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Minnesota needs strong state policy for renewable energy

Tue, Nov 29th, 2005
Posted in Commentary

On November 15 The Department of Commerce came to Preston Minnesota and proclaimed Minnesota as “America’s Clean Energy Capital”, but they did not provide you with the entire story. Minnesota currently only generates about 3% from renewables like wind, hydropower, solar, and biomass, the other 97% comes from coal and nuclear plants.

Minnesota’s commitment to renewable electricity began in 1994 during the Prairie Island nuclear waste negotiations. The resulting legislation required Xcel Energy to install 425 megawatts of wind, with a second phase of 400 megawatts contingent on its cost effectiveness as determined by the Public Utilities Commission (it was determined to be cost effective). This legislation made Minnesota a national leader, and in the 1990s, our state was ranked second behind California in production of wind energy. Since then, because state leaders have not passed clear public policies our progress has been disappointing.

Texas installed more wind than Minnesota in 2001, and our state dropped to third. In 2002, Iowa passed Minnesota and pushed us to fourth. In 2003, six states installed more wind than Minnesota did. Minnesota now has only 600 megawatts of wind—less than the total required by the 1994 legislation. Minnesota has lost ground on renewable energy development since the 1990’s.

Texas in just a few years has developed three-times more wind than Minnesota because they have passed a Renewable Energy Standard. The Minnesota Department of Commerce has opposed such legislation, and business has lost out because of this lack of support.

By not having a Renewable Energy Standard, Minnesota has lost out on many opportunities. Since 1990, 20 states have enacted Renewable Energy Standards. Passing such legislation sends a strong signal to the renewable energy industry that these states are good sites for business

Gamesa, a wind manufacturing company, decided to invest in Pennsylvania instead of Minnesota because of Pennsylvania’s Renewable Energy Standard, and the Iron Range lost 1,000 good paying jobs. Texas passed a Renewable Energy Standard in the late 1990s. By 2001, that state had developed 913 megawatts of wind, and 2,500 people were employed in the industry. Last year, Texas passed legislation that would increase their renewable energy requirement to 5,880 megawatts, more than would be required by Minnesota’s proposed 20 percent by 2020 Renewable Energy Standard. That’s right—even Texas, the home of fossil fuel, understands the economic benefits of passing a Renewable Energy Standard.

In Minnesota, which some have dubbed the Saudi Arabia of wind; we should be especially excited about the possibilities that lie in front of us. Germany, with only 10 to 20 percent of the wind resources that Minnesota has, currently produces 16,000 megawatts of wind energy, almost 50 times Minnesota’s current production. Germany employs 40,000 workers in its wind energy industry. And wind turbine manufacture is the second largest consumer of that country’s steel products, second only to its automotive industry. Even tiny Denmark employs 20,000 in its domestic wind energy industry.

Imagine a coherent renewable energy policy in the state of Minnesota: a new industry with the potential to employ tens of thousands of Minnesotans—expanding economic opportunity in our rural areas—and a new manufacturing industry close to the consumers of its products.

Last year, the United Steelworkers conducted a poll in Minnesota and found that 78 percent of Minnesotans supported a Renewable Energy Standard. The legislation was supported by Minnesotans of all political persuasions, by gun owners and non-gun owners, by people who attend church and people who don’t. Many Minnesotans agree that increasing our commitment to clean, renewable energy technologies is good for the economy and good for consumers, will keep rates low, and will provide many new, well-paying jobs.

It is time for the Department of Commerce to join the rest of Minnesota and help us pass a 20% by 2020 Renewable Energy Standard then we can honestly proclaim our state as “America’s Clean Energy Capital!”

Dave Foster is the District #11 director of the United Steelworkers of America

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