Rural Minnesota has what the clean-energy revolution needs to capture wind and solar energy: land. Unfortunately, many in rural areas assume that serious jobs are only created around fossil-energy projects. However, using the Jobs and Economic Development Impact models developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, we can begin to see the large and sustained impact clean energy can have on rural areas.
Let’s assume the Boswell Energy Center in Cohasset, Minnesota — a coal-fired power plant owned by Minnesota Power — is replaced by a clean-energy portfolio of wind, solar, storage, energy efficiency, and demand response. Using the Sierra Club’s recent “Clay Boswell retirement report,” I inserted numbers for the wind needed into the Jobs and Economic Development Impact program and compared them with the economic impacts of the Enbridge Line 3 project.
I found that the wind component alone would be a $2.06 billion investment, creating 4,444 one-year, full-time-equivalent construction jobs and 234 permanent jobs. More than $4 million would be paid to local farmers annually ($9,000 per turbine per year), and counties would receive $1.20 per megawatt hour produced in lieu of property taxes, or about $6 million, just under the $6.8 million now paid by Minnesota Power for Boswell. After the first six months of operation, all the energy that was and will ever be used to manufacture, maintain, and recycle the wind turbines would be recouped.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory doesn’t have a photovoltaic solar model. The solar component in the Sierra Club plan is less than a third of the wind in terms of megawatts, and the number of jobs is correspondingly less but still respectable at 1,438, using data from the 2018 National Solar Jobs Census.
By comparison, the Line 3 project is a $2.6 billion investment with 4,200 construction jobs and only 25 permanent jobs to Minnesota; $35 million will be paid annually in property taxes. The larger and more durable pipeline, however, will carry 760,000 barrels daily, about twice as much tar sands oil as the old one. At 1,159 pounds of carbon dioxide released per barrel, Enbridge will be responsible for releasing 436,620 tons of carbon dioxide per day. Using a $50 per ton social cost of carbon, that’s a societal debt of $21 million per day — or a whopping $230 billion in climate damage over 30 years.
With these job numbers, we can only hope that certain members of our state and federal delegations will become as enthusiastic about clean-energy projects as they are about dirty-energy projects.
And, what of Boswell Energy Center and the 140 jobs there? It turns out that Siemens-Gamesa, a European engineering and energy behemoth, has developed a simple technique to repurpose coal-fired power plants using excess wind and solar electricity with rock for heat storage. This costs less than half the cost of battery storage.
Entire sectors would need conversion to electricity, such as home heating with heat pumps and light-duty vehicles. To replace oil and natural gas, the U.S. would need to produce three times more electricity than it does now. The beautiful thing is that we can have cheaper renewable energy, more jobs, and a cleaner environment because of it.
So, how do we get there? Rural Republican members of Congress are realizing that nothing grows jobs across their vast districts like clean energy — and are starting to vote like it. Now is the time for all members of Congress to finally give a mighty shove and send the marketplace a strong price signal to cut carbon, generate millions of jobs, and pass dividend checks to rural Americans through the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act.
Dr. Eric Enberg practices family medicine in West Duluth and is group leader for the Duluth Citizens' Climate Lobby (citizensclimatelobby.org). He also is a member of the Duluth Climate and Environment Network.