Local View: Minnesota must aggressively move to less-costly renewables

In a commentary in the News Tribune on March 20, Center of the American Experiment scholar Isaac Orr made the astonishing claim that even a 50 percent renewable-electricity standard for Minnesota, an increase from the current 25 percent requireme...

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In a commentary in the News Tribune on March 20, Center of the American Experiment scholar Isaac Orr made the astonishing claim that even a 50 percent renewable-electricity standard for Minnesota, an increase from the current 25 percent requirement, would raise electricity rates so far as to make mining and papermaking economically "devastating" in northern Minnesota. By extension, Gov. Tim Walz's plan for 100 percent carbon-free electricity in 30 years was out of the question, according to Orr and his commentary, which was headlined, "Skyrocketing electricity prices threaten Minnesota mining."

Eric Enberg

I prefer not the torrid musings of a conservative think tank but real-life, market examples.

Take Xcel Energy, the electrical utility just to our south and which extends into Colorado. Last year, Xcel put out a request for proposals to replace its coal-fired power plants with renewables, and more than 400 bids were received. The median price for wind, the point where half the bids were higher and half were lower, was just 1.8 cents per kilowatt. With storage, the cost was 2.2 cents per kilowatt - or what it barely costs Minnesota Power to produce electricity with coal. A combination of mostly wind, solar, and storage in conjunction with a natural-gas plant has now been approved by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and is being put in motion.

Further, Xcel competes directly for industrial customers in Colorado with several electrical cooperatives which get their electricity from a coal-fired supplier. Because Xcel now had cheaper renewable electricity, the co-ops were at a competitive disadvantage with coal and demanded renewable energy from the supplier. Two days after Xcel's announcement, Platte River Power Authority capitulated and announced that it, too, would be carbon-free by 2030, several years earlier than Xcel. Colorado will save an estimated $2.5 billion and achieve a 55 percent renewable penetration statewide with just these actions.


Reinforcing the marketplace, a study recently was released by Energy Innovation and Vibrant Clean Energy. Using data submitted to the U.S. government by utilities, the authors found solar and wind power were often less costly than coal-fired electricity when located within 35 miles of an existing coal plant to use existing labor and transmission infrastructure. Renewables beat out coal 74 percent of the time, and by 2025, 86 percent of coal plants will be more expensive than renewables. The analysis was probably conservative as there was no way of knowing what the debt load of the plant was, etc.

In other words, nearly three out of four times, you could be given a coal-fired plant for free, and it would still be cheaper to go with wind and solar, subsidized or not, than to buy the coal to run it.

Minnesota Power's Boswell Energy Center is the only coal plant in Minnesota that is even slightly less expensive than renewables - for now. Even Boswell will be beaten within six years.

Instead of remaining with coal, Minnesota needs to aggressively move to renewables.

Even when coal or natural gas-fired electricity gradually become more expensive with carbon pricing, a border carbon tax as in the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend bill before the U.S. House of Representatives will charge our going rate for carbon on the carbon content of foreign steel and paper upon entry to the country. So the playing field would be leveled for our industries anyway.

We have only 12 years to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 50 percent, according to climate scientists. Ignore the fossil-fuel apologists. We can do this transition economically and quickly.

Many thanks to Gov. Walz for pushing for a 100 percent carbon-free electrical grid. Please call Rep. Pete Stauber at (202) 225-6211 and encourage him to support the Energy Innovation and Dividend Act.



Eric Enberg practices family medicine in West Duluth and is group leader for the Duluth Citizens' Climate Lobby ( He also is a member of the Duluth Climate and Environment Network.

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