How hard will it be for MN to hit clean energy targets?

An array of solar panels
An array of solar panels in Pelican Rapids, Minn. The two utilities that will play the biggest role in Minnesota's carbon reduction plan say they're on their way to meeting clean energy targets.
Ann Arbor Miller | MPR News 2014

President Obama has a plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants, but what does that mean for Minnesota? The short answer: It's complicated.

The question that remains is how much Minnesota's progress to this point has helped.

In a way, the state of Minnesota was prepared for this moment. It's been more than a year since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its proposed Clean Power Plan with targets for each state, and some here in Minnesota balked.

That's because states like North Dakota had really low targets, while Minnesota and other states that had already been working to clean up their energy sources were stuck with bigger reductions.

David Thornton, an assistant commissioner with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said it will take weeks for his staff to analyze Minnesota's obligations under the revised rule the EPA released Monday. But so far, he said, he's encouraged.

"We think this final plan is a more balanced, fair plan, and it does a better job of recognizing the kind of work we've already done here in Minnesota," he said.

So even if Minnesota's target is as high as 40 percent, Thornton said, when it comes to the things the state's utilities will need to do to meet it — the efforts could be minimal.

"I think it will require more, but we're not sure how much at this point," he said. "But we're currently on target to be very close."

That's because in recent years, state laws have required Minnesota's utilities to change how they generate electricity. One law says large utilities must produce a quarter of electricity from renewable sources by 2025. A more recent law mandates that utilities add solar to their energy mix.

In other parts of the country, coal-dependent utilities complain about possible energy price hikes and threaten lawsuits against the EPA. But not so far in Minnesota. The two utilities that will play the biggest role in Minnesota's carbon reduction plan say they're on their way to meeting the targets. Xcel Energy's CEO even participated at the White House ceremony announcing the EPA's carbon rule.

"Implementing clean energy is familiar ground for Xcel Energy," company CEO Ben Fowke said in a written statement. He said that even if the EPA's Clean Power Plan does not fully recognize early actions of proactive states and utilities, "Xcel Energy is ready to move ahead."

Minnesota Power spokesperson Amy Rutledge says the northern Minnesota utility's goal is a mix of one-third renewable energy, one-third coal and one-third natural gas.

"We think that strategy has Minnesota Power well positioned to meet the Clean Power Plan, as well as Minnesota's greenhouse gas reduction goal," she said.

Details about how both Xcel and Minnesota Power will meet the new rule are expected as part of each utility's resource plan filed with state regulators. Xcel's is already underway, and Minnesota Power will submit its plan Sept. 1.

Environmental groups like the Sierra Club will continue its push to retire coal-fired power plants, including Xcel's two older coal units at the Sherburne County Generating Station. Xcel hasn't committed to doing that. Minnesota Power recently announced plans to stop burning coal at a smaller plant — Taconite Harbor plant in Schroeder — next year.

"We've seen widespread public support for all of our utilities to transition to clean energy," said Alexis Boxer, an organizer for the Sierra Club Northstar Chapter.

The next steps could include a combination of energy efficiency, switching some coal plants to natural gas and increasing wind and solar energy. Fresh Energy's J. Drake Hamilton, who was at the White House for the carbon reduction rollout, said it won't be hard for Minnesota to get there.

"We know how to do this, we know how to do it cost-effectively, and in Minnesota we've done it through utility collaboration and really smart energy policies that save energy and grow clean energy jobs," she said.

But some state lawmakers say Minnesota still isn't getting enough credit for taking early action.

"From Minnesota's perspective this is really the worst of both worlds," said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, who oversees the House energy committee. "Over the last 10 years we've already spent the money to reduce our emissions significantly, and now the federal government is failing to give us credit for the money we've already invested to do this."

Garofalo said whatever plan the state comes up with will need lots of scrutiny, and he plans to push again next year to require the agencies drafting the plan to seek legislative approval.

Meanwhile, those charged with figuring out Minnesota's energy future have a lot of reading to do — the EPA carbon rule is more than 1,500 pages long.