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In Response: Embrace clean energy, enjoy lower utility bills

A couple of opinion pieces published in the News Tribune in recent weeks incorrectly called into question the reliability and affordability of clean energy in Minnesota.

Annie Levenson FalkA "Statewide View" column headlined, "Minnesotans ought to be concerned by state's sweeping energy transformation," was published March 26; and a "Statewide View" headlined, "Skyrocketing electricity prices threaten Minnesota mining," was published March 20. Both commentaries mischaracterized the reality of clean energy in our state in an apparent attempt to scare us away from supporting new, clean-energy goals currently under consideration in the Minnesota Legislature.

Speaking as the leading advocate for energy consumers in Minnesota, I can say that clean energy is the best option if we want to keep our energy bills low.

Anyone claiming that transitioning to clean energy will raise utility bills for Minnesotans has not been reading the news. Simply put, renewable energy is the lowest-cost energy resource in Minnesota today. Wind energy, even without subsidies, is now cheaper than coal and natural gas. The cost of wind and solar energy fell 16 percent and 23 percent respectively last year, and costs are still decreasing. Clean energy is so cheap that utilities can build new wind turbines for less than it costs to simply operate existing coal power plants.

That means that if we continue to rely on traditional power generation, we'll pay too much. A study released by the McKnight Foundation last year estimated that transitioning to clean energy will save the average household between $600 and $1,200 each year. The savings for a larger user of electricity, like a mine or a mill, would be much, much greater.

Plus, building new fossil-fuel power plants today means taking on a big risk. Power plants are long-term investments to the tune of billions of dollars. They get paid off gradually over the decades they're in operation, which is traditionally a predictable expense that makes up a big part of our electric rates. A typical gas power plant might be paid off as it's producing power over 30 years. However, with renewables already the cheapest source of energy and getting cheaper, it's pretty likely that a gas plant built today won't be cost-effective to run in 30 years. If a power plant gets priced out of operating before it has been paid off, consumers could end up on the hook for paying down the remaining debt, potentially hundreds of millions of dollars or more.

There's no doubt the electric system can accommodate much higher levels of renewables than are on the system today. Engineering studies have shown this, and it is being demonstrated by power systems around the world. Utilities and the organizations that manage electric grids are continually getting better at integrating renewable energy.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has proposed 100 percent clean electricity by 2050, and legislation is currently moving through the Minnesota House to require utilities to meet that goal — but not at any cost. If it turns out that getting to 100 percent would make electricity expensive or unreliable, utilities wouldn't have to do it. This same off-ramp was included in the 2007 renewable-energy standard. It turned out that the off-ramp wasn't necessary, however; utilities reached the required 25 percent renewable-energy goal years early without problems.

I hope it will be unnecessary again as we move toward 100 percent, but it's an important option to have until we know for sure.

The Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota hears from people every week: Consumers want affordable clean energy. Fortunately, clean energy is the path that will keep costs low for all of us.

Annie Levenson-Falk is executive director of the St. Paul-based Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota (cubminnesota.org), an advocate for residential and small-business utility consumers.

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