Sustainable: Planners charting Minnesota’s energy future

Back to All News

Sustainable: Planners charting Minnesota’s energy future

January 7, 2018

Energy generation from wind and solar has grown significantly in Minnesota. Utilities have announced the retirement of thousands of megawatts of coal plants in the next decade. Popular technologies such as electric vehicles, sophisticated thermostats, battery storage and rooftop solar hold great potential to produce cleaner energy. And they pose challenges to the electric grid.

Minnesota is entering a new era of energy production that promises to upend the traditional power grid in the same way the internet, the iPhone and deregulation transformed communications over the past 30 years.

What the future might look like is being debated and studied by several leading environmentally oriented nonprofits and by Minnesota regulators. In mid-December the Minneapolis-based Environmental Initiative, for example, held a conference on utility resource planning and “designing for disruption.”

The Minneapolis-based Great Plains Institute has led a multiyear project called the “e21 Initiative” that offers ideas on grid modernization, creating more consumer choice and changing incentives for utilities. Its two reports on different aspects of the energy infrastructure are helping to lead regulators and utilities to make changes to respond to consumer, business and government demands.

The Public Utilities Commission’s own “grid modernization” report came out last year with an eye toward preparing for a much different future.

“The issues involving the electric grid look very different now than they did even a decade ago,” said Meleah Houseknecht, the Environmental Initiative’s director of environmental policy. “We need to look at the policy and regulatory process, with input from utilities, to figure out what the system should look like in the future.”

Mike Bull, director of policy and external affairs for the Twin Cities-based Center for Energy and Environment, has watched how energy has been transformed for more than 20 years. He served in the Pawlenty administration, which in 2007 approved one of the nation’s leading renewable energy standards, and later was a resource planner with Xcel Energy.

“We’re at an inflection point,” he said. “We’re at a time when load growth is very flat, when consumers are asking for more services and clean power. It’s a disruptive time.”

How different the state’s energy future looks today compared with just a decade ago can be seen in just a few data points.

The state currently receives 22 percent of its electricity from renewable energy, most of that (18 percent) from wind power, according to a 2016 report by the state Department of Commerce. In 2006, renewable energy provided 6 percent of the state’s electricity. Over the decade, natural gas jumped from 5 percent to 15 percent. And coal? There has been a huge decline in market share, from 62 percent to 39 percent — and falling.

Also driving the need for planning are consumer and business preferences. The Minnesota Environmental Partnership reported this year that 71 percent of Minnesotans favor increasing the state’s renewable energy standard to 50 percent.

What clean-energy advocates want is the electrification of the energy grid, a move they believe will reduce greenhouse gases more rapidly than any other approach.

SOURCE:  Finance and Commerce

Related Information