How Minnesota Can Power a Greener, Cleaner Future

New ways to live, work, and travel are expanding renewable energy and reducing the state’s carbon footprint

Illustration by Glenn Harvey

Drew and Karie Johnson live in a small 1921 bungalow on a leafy street in St. Paul’s Highland Park. Walk by their home, and nothing looks unusual compared to the rest of the neighborhood. Glimpse the couple’s backyard and basement, though, and
it’s abundantly clear this home operates differently than most
others in Minnesota.

Every appliance runs on electricity. The gas line that once served the home for heat and cooking has been capped. The backyard features a towering central air-source heat pump unit that sits on a pedestal and provides both heating and cooling. In the basement, the dryer and water heater are electric, as is the induction cooktop and oven in the kitchen. The couple and their three kids drive just one car, an electric Nissan Leaf. They buy all their electricity through Xcel Energy’s Windsource wind energy program. Not surprisingly, they hope to someday install solar.

Karie feels the family is “doing as much as we can do in our own personal choices” to reduce the family’s carbon footprint. Drew says the electrification investment, while expensive, offered “an air-quality improvement and peace of mind that there can be no gas leaks.”

Across Minnesota, clean energy advocates, environmentalists, and even utilities uniformly see electrifying our lives as the critical strategy in combatting climate change. President Joe Biden’s proposed $2 trillion American Jobs Plan includes significant electrification measures while calling on utilities to reduce carbon emissions by 50% by 2030. Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power have already achieved that goal, and the state’s other utilities will likely meet it by the target year.

Minnesota’s approach to a smaller carbon footprint is shared by other states and much of the globe. The elements include building more renewable energy and investing in communities that prioritize walking, biking, shared mobility, or mass transit for getting around; moving from gas to electric options for home heating; making room for trucks powered by renewable natural gas, biodiesel, and other fuels made from animal manure and other biomass ingredients; encouraging the development of hydrogen and other new clean energy options; and then spreading job opportunities and cost savings to low-income neighborhoods.

Examples are emerging that limn a portrait of what that future could look like. The Highland Bridge development in St. Paul’s Highland Park sits within a quarter mile of transit spots. It plans to install 100 electric vehicle (EV) charging stations and car sharing hubs with electric scooters and bicycles.

A dairy farm in Morris transforms manure into renewable natural gas sold into California’s low-carbon fuels marketplace—the same sort of marketplace biofuel advocates say should exist in Minnesota. On Minneapolis’ North Side, solar entrepreneur Jamez Staples of Renewable Energy Partners developed a training center to prepare students of color for careers in the burgeoning industry, including several projects to add solar to neighboring low-income households.

There’s nonetheless good reason to worry about global warming, especially in Minnesota. The state is warming faster than most of the rest of the U.S., according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data. It’s hard not to notice the results: less snowy winters, hotter summers, increasing lake algae, longer ragweed seasons, and a growing population of people with respiratory problems. A warmer Minnesota has also brought more rain and flooding, according to state and federal reports.

The good news is that Minnesota remains a national clean energy leader. More than half the state’s power generation comes from carbon-free sources, with coal slipping to 25% in 2020 from 30% in 2019, according to Clean Energy Economy Minnesota’s latest annual factsheet. Nearly all the new power generation since 2011 has come from renewable sources, mainly wind energy. The organization’s executive director, Gregg Mast, says the report shows that over the past decade, “we’re producing more goods and services with less energy, and that’s exactly what we want to be doing.”

Reason to cheer, right? Not so much. In 2007, Minnesota created goals under Gov. Tim Pawlenty to reduce greenhouse gases in the Next Generation Energy Act and has repeatedly failed to meet them. The state did not reach its goal of decreasing emissions by 15% by 2015 (from 2005 levels) and will likely not achieve a 30% drop by 2025, either. That is, without accelerating carbon reduction efforts.

“Minnesota is way behind in meeting its goals,” says Ellen Anderson, a former state legislator and climate program director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “We know from the science we need to accelerate our path toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We’re seeing increasing emissions in many sectors of the economy—the only sector reducing emissions is the electricity sector.”

Anderson and other experts say the state must do better in three main areas that emit the most greenhouse gases: transportation, power generation, and the built environment. Cut emissions in these areas quickly, and Minnesota stakes a claim to doing its part to confront the climate crisis.

Transportation

Cars, trucks, semis, construction, and delivery vehicles pump more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than other top emitters. By moving drivers away from internal combustion vehicles to electric vehicles, Minnesota could significantly cut emissions.

One of the state’s leading EV evangelists, Jukka Kukkonen, has not owned a gas-powered car since 2012. He makes a convincing argument for others making the switch, as chief EV educator and strategist for Shift2Electric. “From the technology perspective, electric vehicles are superior to the internal combustion engine,” he says. “They don’t produce any local emissions. They are more responsive. They are more powerful. They need less maintenance, and they are much cheaper to drive.”

In Minnesota, around 20 EV and plug-in electric models are available—a number expected to increase dramatically. Nearly all manufacturers have announced plans to transition to all-electric vehicles, or likely will, and in sales, Tesla continues to dominate. (There are Tesla dealerships in Maplewood and Eden Prairie.) The fear that an EV will run out of juice on some desolate, plug-less stretch of highway—dubbed “range anxiety”—has dissipated as consumers learn they can fill auto batteries in their garages and as the number of charging stations near the state’s highways continues to grow, Kukkonen says.

Also assuaging fears are newer EVs with a 250-to-300-mile range per charge. Utilities such as Xcel Energy and Great River Energy offer affordable overnight recharging programs and have made grid investments to prepare for more EVs.

Tim Rudnicki, executive director of the Minnesota Bio-Fuels Association, drives a Toyota Prius and believes hybrids will continue to draw consumers who are wary of EVs or seeking something less expensive. Having vehicles capable of driving with higher blends of ethanol could make a dent in emissions without changing the nation’s vast gasoline infrastructure and while benefiting Minnesota’s farm economy, he argues. But the fuel remains controversial because of its environmental impact on farmland and high emissions from production. Still, Rudnicki argues “biofuels can have a place in reducing greenhouse gases.”

Eliminating range anxiety altogether will likely take a lot more chargers on highways, streets, and in neighborhoods. The state is investing $7 million in dozens of chargers on major transportation corridors, adding to a growing private and public network of more than 1,745 chargers, says Rebecca Place, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s electric vehicle administrator. The agency’s money comes from a settlement Volkswagen made with states and the federal government after cheating on emissions data. Within 10 years, there will be reliable, fast chargers within 50 miles of any point in Minnesota, she predicts.

Members of the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association have begun preparing for more EVs. “The retail industry is fully committed to helping their manufacturers be successful in selling electric vehicles—demand is low, but we’re trying to turn that around because they are the future,” says Scott Lambert, the organization’s president. “Dealers are gearing up and getting their stores ready.”

One of those is Paul Blomquist, who owns Ford dealerships in Roseau and Hallock. Even in the state’s northernmost reaches, he saw a lot of interest and test drives when he showcased EVs for the first time earlier this year. One client bought a Mustang Mach-E not long after it arrived on the lot. A local utility plans to co-market with dealers on EVs. “From the dealer’s perspective, they’re wonderful opportunities for our business, for the environment, and consumers,” Blomquist says.

Utilities

The utility sector has made the most significant changes to reduce greenhouse gases, says Fresh Energy senior director of science policy J. Drake Hamilton.

Just 15 years ago, 60% of electricity in Minnesota came from coal, but within a decade, the state is set to have one coal plant. That one is slated to close in 2035.

Regulators are considering “integrated resource plans” submitted by the state’s largest utilities—Xcel Energy, Minnesota Power, and Great River Energy—detailing future investments in wind and solar, plus energy storage solutions that aim to power half or more of their energy production with renewables within a decade, she says. Hamilton believes Minnesota will need a variety of energy sources and strategies to fully transition to a carbon-free economy. “We will need all of them,” she says.

Xcel Energy, one of the state’s largest investor-owned utilities, was among the nation’s first power companies to announce a goal of being carbon-free by 2050, with an interim 80% carbon-reduction goal by 2030.

Chris Clark, president of Xcel in Minnesota, says 62% of the utility’s power comes from carbon-free sources, such as nuclear, wind, solar, and hydro, with the rest coming from natural gas and coal. Renewable energy “is cheaper energy that’s actually saving our customers money,” Clark says. “Occasionally, you hear people out there trying to understand whether renewables are cost-effective, and they certainly are.”

Clean energy does come with a cost, though. Clark says the utility has been working with the two communities expected to suffer economically when its final three coal plants close over the next decade. Xcel recruited employers and announced a plan to build one of the Midwest’s largest solar installations in Becker, home to the state’s largest coal facility, Clark says.

Becker is only part of the story. Thousands of megawatts of new wind and solar are in proposals for the future, and Xcel’s other green initiatives include managing the nation’s biggest community solar garden program. Consumers and businesses can sign up for clean power with the utility’s Windsource and Renewable Connect. Xcel’s efficiency programs will be part of its approach to drive down energy consumption, he adds.

Clean energy advocates generally applaud these transitions but question one of Xcel’s biggest proposals: an $800 million new natural gas plant in Becker by the mid-2020s.

Clark argues Xcel needs the natural gas plant to ensure reliability as it transitions to more clean energy sources, such as wind and solar, which provide only intermittent power. A natural gas plant pollutes less than coal and provides a steady backup in times of polar-vortex power surges and other challenges to the electric grid.

University of Minnesota assistant professor Gabe Chan believes Xcel could avoid building the plant by investing more in renewables, energy storage, and programs that reward businesses and consumers dialing back their power consumption during high-demand times.

The Sierra Club’s Jessica Tritsch shares that sentiment. She argues that the clean organizations used the same modeling software and data as Xcel and found the utility could maintain the grid’s safety and reliability without the plant by using renewable energy, battery storage, energy efficiency, and other approaches. “I think it’s a really bad decision to build a gas plant in Becker,” Tritsch says.

Will the Becker plan proceed? It will be up to local regulators to make the final call. [Update: Xcel has dropped plans for the Becker plant, according to the Star Tribune, and instead plans to build two smaller natural gas plants at less than half the cost, to be used “only sporadically.”]

Architecture

With seasons that swing from sub-zero vortexes to sauna-like summers, Minnesota weather is tough on buildings. Better energy efficiency in existing homes, apartments, and commercial buildings will require a lot of work and money. The way forward is likely a combination of ingenuity, civic investment, code improvements, and commitments from property owners.

For existing structures, upgrades for insulation will combine with heating electrification, says Chris Duffrin, president of the Center for Energy and Environment (CEE). The organization works locally on developing  benchmarking and efficiency-related initiatives to drive down energy consumption, and manages programs such as Home Energy Squad. Last year, CEE assisted in a Minneapolis residential energy disclosure program that offered energy-saving improvement suggestions to thousands of home buyers and owners.

Many homeowners replacing window air conditioners with air-source heat pumps for cooling will also use them for heating until the weather requires natural gas furnaces or boilers, he suggests—a strategy resulting in a cleaner heating system. The state can expect to see more solar on rooftops as prices drop, too. “To make this transition successful, we have to address the existing buildings,” Duffrin says.

When architects and energy planners can plan communities from the ground up, energy efficiency is even easier. Rick Carter, CEO of the architectural firm LHB, Inc. has been a pioneer in designing energy-efficient buildings. On land that used to be Hillcrest Golf Course, he has been working with the St. Paul Port Authority to create a net-zero, carbon-free neighborhood of 1,000 new housing units and an equal number of jobs.

The development will tap the earth or aquifers through geothermal technology for heating and cooling. Residents will have incentives to buy EVs or use an EV car-share service. Solar energy will likely comprise the electricity consumed onsite, Carter says. Other developments, such as Highland Bridge in St. Paul and Towerside in Minneapolis’ Prospect Park, promise sustainable, low-energy-consumption neighborhoods where residents will not have to leave to work, shop, or play, he adds.

Many home developers have also embraced sustainability. In 2020, 45% of the state’s new homes were rated for energy efficiency by the Residential Energy Services Network’s Home Energy Rating System. The lower the rating, the more efficient the house. Minnesota led other states with an average score of 50, eight points below the national average in 2020.

Back in St. Paul, the Johnsons feel like they’ve made wise investments that reflect their desire to participate in creating a better environment. Karie realizes no one person or family can stop climate change, but if many people bind together, joined by businesses and governments, greenhouse gas reduction becomes less insurmountable. “When we look back,” she says, “we can feel like we did what we could by making changes in our own lives.”

Read More:

5 Steps to Reduce Greenhouse Gases in Minnesota

Four Reasons Minnesota is a Green Energy Leader

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