019 - 02:14 pm.

      BB, not sure where your “German” information comes from, these folks don’t seem to agree,
      https://www.cleanenergywire.org/factsheets/germanys-energy-consumption-and-power-mix-charts
      https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/renewable-energy-germany-coal-power-environment-green-solar-wind-a8711176.html,
      Seems PBS or 60 minutes did a spread on a small community in Germany that is 100% off the grid, and feeding renewable back to it, and they really like the jobs it has created. .

    • Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 03/12/2019 - 02:26 pm.

      “To replace Sherco with solar…”

      No one is recommending this. No one.

      Xcel is on track to close several of the coal-powered boilers and switch to natural gas instead. Wind power will continue to grow, because it is now one of the least expensive ways to generate electricity. Solar only represents a little more than 1 percent of our electrical power, but I suspect it will continue to grow as well.

      Coal is on its way out. There is no turning back now.

  4. Submitted by Jim Smola on 03/05/2019 - 12:51 pm.

    One would think that in thirty one years technology improvements will make alternative energy sources even more feasible and less costly. To argue now that it would raise energy costs in the future is ridiculous. I read yesterday the Chinese were looking at placing satellites in space as a source of solar energy that may refute the sun doesn’t shine argument.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 03/05/2019 - 02:17 pm.

      Care to guess how much it costs to launch a single satellite? Or how many satellites you would need? Might as well believe in unicorns. Wind and solar face an issue that cannot be overcome….nature. Wind only blows about 25% of the time. Sun shines less than 50% of the time. You can not rely on either to provide baseload power. If a storm comes in, both go to nearly 0 output.

      The future is Thorium reactors, not fads like wind and solar.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/05/2019 - 01:38 pm.

    What’s feasible, and what Republicans think, are two entirely separate issues.

  6. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 03/05/2019 - 02:34 pm.

    As a technology guy, I think it is achievable, back in 1988, how many folks believed you could call anywhere in the world, and Face time included in the price of your monthly phone service? That we would have Tera byte data transfers, when we were just thinking about connecting to the internet through a 15kb/sec dial up phone line? Fuel cell technology has been around since 1838, and is now starting to actually make reasonable traction in the power generation industry. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel_cell
    We were working on Electrical Car infrastructure back in the early 90’s, from this persoective electrical cars are pretty much mainstream, China 2nd largest economy in the world is making a major push to be the leader. Germany, just announced that the German auto industry is devoting https://europe.autonews.com/automakers/german-industry-invest-68-billion-electric-cars-and-automation Ironically this is ~ 2/3 of the price tag of the GND (Green New Deal). So the point is we hide in our cave and yell, scream, pout etc. for the good old goal and gas burning days, as much as we want, but the world will and is clearly moving forward, with or W/O us.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 03/05/2019 - 07:36 pm.

      A couple of points you missed.
      Germany is a tiny nation land-wise compared to the US. Everything is much closer so they don’t have to travel nearly as far. Also, they are going bankrupt paying for electricity (one of the highest in the industrialized world). Also, they have to buy power from other nations since they shut down their nuclear plants and can’t accommodate for that with wind and solar.

      China is a fraud. Don’t believe everything you read about them. They build empty cities just to goose their GDP numbers. China is also building about hundreds (reports of 700 of them) of coal fired power plants. They will be responsible for 50% of all the coal plants going online the next few years.

      The costs to upgrade our grid and build all the power plants needed would bankrupt us to run all electric cars and meet the “green new deal” objectives.

      The US should be pursuing Thorium reactors. Cheap to build, scalable so they take very little land, safe and they could get rid of the grid as we know it. We have hundreds of years of known thorium deposits as well.

      • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 03/06/2019 - 11:28 am.

        “Germany is a tiny nation land-wise compared to the US”. (That point is immaterial to the question at hand, Germany is a part of the EU, 508M, almost 2 x the US, Germany has a population of ~ 83M, that is more than 2 X CA. Is California a tiny state compared to the entire US? The EU land mass is ~ 3.93 M Mi sq, US is ~ 3.8 M mi sq..So your travel comment is junk, and what does it have to do with power generation? Also suspect you missed the Germany Auto industry https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-03-02/german-car-industry-to-invest-45-billion-in-electric-vehicles
        That is over 1/2 of what the GND is asking. “going bankrupt” you are just full of unsubstantiated conjecture, Debt as % of GDP, Germany ~ 64.1%, USA ~ 105%. Suspect all that would be found in those additional comments is more unsubstantiated conjecture that are opinions derived from some right wing political propaganda machine, in short no pony.

  7. Submitted by Arthur Lind on 03/05/2019 - 02:54 pm.

    I think if you look at who pollutes this world, #1 is CHINA, and #2 is INDIA! And those two countries don’t care and they are part of the Paris Accord (or whatever its called).. Minnesota has made great strides in reducing greenhouse gasses but so far wind & solar cannot be dependable to support major industries, Iron Mining, Pulp & Paper, to name 2 elephants in the room. Hopefully our new Governor and his staff will look into this. Forcing r

  8. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 03/05/2019 - 03:37 pm.

    Of course it is doable. It will need federal laws and policy to change and international agreements or it will cost us dearly, but the time to start is now (originally long ago).

  9. Submitted by Gerry Anderson on 03/05/2019 - 04:16 pm.

    Probably doable with nukes as base load generation. That means we need to start building a couple now. Still the best source of power.
    Solar conversion on a panel is terrible. Wind is high cost of ownership and not very reliable. Too much wind, off. Too little wind, off. Too cold, off.
    I have no doubt that advances in technology will improve both of these, but nuclear power can be used safely and efficiently today.

    • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 03/05/2019 - 05:49 pm.

      Too bad that it is against state law to build a nuclear power plant.

      • Submitted by Dave Carlson on 03/07/2019 - 09:53 am.

        … and what of the nuclear waste that is generated? Last I heard, Nevada still doesn’t want it, so do we just build more casks along the banks of one of the world’s great river ways?

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 03/05/2019 - 06:54 pm.

      What folks don’t seem to understand is the power generation world has changed significantly in the last 30-40 years. A couple of key changes, Instead of building additional capacity, the power companies look for ways to peak shave, They have moved hard to Gas Turbines, fuel (NG) is cheap and clean, can be built in smaller incremental power ratings, short lead times (relatively speaking), brought on and off the grid incrementally, from ~ 4 Mega Watts to 6-700 Mega watts
      https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=34172, are actually more reliable than a large power plant because of redundancy, Similar to solar and wind, the wind may not be blowing or sun shinning in someplace, but no sun or wind all over?
      A typical coal plant is ~ 600Megawatts. it is expensive and time consuming to fire a coal plant up and keep it running, whether you need the power or not, Seems Nuclear runs well and clean, but has this big front end charge, is not incremental by design, and a waste problem, that we have not been able to deal with. Can you say Yucca Mountain?

  10. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 03/05/2019 - 05:54 pm.

    Since electricity will be powering and heating everything, what happens to the natural gas (who have huge deposits available now) producers and all the household appliances that use natural gas? Will we be required to replace our natural gas furnace, oven, dryer, and water heater? Will all the natural gas-to-electricity plants be close too? (Some have been built within the last decade to help the environment).

  11. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/06/2019 - 08:26 am.

    As if fossil fuels don’t get subsides. Give me a break.

    To list just one, when coal is burned and people need to get treated for respiratory diseases, that cost gets externalized.

    To get away from subsidies, start by eliminating the generous tax breaks for oil drilling, then tax gas at $4/gallon to cover the costs of our Middle East misadventures.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 03/06/2019 - 10:04 am.

      Tax breaks aren’t subsidies. Not to mention solar and wind get tax breaks as well. So by your standard, they get subsidized twice while coal and oil only once.

      Also, burning coal is very clean now. People aren’t getting respiratory issues from it. Cars are much worse in polluting by comparison.

  12. Submitted by David Broden on 03/06/2019 - 09:32 am.

    It is amazing that all the comments are regarding the fossil fuel side and alternative energy sources. My comment early in this series of comment suggested we need equal attention to how we adapt and change other things as the climate changes. Apparently few of you consider that life will change and we need to adapt to do things that are complementary to the fossil fuell and alternatve energy side of the discussion. General Mills, Cargill and others see that and are actiong. Will Mn government do the same or remain a one sided solution????
    Dave Broden

  13. Submitted by Tom Karas on 03/06/2019 - 09:35 am.

    Good grief MinnPost get in the game and do some real work. Every energy story needs an accurate depiction of the cost of newly built energy systems. You can start by reporting on the recent results of the RFP that Xcel tendered last year. You can have clean energy for cheap, or choose dirty energy for more money. In the light of recent developments, Walz’s proposal is laudable but also a no brainer.
    Please make an effort to report up to date cost estimates and then let the discussion begin around paying more for dirty energy or not.

  14. Submitted by Adam Miller on 03/06/2019 - 10:33 am.

    This is such a strange way to approach this discussion. Is it feasible? Yes, of course it is. Xcel is already doing it anyway. Practically and technically, it can be done.

    The only obstacle is political. That some people don’t want to do it – for bad or corrupt reasons – doesn’t make it a thing that can’t be done.

  15. Submitted by Kent Fralish on 03/06/2019 - 11:30 am.

    We need to address long term world population reduction along with other
    measures.

  16. Submitted by Bob Shepard on 03/06/2019 - 12:07 pm.

    Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute in his 2014 book, Reinventing Fire (https://rmi.org/insight/reinventing-fire/ for downloadable report) writes that by 2050, the country could attain an energy scenario with nothing coming from oil or coal or nuclear by using multiple, combined strategies of renewables, conservation, and technology. And at the same time, the country could save $5 trillion and enjoy an economy that’s 158% bigger than it was in 2014. I know this is five years old, but as we’re surpassing goals to this effect anyway, I’m hopeful this is even more doable. We’ve got everything to lose by not attempting to correct our massive chemistry experiment on our planet.

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