A Framework for Minnesota’s Clean Energy Future

""We flew out to Colorado prepared to talk about a technical study and came home with the start of a social campaign to engage all Minnesotans in decision making around our energy system.

With no fossil fuel resources of its own, Minnesota spends $13 billion a year importing the coal, natural gas, and petroleum that fuels three-quarters of our energy economy. Minnesota does, though, have abundant wind, solar, and biomass resources. We have a successful renewable energy standard, which the state’s largest utilities are meeting ahead of schedule, and an energy efficiency requirement that the largest utilities regularly exceed. We have strong and growing clean energy industries, and a multi-sector project underway in partnership with the National Governor’s Association to spur industry development, so that Minnesota businesses can jump on the growing market in the state, the country, and worldwide.

And Minnesota has some big decisions to make about the future of our energy systems. Our infrastructure is aging and requires updates and replacements. We can’t not make decisions.  Minnesota’s two nuclear plants will retire in the 2030s unless relicensed, for example, and half of our coal plants will be 40 or more years old by 2017. Further, this past winter’s propane crisis was due in part to limited infrastructure for transporting supplies. To build and invest in infrastructure we need to know what path we are on and where we want to be headed. New federal regulations severely limit the viability of new coal plants, and the EPA’s just-announced rules impact existing plants as well.

We don’t know exactly how our energy systems will change, but we know the status quo won’t last.

Minnesota’s Energy Future Framework

With this knowledge, the legislature has tasked the Legislative Energy Commission with developing a framework for the state to transition to clean energy economy-wide, including not just the electric sector but also transportation, heating, industry, agriculture, and all energy uses.

To begin, the state brought in Rocky Mountain Institute to recommend a scope and approach for such an enormous undertaking, and we were very pleased to be invited to send a team to eLab Accelerator this spring. 

Armed with the recommendations of RMI’s scoping report, our Accelerator team sought to answer:

  • What will success look like for the Energy Future Framework?
  • How do we structure the process to have the greatest impact, including resilience through political shifts?
  • What are the key next steps?

The Plan

At Accelerator, our team came up with a “written in pencil” draft plan for the Framework.

The target: How can Minnesota transition to 80 or 100 percent clean energy by 2030 or 2050? The framework will develop long-term pathways, policies for the medium term, and immediate “no regrets” actions to reach this goal.

We are intentionally not defining “clean energy” at the outset. Defining that term is the task of the Energy Future Framework development. In cooperation with the experts in Minnesota’s various energy sectors, the Framework will analyze what energy mix will maximize reliability and resilience, affordability, economic development, and the health of our environment and citizens.

The study will explore multiple resource scenarios, including these and possibly others we haven’t yet identified:

  • An energy system composed solely of renewable energy and energy efficiency only
  • Including large hydropower in the mix
  • Including nuclear power
  • Including fossil fuel with carbon capture and sequestration

The study, however, is just a tool. Our goal is that an action-oriented framework be carried by a network of leadership that will advance changes over the course of decades, learning and refocusing along the way.

Our time with the facilitation and issue experts at Accelerator, and the focused working time within our own team, was very valuable. In addition to the plan described above, we came away with a number of insights that will guide our work.

It’s more a process than a plan. The analytics are important, but having a base of champions that set the parameters for the analytics and are ready to move them forward is even more important. The network needs to be ready to learn along the way, adjust, and keep the process moving forward toward the 80–100 percent clean energy goal.

Divergent interests can all move in the same direction even if for different reasons. We had extensive discussions about whether the overall goal should be a greenhouse gas metric, or a cost metric, or an economic development metric, or something else. The answer is yes. They are all decision criteria to be included in the Framework.

We can leverage all the ongoing clean energy initiatives. Minnesota is in a continual process of developing clean energy goals and standards and each new piece of this effort involves stakeholder meetings and comments. We strategized about how to protect against stakeholder fatigue, and came up with the plan to work on connecting different efforts by providing updates to stakeholders on how the process we are doing builds on and interfaces with other processes. We can prevent unnecessary redundancy if we keep ourselves informed of what else is going on that others are leading.

Minnesota Nice is our tool for getting everyone at the table; the challenge is to then create a space for healthy debate. One concern other teams brought up is Minnesota’s culture of “nice.” Minnesotans have a reputation for being polite, understated, and conflict averse. Everyone comes to the table; it is the nice thing to do. But, how do we move forward if we avoid addressing the points of disagreement?  We hope to capitalize on the strengths of nice; we know we can get everyone into a room. Our job then is to make the space safe, support brainstorming ideas, identifying solutions, and from there debates will take off.

We returned to Minnesota invigorated to share these ideas with dozens of potential partners who weren’t yet involved—and all the citizens who will themselves need to be a part of making these changes. So far we have gotten positive feedback and a lot of interest from people in energy industries, nonprofit and community organizations, and government in joining the effort.

As RMI told us in the scoping study, when it comes to our energy systems, there is no such thing as doing nothing. Profound changes are already underway. We have a great opportunity today to grow businesses and protect the health of our environment and citizens by transitioning to a clean energy economy, and Minnesota is ready to seize this opportunity.

Anna Henderson works for the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board as an energy and climate specialist. Annie Levenson-Falk is the executive director of Minnesota’s Legislative Energy Commission.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.