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Minnesota’s quiet march to cleaner air

Minnesota is making real progress on its path to cleaner vehicles, cleaner power and cleaner air, but you can be forgiven if you haven’t noticed. The changes occurring here are often gradual, seamless and don’t often make front-page news.

Let’s start with the vehicle emissions, the single largest source of air pollution in Minnesota. After decades of increases, Minnesotans driving distances have leveled off and even declined, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation. This is happening while mass-transit operators are seeing double-digit increases in riders, and walking and biking programs are finding more participants.

Sales of cleaner-burning fuels like E85 are trending up, as the 300,000 or so Minnesotans who own a flex fuel vehicle are choosing a fuel that almost always costs less than regular unleaded. Other alternative fuels and vehicle technologies growing across the state include a small but growing number of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles; natural gas stations springing up in southern Minnesota; and a school system using propane instead of diesel in their school buses.

Speaking of diesel, Minnesota currently requires a 5 percent blend of biodiesel (B5); that percentage is expected to increase soon, resulting in even fewer tailpipe emissions from diesel vehicles.

Our power grid is getting cleaner, too. The percentage of coal used to generate electricity has been declining, as power utilities switch to natural gas or rely more on renewable sources like wind, which now supplies at least 14 percent of our electricity. Thanks to our state’s forward thinking renewable-fuel standards, the amount of renewable electricity will increase to at least 25 percent within 12 years, and some modest goals for solar power have also been set.

As I said, these changes don’t often make news. But they are making a difference.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Matt Johnson on 09/09/2013 - 04:31 pm.

    Cars the biggest source of pollution? I heard animal agriculture


    According to Meat the Truth and other source animal agriculture is the biggest source of air pollution, not cars. Have you heard that as well?

    • Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 09/16/2013 - 01:46 pm.

      Our source is the MPCA

      The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency cites vehicle emissions as the single largest source of air pollution, as defined by the Clean Air Act and regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Studies looking only at greenhouse gases and other emissions may look somewhat different.

      The pollutants the MPCA monitors and measures are the same the EPA uses to determine in a city/region meets federal air quality standards. All of Minnesota currently does, but the Twin Cities are on the cusp of “non-attainment status.”

  2. Submitted by mark wallek on 09/20/2013 - 07:00 am.

    Better. Really?

    I have been told in a number of ways that things are getting better. Yet I do not see more clean water, I do not see more fish in the ocean, more fertile farmland run by non corp farmers. I do not see less processed, more abundant fresh food. I do not see building for the long term. I suspect, like many things in america, the air may look cleaner, but it really means the pollution is just more insidious. Sort of like our racial and economic issues. So I suppose you could say things are better, but that really depend on the standards set.

  3. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 09/23/2013 - 09:50 am.

    Our science is getting better, too

    While the air is getting better (generally speaking), our understanding of air pollution and human health is getting better, too. The authors of the Clean Air Act understood there was much left to discover about air pollution and health when it became law in 1970. That’s why the law requires the EPA to routinely review the best science/medical knowledge on the subject every few years and update the air quality standards, if needed. Yes, our air IS cleaner than it was in 1970. But now that we know how harmful air pollution can be, our standards are tougher than the 1970 standards.

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