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Minnesota grows business, jobs as it greens the local economy

Source: 
Star Tribune

Several announcements in the last few days alone will advance the renewable-energy, less-carbon and faster-growing Minnesota economy.

They support further growth of renewable-energy jobs at double the rate of overall job growth, as the state accelerates efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the largest contributor to climate change.

The state has cut emissions from the power sector by a third since 2005, and by 12% overall in the decade through 2015, according to studies by Bloomberg New Energy Finance and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Progress continues, despite the Trump administration’s denial of scientifically documented climate change. Public opinion, most states and an increasing number of businesses are embracing the need to address climate change by greening the economy. Just this month:

• Burnsville-based 75F, which provides wireless controls for commercial buildings, raised $18 million in equity capital, including $7.5 million from a $1 billion oil and gas industry fund that is hedging its bets. Founder Deepinder Singh has broadened the focus from energy, where 75F software can cut costs up to 50% with its predictive software, to a portfolio of smart-building functions.

The funding will allow the company to scale up, quickly grow to more than 100 employees and further invest in the product.

• Golden Valley-based Mortenson, meanwhile, has been selected by Xcel Energy to build a $740 million wind farm in Colorado, one of Mortenson’s largest wind projects to date. In Minnesota, which gets nearly a fifth of its electrical energy from wind, Mortenson has built numerous wind farms. Wind is the fastest-growing source of power in the Midwest and considered the cheapest by some.

• The McKnight Foundation which over 20 years invested in the nonprofits, forums and research that brought together utilities, regulators and business around renewable energy, plans to double over three years to $30 million its annual commitment to further transforming the clean-energy landscape. McKnight President Kate Wolford said last week that, as the Midwest electrical-power supply cuts emissions, the cutting-edge foundation wants to do more work in accelerating the transition to electric vehicles -- charged overnight by increasingly green power -- as well as to energy storage and more efficient buildings, which account for up to 15% of carbon emissions.

Executive Director Gregg Mast of Clean Energy Economy Minnesota said: “Small businesses are the growth engine for clean energy and [energy efficiency] jobs. That sector in Minnesota grew jobs 2.5 times faster than overall job growth in 2018. And 72% of those jobs were companies that employ fewer [than] 20.”

Mast is talking about companies such as Accelerated Innovations and EnergyPrint, small businesses that help commercial customers manage energy data to deliver fuel and cost savings, as well as others like the growing Winona Renewable Energy and All Energy Solar of St. Paul.

Renewables now account for 25% of total Minnesota power production. Policymakers and utilities are talking about doubling that by 2030 and reaching 100% by 2050. At the same time, the state aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2025 and 80% by 2050.

The solar industry, particularly through expanding solar “gardens” on acres of vacant land in suburbs or rural areas, plans to increase its electrical energy output from 2% of the Minnesota mix to 10% over the next decade, according to renewable energy pioneer John Dunlop, chairman of this summer’s American Solar Energy Society annual conference in Bloomington.

The transformation to clean energy will result in “explosive growth” in clean energy and energy efficiency businesses, including an upgraded “smart grid,” to transmit energy quickly from where it is produced to where it is needed, according to advocates.

That should include the growth of relatively clean natural gas, which complements intermittent wind- and solar-powered juice. Natural gas, which emits about half the carbon of coal or oil burning, has doubled to 15% of the electric-power mix since 2014, according to the most recent Minnesota statistics from Bloomberg. Natural gas-fueled plants can power up and down relatively quickly.

Minnesota lacks fossil fuels. We have brainpower, cheap wind and sun to replace coal and oil trains, and related pollution.

The cost of solar energy has dropped by 80% over the last decade and wind by about 65% since 2009, according to Dunlop and Mast. The state’s utilities, led by Xcel and Great River, are exceeding their goals for renewable-energy use and for cutting carbon emissions.

Gov. Tim Walz and CEO Ben Fowke of Xcel Energy embrace a carbon-free electrical grid by 2050, at a time when wind is becoming the cheapest form of electricity in Minnesota. Xcel seeks 80% carbon-free power by 2030, including nuclear generation. Coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, has declined from about two-thirds to 40% of the state’s electricity generation. That will continue.

Finally, big companies increasingly are embracing a cleaner, renewable future, including Cargill, General Mills, 3M, Ecolab and Target Corp. Most Fortune 500 companies now publish sustainability reports that describe how they are lowering their carbon footprint.

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.

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(c)2019 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Visit the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) at www.startribune.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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