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Dayton wants Minnesota to dump coal

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton this week challenged a group of energy policy and business leaders to figure out a way for Minnesota to eliminate coal from the state’s energy production.

Dayton, who previously has spoken of his aim to eliminate coal, said it’s time to start talking details so that Minnesota could lead the nation.

“Tell us what a timeline would look like, what has to happen for that timeline to be met and what kind of incentives or inducements do we need to provide to make that happen,” he said.

Dayton’s comments came Thursday during the state’s first Clean Energy Economy Summit in the Twin Cities. He said converting coal plants to natural gas should continue, along with investments in renewable energy.

Coal-burning power plants are the largest single source of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that most scientists studying the issue say is fueling global climate change. Burning coal also produces haze-causing sulfur dioxide and fish-contaminating mercury pollution.

Eliminating coal would be a tall order. About 46 percent of electricity generated in the state last year came from burning coal.

In northern Minnesota, that number is even higher. About 75 percent of Minnesota Power’s current electricity production comes from coal-fired power plants. And while the Duluth-based utility already is working to reduce that to as little as 33 percent within about 15 years, Minnesota Power officials say eliminating coal would be nearly impossible.

While Minnesota’s other large publicly owned utility, Xcel Energy, has two nuclear power plants to supply a steady base load of electricity, Minnesota Power has no nuclear source. Minnesota Power says it hopes eventually to have wind, hydro and natural gas power two-thirds of its needs. But officials say a core base of steady, stable and cheap coal-powered electricity is needed to fuel the demands of the Northland’s mining industry.

“The governor challenged us to come up with a timeline … and there probably is a timeline that’s realistic. There could be,” said Pat Mullen, Minnesota Power’s vice president of marketing and corporate relations. “But right now we think that timeline would be way beyond our timeline (2030) for the progress we’ve already committed to.”

Despite constraints, however, the clean energy industry already has grown in Minnesota. The state’s clean energy sector now employs more than 14,000 people working for 1,000 different companies, according to a new analysis from a consultant hired by the state.

In preparing its report, Collaborative Economics reviewed five different sectors of the state’s economy — energy efficiency, wind, solar, bioenergy and smart grid technology. The company’s full analysis won’t be available until September, but it presented preliminary results at the clean energy summit.

“There has been growth over the past decade, and this is despite a very serious global recession,” said John Melville, president of Collaborative Economics. “Energy efficiency took the biggest hit during the recession but has now actually rebounded. And actually, the other four sectors, interestingly, held their own.”

Melville said energy efficiency accounts for about 60 percent of the 14,000 jobs. Many of the sectors have seen double-digit increases in growth in the past decade and combined have grown faster than Minnesota’s overall economy.

Energy policy and business leaders are discussing how to ensure Minnesota continues to be a leader in clean energy.

David Mortenson, president of Mortenson Construction, said his company and others are embracing renewable energy as a cost-competitive solution. He said the cost of wind and solar has dropped while coal and natural gas markets become increasingly volatile.

“And when you can guarantee the price of delivering a kilowatt 20 years from today, because that’s what you can do with solar and wind, you have a competitive advantage because coal, natural gas, they can’t tell you want the cost to produce power in six months will be,” he said.

John Myers of the News Tribune staff contributed to this report.