In Minnesota, legislators are debating bills aimed at achieving 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.
Back on February 4, state Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, introduced the measure, House File 700 to wean off fossil fuels and generate power from solar, wind, hydroelectric, hydrogen, among other options in an effort to reduce greenhouse gases.
At that time, state Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, who is sponsoring the companion bill in the Senate, reportedly said that the state would benefit from jobs created especially by solar and wind industries. Also, state Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point, who is co-sponsoring Senate File 850, said now is the time for the state to focus on addressing concerns that surround climate change.
Despite gaining bipartisan support in both political chambers, the bills have been ill received by legislators representing the mining communities relying on fossil fuels. Democrats in northern Minnesota express support for some of the ideas behind the measures, but they are not willing to completely dive head first and bet solely on renewable energy to keep the mines up and running.
“The whole key to our area’s success is continuous power,” said Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm. “I have five of the six taconite plants on the Iron Range in my Senate district. We can’t afford to back the change.”
In late February, Tomassoni pointed out during an interview that U.S Steel’s MinnTac operation in Mountain Iron uses more electricity and natural gas alone than the entire city of Minneapolis.
“Go see the windmills on Taconite Ridge outside of Mountain Iron,” Tomassoni said. “When they don’t turn, they aren’t useful to our taconite plants. We need reliable and cost-effective energy to provide jobs on the Iron Range and steel for the U.S.”
Tomassoni added: “One-hundred percent renewable energy is not as easy or doable as the words sound themselves. We need to make sure that the new sources of energy are 100 reliable 24 hours a day 365 a year. And we can’t say that about solar and wind.”
On Feb. 15, Long and Frentz co-wrote an article for MinnPost in which they argued that the state is being faced with a choice: “We can continue to send $13 billion out of state each year to buy fossil fuel energy. Or we can seize the enormous opportunity in front of us, and redouble our investment in wind and solar.” Forty percent of clean energy jobs are in “Greater Minnesota,” they wrote, “from the wind farms of the Southwest to the solar panel factory in Mountain Iron.”
In their piece, the lawmakers cited the 2019 report from the Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation which found that the state could “effectively obtain 91 percent of our electricity from renewable sources using current technology, while creating up to 50,000 renewable energy jobs.” A month after that report was released, Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility company headquartered in Minneapolis, announced its own goal of delivering 100 percent of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2050.
“One-hundred percent renewable energy is a laudable goal, but I don’t think we’re ready for it,” said state Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls. “I think we’re making good efforts to have more energy options, but right now you can’t provide enough incentives for solar and wind. We have to build into it.”
For Tomassoni, he considers the fact that Minnesota Power distributes about 65 percent of its total electrical load from its 1,000-megawatt coal-fired power plants in Duluth to taconite plants on the Iron Range. “What happens if we force Minnesota Power to convert from coal to renewable energy right now?” he said. “If they have to raise the rates on our power because we forced them to do something, then the cost of taconite plants could go up astronomically. And if the rates go up too much, then we could lose jobs.”
Long and Frentz argue that the state was once a leader in clean energy. In 2007, former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a group of bipartisan lawmakers passed the Next Generation Energy Act which put forth a 25 percent renewable energy standard for the state by 2025 and created the first greenhouse gas reduction goals.
Last year, the state met that 25 percent goal — nearly eight years early. But the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency now says the state fell behind on its greenhouse gas reduction goals.
“We have also lost our role as a national leader on clean energy policy,” the legislators wrote.
At least three other states have already passed similar bills for a 100 percent clean energy mandate including California, Hawaii and New York, they added. And Wisconsin and Colorado have made moves to join as well.
The new bills comes a year after the state met its renewable energy goal and nearly a year following Minneapolis becoming the 65th city in the U.S. to sign up for a 100 clean energy by 2030.
Following in the footsteps of his hometown, Long now calls for 55 percent carbon-free renewable energy by 2030 and 80 percent by 2035. His bill would also speed up Xcel’s plans to 2045.
If the state fails to adopt the plan, Long and Frentz argue, taxpayers “are leaving major job-creating opportunities on the table, and continuing to threaten the overall health and prosperity of our communities.” Also, they wrote that that climate change is bound to threaten agricultural productivity along with health effects including problems with asthma and allergies.
There is a battle of geographic priorities being played out in the legislative session. Many politicians — blue or red — would like to see a renewable energy plan of some sort, but there is much difference regarding impacts to Minneapolis or Hibbing.
Some say they would be in favor of an incentivized plan, rather than mandating.
“In concept, I support the goal because I believe the less carbon-footprint the better,” said state Rep. Julie Sanstede, DFL-Hibbing. “In the long run, it could be a better situation.
But it’s costly to shift from fossil fuels to completely renewable energy and I’d like to see more of a safety net for smaller communities unable to do it on their own not running the risk of being swallowed up.”
Lawmakers residing amid the mining industry often discuss state reports showing their communities as having cleaner air and water than down in The Cities. They say that individuals living elsewhere in the state may see mines and taconite plants and think pollution but their reality is that the all has been and continues to be highly regulated.
The idea of keeping Rangers healthy is not lost on legislators, too, but they have to consider the financial well-being of their constituents.
“Without a doubt, it would jeopardize jobs,” Sandstede said.
Ecklund added: “I’m very concerned because our taconite and paper industries are largely energy dependent and if we increased the fees because of the renewable energy goals there’s only two things that could happen: cut jobs because easy to way to cut money or close down taconite plants.”