On Jan. 12, Minnesota Power announced its remarkable commitment to get to 100% carbon-free energy by the year 2050 (“Minnesota Power lays out renewable energy plan: No coal by 2035, no carbon by 2050”).
As the leader of Conservation Minnesota, a nonprofit that advocates for clean air, clean water, and open space for all Minnesotans, I enthusiastically congratulate the utility on this significant commitment.
This is a tremendous development for Minnesotans everywhere who love our outdoors and care about our warming climate. If achieved, this commitment will make a real and lasting impact by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, reducing mercury pollution that accumulates at unsafe levels in Minnesota fish, and providing Minnesotans with cleaner air to breathe.
With this announcement, Minnesota Power joins other major utilities like Xcel Energy and Great River Energy, both of which earlier announced versions of their own commitments to 100% carbon-free energy by mid-century.
While rapidly advancing clean-energy technology certainly played an important role in spurring these laudable commitments, an even greater factor was consumer demand. More and more Minnesota ratepayers wanted a response to their increasing concerns around climate change from the companies they pay. In other words, public opinion demanded it, and this is where public opinion can be a remarkable tool.
Public opinion builds momentum. It’s one thing for a small environmental nonprofit to demand action by the utilities to reduce climate pollution. It’s entirely different when those not involved in environmental advocacy start expecting their utility to do its part in providing cleaner energy. That is why I commend Minnesota Power and the other large utilities — for picking up that Minnesotans want clean energy as soon as it is reliable and affordable.
A majority of Minnesotans expect their electric utility to do its part to reduce carbon emissions. And once a majority of Minnesotans expect something, elected officials and those regulated by state government start paying attention.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty recognized the early stages of that growing public opinion when he signed into law the 2007 Next Generation Energy Act. Gov. Tim Walz recognized it when he proposed his own policies to put Minnesota on a path to 100% carbon-free energy.
In the coming months, we can expect President Joe Biden to put his own stamp on that same growing public opinion, reflecting how a majority of Americans want action to reduce climate pollution and get us on a path to a 100% carbon-neutral economy.
Minnesota’s state legislators have an important role as well. They are well positioned to help guide Minnesota Power, GRE, and Xcel into the 100% carbon-free future. State legislators can help put important benchmarks into law so utilities achieve their carbon-free goals as quickly as possible while ensuring electricity remains affordable and reliable for residents and businesses alike. Minnesota legislators are also well-positioned to help ensure that workers and communities who formerly relied on fossil fuel-generating plants for employment and local government revenue have the opportunity to reap the benefits of the clean-energy transformation already underway.
Finally, state lawmakers can follow the leadership that the state’s largest utilities have shown in reducing carbon and climate pollution by applying that forward thinking to other sectors of Minnesota’s economy that will need to follow suit: namely, agriculture, emissions from lighting and heating buildings, and transportation, Minnesota’s largest sector of carbon emissions. Minnesotans expect nothing less from our leaders.
So, congratulations again to Minnesota Power! Its commitment to 100% carbon-free energy shows that where there is a will, there is a way in reducing climate pollution — even in meeting the intensive power demands of northern Minnesota.
But this does not mean state lawmakers can close that chapter of the book. Quite the contrary. Now is the time for state lawmakers to become more engaged in advancing Minnesota’s carbon-free and clean-energy policy. Public opinion demands it.
Paul Austin of Minneapolis is executive director of the nonprofit Conservation Minnesota (conservationminnesota.org).