Building the Clean Energy Economy

Written by Sierra Club intern Ben Hellerstein

Solar & Efficient Northern Communities Land Trust Homes in Duluth

Photo by CERTs

Across the state, Minnesotans are building a clean energy economy from the ground up. Our Clean Energy Tour on July 13 took us to the small town of Spicer, located about 90 miles west of Minneapolis, where local residents and institutions are working to break their dependence on imported sources of energy, reduce their carbon footprint, and save money on their utility bills.

The owner of the Spicer SuperStop, a gas station and convenience store, installed a rooftop solar array that generates up to 25% of the business’s electricity. The Willmar Municipal Utility built two 80-meter wind turbines that will produce electricity for the next twenty years at a cost of less than five cents per kilowatt-hour. At the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center, a number of energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, including a solar thermal heating system and an electric truck powered by on-site photovoltaic and wind installations, have cut the center’s fossil fuel use nearly down to zero.

From 1970 to 2005, Minnesota’s greenhouse gas emissions increased from less than 110 million tons of carbon dioxide to more than 160 million tons. Most of this growth took place in the transportation and electricity generation sectors, which together account for 64% of the state’s emissions.

But between 2005 and 2008, carbon dioxide emissions from the transportation sector in Minnesota decreased by 2.6 million tons, thanks to better automobile fuel economy and a decline in air travel. At the same time, the replacement of three million megawatt-hours of coal-generated electricity with wind power cut emissions by 1.6 million tons.

These reductions were partially offset by an increase in residential and industrial emissions. Still, Minnesota’s total greenhouse gas emissions declined by 1.2%, or 1.9 million tons of carbon dioxide, between 2005 and 2008.

What accounts for the sudden reversal of this decades-long trend of increasing emissions? The economic downturn is partly responsible: air travel became less affordable for many Minnesotans, and an increased rate of unemployment meant that fewer people were commuting to work every day, resulting in a reduction in total vehicle miles traveled.

But it isn’t just the economy. It is the choices made by thousands of ordinary Minnesotans — like those in Spicer — that have put us on the path towards a less carbon-reliant future. Minnesota’s legacy of forward-looking environmental policies has helped to enable and support these choices.

In the Twin Cities region, improvements in mass transit over the past decade have helped to increase ridership by 18.7%. The two rail services operated by Metro Transit, Hiawatha Light Rail and Northstar Commuter Rail, carry 11.2 million passengers a year, or one seventh of the system total. The success of these services — neither of which existed ten years ago — proves that Minnesotans are eager to choose less energy-intensive, more sustainable modes of transportation, if they are only given the choice.

In 2007, the Next Generation Energy Act established greenhouse gas reduction targets for the state of Minnesota. Using 2005 emissions as a base level, the state will reduce its total emissions by 15% in 2015, 30% in 2025, and 80% by 2050.

To get there, the law created two mechanisms to cut down on fossil fuel use. The first is a Renewable Energy Standard that requires utilities to obtain at least 25% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025. As a result, many utility companies give financial assistance to customers who install renewable energy projects that feed electricity back into the grid. Xcel Energy provides payments of $2.25 per watt towards the cost of installing solar electricity systems, or $5.00 per watt if the system is manufactured in Minnesota. The Spicer SuperStop used these incentives to help pay for its photovoltaic installation.

Second, the Conservation Improvement Program (CIP) requires utility companies to meet an annual goal of reducing overall energy consumption by 1.5%. Funding is available for residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural consumers to implement projects that reduce their electricity and natural gas consumption. Typical projects for residential consumers include high-efficiency heating and cooling devices, low-flow showerheads, and home energy audits. In 2009, CIP initiatives reduced carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation and natural gas use by more than 700 thousand tons.

Investing in energy efficiency allows utilities to delay or even eliminate the need to build costly new power plants to cope with rising demand. The average cost of reducing electricity consumption by one megawatt-hour through energy efficiency measures is less than $50. Generating the same amount of electricity from a coal-fired power plant would cost between $78 and $144.

Minnesotans have made significant progress in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, but there is much more still to be done. How can we accelerate our transition to clean energy? One way is to adopt a Solar Energy Standard that would require 10% of Minnesota’s electricity to come from solar power by the year 2030, on top of the 25% Renewable Energy Standard established in 2007.

Minnesota has long been a leader in wind energy — it currently ranks fourth in the nation for wind power capacity, thanks in large part to the Renewable Energy Standard — but our installation of solar electric capacity has lagged. Despite the fact that our state is well-suited for producing electricity from the sun, our total solar capacity is only 3 megawatts, a little more than one large wind turbine.

A solar energy standard would help jumpstart the development of our solar industry here in Minnesota, creating 14.1 jobs for every $1 million invested. It would be a smart move for our economy, and provide a boost for Minnesotans across the state, like those in Spicer, who are working to transition away from dirty energy.

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