Minnesota is barren of fossil fuels, with no crude oil, natural gas or coal reserves. Yet its renewable energy potential is gigantic, if so far mostly unused, awaiting the right conditions for that power to be tapped.
In 2007, that moment has finally arrived.
A potent mixture of economic opportunity, environmental alarm, national security anxiety and political realignment is making this the year Minnesota breaks from its fossil-fuel past and moves toward a future of homegrown energy produced from the wind, from its farms, its forests and prairies.
In his inaugural address Tuesday, Gov. Tim Pawlenty embraced the vision so passionately that he made amends to ‘visionaries in the conservation and environmental movement,’ who two decades ago were urging Minnesota to adopt a greener energy future, but were laughed at by state leaders.
‘Those leaders lacked the vision to see the future, or lacked the courage to stand up to entrenched interests that protected the status quo,’ Pawlenty said. ‘An alternative energy plan is urgently needed now. Our country remains addicted to oil. That addiction is an imminent threat to our national security, economic security, our environment, and it limits economic development, especially in our rural areas.’
Remarkably, even longtime opponents see opportunity. Democrats and Republicans do. Farmers and environmentalists do. Security hawks and peace groups do. It’s not quite a Kumbaya moment, but it’s getting close. Coal, oil and natural gas interests won’t like it, but none of those fuels are native to Minnesota. Wind, grain and biomass are.
George Crocker, an environmentalist who 25 years ago led power-line protests, has long warned about the real costs of U.S. energy policy, including acid rain, nuclear waste, energy inefficiency and global warming. So he’s delighted to see a Republican governor stepping up.
“We have a golden opportunity to be part of the solution to this long litany of problems, and do so in a way that is totally reinvigorating to Minnesota’s economy,” Crocker said.
Why the sudden consensus? Chalk it up to hard lessons learned, and new opportunities dawning.
Hurricane Katrina offered a painful preview of unchecked energy prices.
The Iraq war amplified the dangers, and real costs, of an economy run on Middle Eastern oil.
The November elections stripped power from Republican defenders of fossil fuels.
Warm winters and scorching summers underscored the scientific warnings about global warming.
Then there was the ethanol boom, which showed that alternative energy didn’t have to be a dour, eat-your-spinach undertaking.
“It’s not Jimmy Carter in a cardigan, shivering by a fire,” said Bill Grant of the Izaak Walton League, conjuring up an image from the 1970s energy crisis.
“Minnesota has a real comparative advantage,” Grant added. “This is something Minnesota can do, because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it will mean real economic opportunity for the state.”
James Woolsey, former director of the CIA, noted recently in St. Paul that “we borrow approximately $320 billion a year to import oil,” which is four times annual U.S. net farm income. If biofuels displaced just one-fourth of those imports, he argued, “That’s $80 billion, and we effectively double net farm income.”
If there are opportunities, there are also risks to rural Minnesota. A collapse of oil prices – as has happened before – would make biofuels uncompetitive, and endanger the farmers and communities that dared to invest. New energy technologies could make today’s huge investments obsolete. Green energy could prove unreliable for large-scale use. Or the drive to halt global warming gases, a potential moneymaker for farmers, could also target livestock and farming practices.
But the potential looms.
Pawlenty proposes that between 4,000 and 5,000 megawatts of electricity be generated from Minnesota wind power by 2025 – a goal that all sides agree is reachable, and would require at least $6 billion of new capital investment. Today’s giant wind turbines generate about 2 megawatts of electricity apiece, so to meet the goal, some 2,500 wind turbines would dot the state.
“Minnesota has a fantastic opportunity in wind power,” said Michael Noble, executive director of Fresh Energy, a state renewables group. “Look at the variables. We have an unbelievably good (wind) resource, both here in Minnesota and in contiguous states. We have a growing demand for energy. “¦ We have a pretty strong leadership ethic on public policy, both in terms of rural economic development and environmental protection. And we have both manufacturing and technology infrastructure that would support this industry.”
The hard parts are two-fold: getting the power-line grid in place to make large-scale generation of wind power viable, and structuring the industry so local communities and landowners have a stake as investor-owners, not disgruntled outsiders.
“We’ll need a lot (of energy), and if we’re going to do a lot, it means a lot of people in rural communities will be impacted by industrial-scale development,” said Crocker, the one-time power-line protester who now leads a green group, the North American Water Office.
If rural areas don’t share in the financial success of such development, “They tend to cop an attitude about it, which means we’ll spend a lot of time and effort fighting over it,” Crocker said. But it’s a much different story “if the same people in those same communities have a stake in it.”
Already, Minnesota ranks No. 4 in the nation in wind energy produced, thanks in part to a decade of earlier development and legislation.
Ethanol from corn is widely viewed as a Minnesota success. Now attention is turning to producing ethanol from plant residue, such as corn stalks and tree limbs. It’s called cellulosic ethanol.
Minnesota is the nation’s No. 4 corn-growing state, so corn ethanol was a good fit here. Yet Minnesota may be even better positioned to take advantage of cellulosic ethanol, because both its farming and its forestry sectors generate huge amounts of plant residue that could be turned into fuel. A federal study ranked Minnesota No. 3 among the 50 states as a source of plant material.
The cellulosic ethanol era isn’t here yet, but it’s close. Iowa is already developing a plant. Pawlenty proposed to bring cellulosic ethanol to Minnesota as quickly as possible, with incentives and research dollars.
“We have to be investing in public policy and public resources right now, to get to some of these opportunities that are just around the corner,” said Loni Kemp, senior policy analyst for rural advocacy group the Minnesota Project. “If you look at the history of wind and the history of ethanol, it takes a while.”
Grant, director of the Izaak Walton League’s Midwest office, sees a big to-do list: “We think there’s some basic research that needs to be done, there are some demonstration projects that need to be developed, some technical assistance to farmer-cooperatives that want to get involved.”
Nationally, the new Democrat-led Congress will be writing a farm bill in 2007, and cellulosic ethanol will play a starring role. The two Upper Midwestern lawmakers, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota and U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who are leading the bill’s crafting, will make doubly sure of that.
“This would revolutionize rural America,” Peterson said at the Midwest Ag Energy Network meeting in St. Paul last month. “And it will work, if we get this done right.”
Minnesota has other green energy possibilities, too. The state’s rich harvest of plant material could be used directly for power generation.
Or, it could be mixed with animal manure – another item in abundance here – to produce biogas that would be an alternative to natural gas.
Or, it could be converted into high-value gases, including hydrogen, which could power fuel cells and other future energy sources.
Or, grasslands, forests and no-till farmland could generate cash in the fight against greenhouse gases and global warming. In October, the Minnesota Farmers Union unveiled a way for farmers to qualify for carbon credits through the Chicago Climate Exchange. The trading program lets factories or power plants buy credits to offset carbon emissions.
Last month Pawlenty endorsed that idea, urging the state of Minnesota to join the exchange, too. While his plan didn’t go quite as far as some environmental groups hoped, it signaled a new day in the approach to global warming.
“Right now, we’re sending the signal that coal-fired plants emitting carbon dioxide is free, and that’s not going to be true anymore,” said Beth Goodpaster, energy program director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “And that will change the price signals.”
In general, the cost of generating electricity with coal remains cheaper than using renewables – if you don’t count the costs of adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The equation changes once you do.
“Electricity prices are not going to go down, but they never do,” Goodpaster said. “So the question that is before us is, how much are they going to go up? The regulatory signals that we send are, prices will up go less if we use carbon-neutral technology.”
Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, noted the state’s lead in the green energy landscape.
“I think a lot of people in Minnesota really don’t understand how far ahead Minnesota is compared to the rest of the United States,” he said. “I give our state legislators a lot of credit for their foresight.”
“We’re still learning in Minnesota, but we’re implementing a lot of those things,” he added. “Our investment has paid off.”
Tom Webb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-228-5428.
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