Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

How could Minnesota become carbon-free? New MPR News series dives in

A reporter walks down a row a solar panels holding a mic
MPR News correspondent Kirsti Marohn records audio at the Ramsey Renewable Station near Anoka, Minn. on July 21.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

This week, MPR News is kicking off a new series looking at Minnesota’s transition to clean energy. It’s called Getting to Green.

On Tuesday mornings, our reporters will be exploring the opportunities — but also the challenges — the state faces as it moves away from fossil fuels and toward more climate-friendly energy sources.

Two of our reporters working on that series talked about it with MPR News host Cathy Wurzer — Dan Kraker on the line from the Duluth bureau and Kirsti Marohn in Collegeville, Minn.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Well, this week, NPR News is kicking off a new series looking at Minnesota's transition to clean energy. It's called Getting to Green. On Tuesday mornings, our reporters will be exploring the opportunities, but also the challenges the state faces as it moves away from fossil fuels and toward more climate-friendly energy sources.

Two of our reporters are working on that series. They're going to join us right now to talk about it. Dan Kraker is on the line from the Duluth Bureau. Kirsti Marohn is in Collegeville. Dan and Kirsti, how are you? Thanks for joining us.

DAN KRAKER: You're welcome, Cathy.


CATHY WURZER: Well, again, you two. You get yourselves into these really big projects. I love that. What was the spark for the project, Dan?

DAN KRAKER: Yeah, I think it was a couple of things, Cathy. So first, we just had a historic legislative session, during which a whole bunch of action was taken to move Minnesota really to a carbon-free future. That includes a requirement to get to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040 and a goal to get to a carbon-zero economy overall by 2050. There's also been a historic amounts of funding approved recently at the federal level and lots of matching funds at the state level.

So it really got us thinking. So, OK, there's all this momentum. There's all this funding. We know where we have to go, but how exactly do we do that in the time frame needed that-- to really stave off the worst impacts of climate change?

KIRSTI MAROHN: Yeah, that's right. And so specifically, we wanted to look at these rapid changes in the energy landscape that we're seeing on all fronts, right, from how the electricity that powers our homes and businesses is generated, to the growing popularity of electric vehicles, also to changes in how we build our homes and our office buildings and factories so they're more energy efficient.

And these changes are being driven by several things. And number one, like Dan said, is climate change, growing concerns over climate change. And the goal is here in Minnesota and nationwide to get to net zero carbon by 2050. That's a really ambitious goal. And it means we have to speed up our shift away from fossil fuels.

The cost of renewable energy has been falling for quite a while. And now in many cases, it's actually cheaper to produce electricity from a solar or wind farm than from a natural gas or a coal plant. So utilities like Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power have been retiring those big coal and gas plants and replacing them with solar and wind.

And then also, the new laws that Dan mentioned, like requiring 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040, that's only 17 years away. So to meet that goal, there's going to have to be a lot more solar and wind added in the next few years. So we started asking the question, what will it take to get there, and what sort of obstacles do we need to overcome to meet these goals of becoming a zero-carbon state and nation?

CATHY WURZER: Hmm. Interesting. So would did you two learn during your reporting?

KIRSTI MAROHN: Well, we learned that there are a lot of challenges, and we'll be taking a closer look at those in our stories. One is transmission lines. We need to build a lot more of them.

That's because in the future, more of our electricity will be generated by those solar and wind farms. And those are spread out over the state, instead of being produced by a few big power plants. So that means you need to move the electricity from where it's being produced to where it's needed. And that's the big population centers, like the Twin Cities metro.

So to do that, you need big, high-voltage power lines. But power lines can be controversial, as we know, especially in rural areas. They often face pushback from farmers and other landowners. And the process for new power lines to get permitted and approved and built can take many years. So there's some concern about whether this build-out can happen rapidly enough.

And then of course, there's a need for more land for solar and wind farms. The US Department of energy estimates that we'll need at least 10 million acres of solar by 2050 to meet those climate goals. But sometimes, those projects also face opposition from nearby landowners and communities.

DAN KRAKER: And then Cathy, another big challenge that we really have to face is how to decarbonize transportation, which is actually now the state's largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. And of course, electric vehicles are going to be a big part of that. And they're growing in popularity, but they're still really hard to find in Minnesota.

And there also aren't enough high-speed chargers available around the state, especially in rural areas. That can create something called range anxiety, that you might run out of juice on long-distance trips. So that's something we're looking at.

We're also looking at the need to make buildings more energy efficient in order to meet climate goals. There's lots of money available now to help homeowners do things like install heat pumps. But I talked to Margaret Cherne-Hendrick. She's with the group Fresh Energy. And she really emphasized that we can't just make this transition on the backs of individuals.

MARGARET CHERNE-HENDRICK: It cannot be up to folks to make hundreds of minute decisions on exactly how to retrofit their homes to be more energy efficient, and then switch out their furnace for a heat pump, and then make sure that they're plugging into every single subsidy that's available, both at the federal level and state level.

DAN KRAKER: So that means we're going to really have to look to solutions that are scalable. So for example, our colleague Catherine Richards, she's doing a story from Rochester on a plan there to build a district-wide geothermal energy system that can heat and cool an entire neighborhood.

CATHY WURZER: Hmm. That's interesting. But you all have really outlined some pretty big challenges. Where are the reasons that you found to be hopeful?

KIRSTI MAROHN: Well, there are lots of opportunities and resources to help with this transition. First of all, there's just a lot of money available right now. The Inflation Reduction Act and other state and federal legislation provide incentives for people to buy electric vehicles or put solar panels on their roofs.

And the transition to clean energy also is expected to create a lot of really good paying jobs, including in rural areas and low-income communities. These are technicians who install solar panels, or electricians who maintain wind turbines, or construction workers who retrofit homes to make them more energy efficient.

So we need to build that clean energy workforce. There was a recent analysis of the Inflation Reduction Act that showed it will help create more than one million additional solar and wind jobs by 2035. So the question is, do we have workers who have the training to fill those jobs? And there are already some programs underway across the state to help people get that training.

DAN KRAKER: Yeah, and something else really important to emphasize, I think, Cathy, is that the equity and social justice aspect to this transition, to make sure that no one is left out of this clean energy movement-- even if you don't own a car-- you can't buy a car, EV, or you can't put solar panels on a home that you own-- we know that disadvantaged communities are also more likely to suffer the negative effects of air pollution and climate change.

So there's a real effort here in Minnesota and elsewhere to make sure that there are opportunities for these communities to benefit from this transition, things like community solar gardens, where renters can have access to solar energy that way, or through training for the clean energy jobs that Kirsti was just talking about that's offered in tribal nations and communities of color.

CATHY WURZER: There is a lot to talk about here. We don't have a lot of time. If folks have questions about the transition, topics they want to know more about, is there a way they can communicate with you two?

DAN KRAKER: Yes. We welcome questions. If you check the MPR News website tomorrow on the Getting to Green page, you'll see the first stories in the series along with a link you can click to submit a question or issue. And we're going to do our best to cover those in the upcoming weeks and months.

CATHY WURZER: All right, good work. Thank you two.

DAN KRAKER: Thanks, Cathy.

KIRSTI MAROHN: Thanks, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Dan Kraker, Kirsti Marohn, two of the reporters working on the new Getting to Green series. You're going to hear the first story on Morning Edition. That's tomorrow and then every Tuesday morning over the next few weeks.

And of course, as Dan mentioned, you can always find the stories on the Getting to Green page. That's at nprnews.org. And the stories-- oh, you're going to like this-- include some really great photos by the NPR visual team. Check it all out.

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