FAQ about clean energy in Minnesota

September 15, 2022
There are a lot of questions about Minnesota's transition to a clean energy future. Here we answer some of the most commonly asked questions to help debunk fact from fiction.

What is happening with the brownouts, is renewable energy to blame?

  • The Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) which is responsible for operating the power grid across 15 U.S. states, including Minnesota, has made troubling announcements about the possibility of rolling brownouts this summer.
  • The primary issue is that MISO has experienced 5 GW of retirements in the last 2 years, which has created a 1.2GW capacity shortage. This shortfall strains MISO’s ability to meet demand on the grid during “unusually” hot temperatures – which are becoming more common every year.
  • Extreme temperatures are creating challenges on an already short system. As extreme weather becomes more common our electricity grid is getting stressed more frequently – this affects all power generation including coal, natural gas and nuclear which all rely on ample flows of fuel and water for cooling.
  • Instead of blaming one type of power generation, we’re looking at finding solutions which would reduce congestion. Increased battery storage as well as demand response (programs that pay customers to reduce energy use to help relieve grid stress at key times) are ways to help reduce congestion.
  • MISO recently approved a $10.3 billion investment portfolio of new transmission projects across the Midwest, including hundreds of miles of new transmission lines in Minnesota. Altogether, the new transmission will allow up to 53 GW of new generation capacity to connect to the transmission grid, allowing significantly more renewable energy to be built and brought online. This will help increase the grid’s resilience and help deliver additional electricity on hot days.
  • Generally, importing generation from other parts of the country would help alleviate these concerns but the U.S. is experiencing record peaks everywhere, and therefore most regions may not have additional capacity to export during tight conditions.
  • Highly congested transmission lines can prevent electricity from being transported from where it is generated to where it is needed. For example, in Spring 2022, congestion was almost double what was seen in 2021. Wind resources, in particular, are often curtailed due to high congestion that would be alleviated with additional transmission lines.

Sources: Canary Media, Renewable Energy World, Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO)

clean energy polling data featured image

Does clean energy create jobs in Minnesota?

  • Yes! In fact, Minnesota is home to 57,931 clean energy jobs – an almost 5% increase from 2020.
  • About three quarters of clean energy jobs are in energy efficiency – work that includes installing efficient windows, HVAC, lighting and more in homes and commercial buildings.
  • Solar energy jobs grew by 9.7 percent to 4,873 workers.
  • More Minnesotans worked in clean energy than the number of lawyers, accountants and auditors, web developers, and real estate agents in the state combined.

Source: Clean Jobs Midwest Report

Is clean energy affordable?

  • Yes – in fact there’s a reason that 80% of all new power generating capacity added in the last decade was renewables – it’s because new wind and solar are cheaper to build than new natural gas or coal. The utilities need to provide more generation to meet demand, and adding renewables is the least cost way to do that.
  • Consumer electricity prices in Minnesota as measured on a cents-per-kilowatt-hour basis have been rising for residential, commercial and industrial clients over the last decade.
  • These price increases are due to a number of factors. The major driver of recent rate increases was the high price of natural gas in 2021, due to storms that reduced supply in various parts of the country.
  • Another factor impacting electricity rates over the last decade has been utility infrastructure investments. Minnesota’s utilities invested in grid upgrades to replace aging infrastructure and to ensure reliability and power supply to consumers. Some of these upgrades were provided to utilities at no cost by renewable developers, as they connected their projects to the grid.
  • In 2021, Minnesota consumer electric rates averaged 11.12cts/kWh, up 5% from 10.57cts/kWh in 2020 and up 26% since 2012. Minnesota’s total average electricity prices today are in line with the U.S. total average of 11.18cts/kWh.

Source: Minnesota Energy Factsheet

Solar panels near farm grain bins

Are wind and solar farms taking away farmland?

  • There are about 16.7 million acres of “prime farmland” in Minnesota. One MW of solar uses between 6.5-10 acres of land.
  • To date, Minnesota has completed approximately 830 MW of community solar. So even if Minnesota tripled its level of community solar installations and sited exclusively on prime farmland, 99.9% of prime farmland in Minnesota would be untouched by community solar.
  • When farmers and landowners choose to lease their land for solar or wind, they can receive up to $1,300 per acre per year, providing income diversification
  • A single farmer can receive up to $13,000 in extra revenues per year. Over the 25-year lifetime of a solar array, this is $325,000 in stable income for farm families.

Sources: Great Plains Institute, Report: Minnesota Solar Potential Analysis, Clean Grid Alliance

Do electric cars make sense for Minnesotans?

  • Electric vehicles can make economic and functional sense for anyone, not just Minnesotans. A dramatic increase in new EV options are slated to hit the market in 2023 including pickup trucks, and several different SUVs. Ford and Chevy have plans to release their pickups and SUVS this year and next year, and Volvo plans to convert all of their vehicles to electric by year 2030.
  • Between maintenance, fuel costs, and air pollution-related health costs, researchers put the average EV savings compared to gasoline-powered vehicles at $1,500 per year.
  • Electric vehicle owners save money on fuel and maintenance. Average price per gallon of gas in MN is $4.79 vs. equivalent cost for an eGallon of electricity at $1.17.
  • Minnesotans are choosing electric vehicles at an increasing rate. Annual registrations for electric vehicles have increased 300% in the last 5 years.

Sources: Recharge Minnesota, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Can wind turbines and solar panels be recycled?

  • Currently, 85-90% of a wind turbine’s parts can be recycled or sold, including the foundation, tower, gearbox and generator.
  • Several U.S.companies are working on ways to recycle retired wind blades by shredding them and reusing the fiberglass and plastic resin to make cement, tough industrial plastics, and other products.
  • Glass composes most of the weight of a solar panel (about 75 percent), and glass recycling is already a well-established industry. Other materials that are easily recyclable include the aluminum frame, copper wire, and plastic junction box.
  • The solar panel recycling industry is new and still growing, with researchers examining how to commercialize recycling to economically recover most of the components of a solar panel. Elements of this recycling process can be found in the United States, but it is not yet happening on a large scale.
  • How best to recycle and reuse solar panel components in Minnesota is currently being debated across industry and government circles – no solution has been decided on yet.

Sources: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Chemical & Engineering News

solar panels in minnesota field

I’m concerned about the use of mined minerals in renewable energy and EVs

  • From the International Monetary Fund (IMF): The clean energy transition needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change could unleash unprecedented metals demand in the coming decades, requiring as much as 3 billion tons.
  • A typical electric vehicle battery needs around 18 pounds of lithium and 30 pounds of cobalt, while charging stations require large amounts of copper.
  • For clean power, solar panels use large quantities of copper, silicon, silver and zinc, while wind turbines require iron ore, copper, and aluminum.
  • China became the dominant producer of cobalt after its acquisition of mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which produces 60% of the world’s supply, and is notorious for the use of child labor.
  • China also produces about 90% of the world’s polysilicon. Polysilicon is a highly purified polycrystalline form of silicon, a critical material for solar panels.
  • In June the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, signed into law by President Biden went into effect. The law bans all imported goods from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China unless solar suppliers can prove the products were not made with forced labor.
  • The realities of the clean energy transition require the clean energy industry to think deeply about how they can be part of the solution to this problem.

Sources: International Monetary Fund, Solar Power World, Wall Street Journal

I’ve heard that wind and solar components contain harmful chemicals and may pose hazardous health impacts, is that true?

  • Contrary to common solar myths about harmful chemicals, the materials used to make solar panels are sealed and contained so they do not negatively affect the surrounding area.
  • Solar panels contain a variety of materials, including silicon and different types of metals. All components are laminated and enclosed to prevent external factors damaging the functionality of the system; the materials within the panels cannot evaporate or mix with water to leak into the surrounding environment.
  • Independent peer-reviewed studies conducted around the world, including the U.S., have consistently found no evidence that wind farms cause any negative physical health effects.

Source: Clean Grid Alliance

all energy solar worker on barn

Why are traditional generating facilities like coal plants being retired?

  • Many coal plants were built between 1950-1990 when coal was the cheapest form of energy production. This is no longer the case.
  • As renewable energy costs have declined dramatically in the last decade, they have become cost competitive with natural gas – making retiring an aging coal plant a smart economic decision.
  • New wind and utility-scale solar are currently the most cost competitive forms of new generation to build, according to the most recent Lazard’s analysis of levelized costs of energy (October 2021).

Source: Lazard levelized cost of energy

Why aren’t we building more nuclear power facilities?

  • Due to legitimate safety concerns (think Three Mile Island and Chernobyl), new safety regulations across the country have made building new nuclear power two to three times more costly.
  • Minnesota enacted a nuclear moratorium in 1994, when there were high levels of concern over safety and known risks, including concern about Xcel Energy’s Monticello nuclear generator located a short distance upstream from a major metropolitan area, with no place to store its radioactive waste.
  • Building new nuclear power is simply one of the most expensive ways to produce energy. It is between 3-6 times more expensive than wind and solar, and considerably more expensive than natural gas and even coal.

Sources: Lazard levelized cost of energy, CNET, Reuters

What does the Inflation Reduction Act mean for Minnesotans?

  • When combined with last year’s bipartisan Infrastructure Act (IIJA), the IRA will deliver $68 billion in clean energy and transportation to Minnesota – an eight-fold return on investment. It will also save Minnesotans roughly $3.2 billion on energy and transportation costs, combating inflation.
  • The Act adds 10 years of consumer tax credits to make homes energy efficient and run on clean energy, including making heat pumps, rooftop solar, electric HVAC, and water heaters more affordable.
  • Minnesota clean energy businesses are excited about the 10-year extension of both the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) and the Production Tax Credit ( PTC) as well as the ‘Direct Payment’ addition which makes it easier for non-tax paying entities like cities, counties and schools to invest in solar.
  • The Act prioritizes manufacturing clean energy components in the United States – something businesses are supporting to make supply chains less vulnerable.
  • The Act makes progress on climate goals, including reducing emissions by 40% by the year 2030 and will go a long way to help the U.S. in international climate negotiations.

Sources: Inflation Reduction Act bill language, Advanced Energy Economy analysis

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