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Connecting the Dots: How Does Minnesota’s Energy Future Relate to the Clean Power Plan and the UN Climate Talks in Paris?

October 13, 2015Ellen AndersonETL BlogComments Off on Connecting the Dots: How Does Minnesota’s Energy Future Relate to the Clean Power Plan and the UN Climate Talks in Paris?

Minnesota has a clean energy policy framework in place that has gradually and cost-effectively moved our state to increase renewable energy and energy efficiency and to reduce carbon emissions.  Our energy efficiency requirements for utilities have been in law since the 1980’s and have resulted in enough energy savings to avoid the need for building eight power plants.  [i]  Our Renewable Energy Standard has helped to bring wind energy to scale in the Midwest, driving down prices so that wind is now one of the most cost-effective electricity supply options available in Minnesota.  Between 2005 and 2012, Minnesota reduced greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector 17%. [ii]

All of this means that Minnesota is well positioned to meet the requirements of the federal Clean Power Plan.[iii]  In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cited Minnesota’s past energy progress as a model for the nation under the Plan.[iv]  News this month from Xcel Energy further cements our progress.  Xcel’s announcement to retire two coal units at Sherco[v] by 2026 means that Xcel will help Minnesota exceed the Clean Power Plan’s goals, with the utility on track to reduce CO2 emissions 60% by 2030.   Xcel is already the number one wind utility in the nation, and this will make them a national leader in carbon reduction in the electricity sector.

U.S. Energy Secretary Moniz’s Climate Change Advisor and U. S. leading climate negotiator Dr. Jonathan Pershing visited Minnesota in early October.  A UMN graduate, Pershing said that states play a critical role in energy innovation, and that the world would be much better off “if only there were more Minnesotas.”

The Clean Power Plan is based upon federal law under the Clean Air Act.  Section 111(d) of the federal rule requires the U.S. power sector to reduce power plant greenhouse gas emissions by 32% by 2030.  This is implemented through “cooperative federalism” where states comply by creating their own State Implementation Plans (SIP) to meet the rule’s targets.[vi]

Coal-fired power plants are the largest source, roughly one third, of CO2 emissions in the U.S.  The EPA estimates the plan will bring public health and climate benefits worth an estimated $55-93 billion per year in 2030, far outweighing the costs of $7.3-$8.8 billion.[vii]  Already over 150 of the most inefficient and polluting coal plants in the U.S. have been retired or repowered in recent years to lower emitting fuels, driven by a number of factors including industry anticipation of the Clean Power Plan.

Regarding the global climate talks (UNFCCC[viii] Conference of the Parties, or COP21) scheduled for late November-December in Paris, Dr. Pershing said that the months before the COP21 are actually more important than the meeting itself.  Some say that the Paris summit has already been successful.[ix]   That’s because in advance of the COP21, over 140 nations have so far made significant pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  That covers nearly 87% of global greenhouse gases and includes major carbon polluters. [x]  These country commitments are called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs).  At the COP21, nations will bring their INDC commitments to the table, and attempt to hammer out a global agreement on monitoring, verification, financing, equity among nations, and ramping up reductions over time.  This is different from previous UN treaty-based approaches.

The U.S. commitment for our INDC calls for a 26-28% reduction in greenhouse gases from 2005 levels by 2025.   U.S. commitments will be met by existing rules and policies, most significantly by the Clean Power Plan, but also by other economy-wide measures like vehicle fuel economy and appliance standards.  Thus, state actions to reduce their power plant emissions under the Clean Power Plan are the foundation of climate goals U.S. leaders will bring to the COP21 in Paris.

Previous global climate agreements have hit roadblocks, in part because the world’s biggest carbon emitters weren’t part of the solution.  In the past year, besides making their own commitment, U.S. leaders were instrumental in negotiating agreements with some of the world’s largest countries and emitters:  China, Brazil, and India.  Together U.S. and China produce about 40% of global CO2 emissions.

The China plan includes peaking emissions by 2030, carbon intensity reduction goals, and a commitment to 20% renewable energy by 2030.  Twenty percent may not sound like a lot, but according to Dr. Pershing, it is equivalent to building an entire U.S. electricity grid.  Manufacturing and installing that amount of renewable energy capacity will achieve new economies of scale, further reducing global costs of wind and solar energy.  China recently announced a national cap and trade program in 2017, continuing in their “war on pollution in their cities.[xi]

For more information on country commitments, their projected impact on climate change, and the United Nations process, check the UNFCCC website newsroom and Climate Central,

In September the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres, said that the prosperity of wealthy nations has been built upon readily available, low cost fossil fuels.  Now, she added, “we must decarbonize–and the world urgently needs models” of successful low-carbon economies[xii].  This circles us back to Minnesota.  Increasingly, states, regions, cities and many businesses are the leaders in climate action.  As a bellwether heartland industrial state, with more per capita Fortune 500 companies than 48 others[xiii], and a trajectory to increasingly power our state without carbon emissions, Minnesota is well positioned to be a low carbon model.  Minnesota’s clean energy efforts have already created some 15,000 high-paying jobs with over $1 billion in annual wages; our electricity prices remain reasonably competitive, and all of our fossil fuels–$18 billion worth every year—are imported.  Given that Minnesotans are all “above average” this blog will continue to “connect the dots” and explore Minnesota’s role in the grand global challenge of energy transition and climate change.

[i] Minnesota Center for Energy and Environment, accessed 10/5/15.

[ii] Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Biennial Report to the Minnesota Legislature 2015, MPCA.

[iii] Our state target is a 41.7% emissions rate reduction.

[iv] Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Comments to EPA, 12/1/14;; accessed 10/5/15.

[v] Sherco is the commonly used name for the Sherburne County Generating Station

[vi] If states don’t submit their SIP, the EPA will impose a Federal Implementation Plan, or FIP, on them.

[vii] EPA Fact Sheet,; accessed EPA website 10/5/15.

[viii] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

[ix] NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg at Climate Week in NYC: “In several important ways the Paris summit has already been successful. It has pushed national governments around the world to set higher goals to reduce carbon. It shows international action on climate change really is possible – and it has focused the world’s attention on how much work remains to be done.

[x] United Nations UNFCCC website,

[xi] Professor Elizabeth Wilson, interviewed on Minnesota Public Radio on 9/29/15, available at

[xii] In June 2015, the leaders of the G-7, the world’s largest industrial countries, announced an ambitious plan to phase out all fossil fuels worldwide by 2100.  The Guardian, accessed 10/5/15;  Christiana Figueres’ quotes are from a national webinar conversation, sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists, in which Ellen Anderson participated.

[xiii] Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, accessed at  In 2014, only Connecticut had more than Minnesota.

Featured Image Photo Credit: K.H. Reichert (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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