Minnesota must do more to cut greenhouse gas linked to climate change

Officials in Gov. Mark Dayton's administration say Minnesota should look at strengthening its renewable energy law. The state is on track to meet a requirement of 25 percent renewable electricity generation by 2025. But that has not been enough to help reach another state goal: a major reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change.

Republicans and Democrats came together in 2007 to act on climate change. The Minnesota Legislature passed goals that — at the time — were among the most ambitious in the country, and then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed them into law.

The Next Generation Energy Act set goals of a 15 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2015, 30 percent by 2025 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050.

But the state missed its 2015 target and is not on track to meet the other goals. Lt. Gov. Tina Smith said that has to change.

"We not only want to be making progress on this, I think Minnesota wants to be leading on this issue again, and we have lost that leadership," she said.

Smith spoke Wednesday at a gathering of leaders from state government, nonprofits and businesses that are part of a project called Climate Solutions and Economic Opportunities. Participants have been working since November 2014 to find ways to get the state back on track with its climate goals.

Besides considering a 50 percent renewable energy standard, Smith said the state must continue down the path of retiring coal-fired power plants and repowering some of them with natural gas.

"If we do this, moving away from coal will get us 13 percent closer to our emissions goals, and it will have significant health and economic benefits for our state."

Smith is citing numbers from a report put together by the Environmental Quality Board that studied which policies would be cost effective in reducing emissions. The report used detailed analyses from a consulting firm to reach its conclusions.

While generating electricity is the biggest source of Minnesota's greenhouse gas emissions, transportation and agriculture also contribute. Combined, these three areas account for 85 percent of the state's emissions.

In the near-term, the electricity sector is where most of the reductions should come from, according to the report. Analyst Neal Young with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development said the state will come out ahead with improvements in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

"Many of the policy options can be a win-win for the economy and for the environment," Young said.

Adding wind and solar could create jobs. A DEED study found that the renewable energy sector currently employs over 15,000 Minnesotans.

But the promise of jobs has not generated bipartisan support for raising the state's renewable energy standard. Proposals have gone nowhere in the divided Legislature.

The GOP chair of the committee overseeing energy in the Minnesota House said there likely won't be enough support in the Legislature for a 50 percent renewable energy standard.

"There's been bipartisan opposition to that for the reasons of reliability and cost," said state Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington. "Most of our renewable energy is wind, and while wind is very low in cost, it's not reliable. We can't count on it."

But Garofalo added he doesn't expect enough support for a higher renewable standard regardless of which party controls the House after the November election.

The heads of nine state agencies spoke at the gathering, which was facilitated by the Environmental Initiative, and received funding from the McKnight Foundation, which also underwrites climate change coverage on MPR News.

Even if the energy standards don't change, some in state government believe their agencies should try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on their own.

"We need to look at all of these functions that we're responsible for in state government and recognize that we are one of the biggest customers, one of the biggest actors that needs to walk the talk," said Matt Massman, commissioner of the Department of Administration, which oversees state-owned buildings and vehicles.

The Dayton administration has created a new state Office of Enterprise Sustainability to find ways to reduce emissions.

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