Conservation Minnesota

MN’s Moonshot: Getting to Deep Decarbonization

By: Mike Bull

Thanks to forward thinking by policymakers and terrific leadership from state regulators and electric utilities, Minnesota has made great progress in transitioning to a cleaner, more renewable electric supply mix. Since 2005, we’ve reduced carbon emissions in Minnesota’s electric sector by roughly 20%. All our major electric utilities are following the same play book — greater efficiency improvements, retiring uneconomic fossil fuel generation and adding low cost wind and solar at a rapid clip. Ben Fowke, Xcel Energy CEO, just upped the ante on that approach, by unveiling his “2030 Vision” for their upper Midwest utility — 85% carbon-free resource by 2030, reliably and affordably.

However, despite great progress in our electric sector, Minnesota is still falling woefully short of its economy-wide goal to reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2050.

There’s growing awareness that perhaps the only practical pathway to achieving Minnesota’s deep decarbonization goal is through a combination of steps:

  1. Deep energy efficiency achievements;
  2. Continued decarbonization of our electric supply; and
  3. Using that decarbonized electric supply throughout the economy, where it’s cost-effective, reduces total net energy use, and reduces carbon.

In coming weeks, I plan to publish blog posts about each step.

First up, I will describe the need for deep energy efficiency achievements. Through energy efficiency, we reduce the amount of wasted energy in our economy so businesses can put more revenue toward more productive use, and so our utilities aren’t creating unnecessary infrastructure just to serve that energy waste. CEE is leading Minnesota’s statewide demand-side energy efficiency potential study, which will refresh our collective assessment of the attainable and cost-effective energy savings available in the electric and natural gas utility industries in Minnesota, as well as how best to capture that potential through policy and programmatic solutions.

Next I’ll write about the need to continue decarbonizing our electric supply as a necessary step in our deep decarbonization pathway. Though we’ve made significant progress in this area, we must go further and much faster. We have a massive opportunity to transform Minnesota’s electric supply — almost 7,000 megawatts of generation — plus more than 95% of MN’s 2015 Power Sector carbon emissions are retireable in the next 20 years. That’s a blink of an eye for utility resource planners, and collaborative planning on how to move forward will be critical. Decisions we make in the next 3-5 years will largely determine whether we will be able to reach our deep decarbonization goals.

Finally, after we’re well on our way to decarbonizing the electric supply, we must strategically use that decarbonized energy source to power areas of the economy that are typically powered by more carbon-intensive fuels. This will include electrification of transportation, space heating, and water heating, when data shows us that doing so will reduce total net energy use, reduce carbon emissions, and save customers money. Strategic electrification provides a great opportunity to significantly and efficiently lower carbon and other harmful emissions outside of the electric sector, while creating business opportunities for utilities and also managing the electric load to better meet the profile of clean, renewable electric resources.

Reducing Minnesota’s carbon emissions 80% by 2050 evokes the collective effort needed for the U.S. to go to the moon. And, as with the U.S. moonshot, it’s critical that those of us who work in this field do so in collaboration — all of us together, working on and working through our issues in good faith to identify the best path forward.

That’s exactly what we’ve spent the past three years learning to do in Minnesota’s e21 initiative, which CEE co-directs with the Great Plains Institute. Through daylong meetings that began in February 2014, a broad-based group of stakeholders who represent business consumers, low-income consumers, renewable energy developers, regulators, clean energy advocates, utilities of all sizes and types, and others have come together to learn about and work through some very difficult issues together.

So far our e21 work has been like astronaut training and lift-off drills. But this new venture — figuring out how to decarbonize at the pace and scale that climate science calls for, while maintaining affordable and reliable energy service — is when things really start to take off…

So the question is: are we going to go to the moon, or not?

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