Conservation Minnesota

Laying a Good Foundation from Challenges

“Never was there a more tiresome voyage made than this . . . We continue to grope our way.”  Father Michel Guignas, August 1727

Jesuit priest Michel Guignas penned these words early on in the historic French expedition to the Dakota Indian Territory in present-day Minnesota while they lingered for a week struggling across the portage to the Wisconsin River. Little did he know this expedition would have far greater hardships than this challenging portage.

Father Guignas possessed a zealous but jovial personality that could be eccentric at times. At age 47 he was one of two Jesuit missionaries to accompany this French-Canadian government sponsored effort with the goal of occupying present-day Minnesota near Lake Pepin. They sought to establish for the first time a lasting alliance with the powerful Dakota Nation. The voyage through Wisconsin was made possible due to a tenuous truce with the renegade Fox Nation in central Wisconsin. The Fox had no desire to establish peaceful relations with the French or any other aliens to their territory. Nonetheless, the truce allowed the government expedition to pass through to reach the shores of Lake Pepin and the Dakota Nation by mid-September 1727.

Fort Beauharnois was established near present-day Frontenac on a point out into Lake Pepin. The small corps was soon beset by a lack of game for food; the illness of their commander and early spring flooding that inundated their little log fort. Those calamities were the least of their concerns as word arrived in spring that the Fox had recommenced hostilities with the French and other neighboring tribes. Further complicating this was the fact that some of the Dakota bands allied with the Fox against the French.

Father Guignas joined an expedition trying to escape down the Mississippi, but they were captured at the mouth of the Rock River in present-day Illinois by a band of the Kickapoo and Mascouten who held them captive for five months. This band hoped to either gain favor with the Fox by turning them over for execution or to obtain a ransom from the French. The band had a change of heart, sparing Father Guignas and his fellow sojourners. The remnants of the expedition would eventually make their way to safety back in Montréal via Mackinac Island a year later.

This tiresome fur-trading voyage is a good comparison to the voyage that the 2013 Renewable Energy Legislation (HF956/SF901) has taken. This bill sought to boost the use of solar power in Minnesota. Despite solar power being popular with Minnesota voters, the bill on several occasions along its journey through the Legislature looked like it was doomed from attacks by utilities and some business interests. Thanks to the tireless work of the bill authors, Rep. Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) and Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville), the legislation safely passed this week during the chaotic end of session.

The bill expands the use of solar power as part of Minnesota’s renewable energy standard. The proposal in the long run will produce cheaper energy and help create locally grown jobs. Though the bill was as comprehensive as the initial bill proposed last January, it is still taking some positive steps forward for clean renewable energy. It requires investor-owned utilities like Xcel to generate at least 1.5 percent of their total electric retail sales from solar power by 2020. It focuses on helping small consumers expand solar power by requiring at least ten percent of this mandate to be met from projects of 20 kilowatts or less. It further requires the development of a community solar program modeled on a popular Xcel program in Colorado that helps groups of neighbors or businesses join together to jointly invest in solar installations.

The bill also contains a variety of distributed generation initiatives designed to make it easier for residential or business customers to generate their own electricity and get a fair price for excess energy they sell back to the utility. It provides further energy efficiency and conservation measures that are the least costly means of meeting our energy needs. The fact is that our best energy savings come from the energy we don’t use due to conservation.

Even though this bill did not accomplish everything we wanted and nearly failed on several occasions, it has created a base policy to build upon in the future to expand the renewable energy through solar power and conservation. I guess we can take our lead from Father Guignas. He would eventually return to the Mississippi Valley in the Dakota Nation near present-day Winona, Minnesota where he became one of the early missionaries to the area staying for several years. He helped lay the groundwork for future French fur traders to succeed in the region. He certainly owed his later success to the challenges he faced on his first expeditions. Let’s hope this year’s challenges laid the foundation for better things to come for Minnesota’s energy independence from clean renewable electricity.

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