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Renewable Energy Becomes A Flash Point In America’s Culture Wars

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America is a bifurcated country. Half the people don’t want anything to change — ever — while the other half want everything to change, especially if change means eliminating the use of fossil fuels. We all know, at least at some subliminal level, that renewable energy will eventually displace the thermal generation of electricity, but some would prefer the changeover be delayed by a century or two to give us time to extract every molecule of coal, oil, and methane gas we can find. Then and only then will solar, wind, geothermal, tidal, and wave power be embraced with open arms.

Minnesota Leads On Renewable Energy

Greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector in Minnesota have dropped 40% over the last 10 years. Today, 28% of that state’s energy coming from carbon-free sources like renewables, nuclear, and hydropower. Yet there is much more to do in order for the state to reach its carbon emissions goals.

This year, Minnesota has adopted a number of new policies designed to speed the adoption of renewable energy within its borders. The legislature passed and the governor has signed the Clean Energy And Efficient Buildings act, which will provide up to $80 million in incentives for solar, energy storage, microgrids, and energy resiliency. In a press release, Minnesota says the new law will:

  • Establish a standard to achieve 100% carbon free electricity and 55% renewable electricity by 2040
  • Promote transmission upgrades to the state’s electrical grid to enable greater reliability and renewable energy access and integration
  • Improve building codes and standards so that all new commercial and large multi-family buildings produce net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2036

“It’s a new era for solar and energy storage in Minnesota,” said MnSEIA’s executive director Logan O’Grady.

“The policies created in this Legislative Session will set off a historic boom for clean energy in our state. It’s a huge signal to the country that Minnesota is serious about solar and that we’re a great market to do business in.

“Lawmakers just created hundreds of family-sustaining jobs and exciting opportunities for small businesses. This is a truly monumental Legislative Session and MnSEIA is proud to have advocated for our members and the solar + storage industry. The future of solar just got a whole lot brighter and MnSEIA is looking forward to ushering in this new era.”

People with lower incomes pay a larger portion of their income on energy and housing than those earning more. Due to decades of housing segregation, redlining, and other harmful policies, Minnesotans of color are more likely to rent homes rather than own them, which limits their access to energy efficiency and renewable energy opportunities, the state says.

Addressing these inequities is a critical next step in Minnesota’s clean energy transition. An equitable transition to our clean energy future will include:

  • Investing in energy efficiency programs to ensure that communities of color, tribal nations, and lower income communities have access to them.
  • Helping lower income households access local and affordable renewable energy, with options such as community and rooftop solar.
  • Supporting job training in rural and low income communities for work in the clean energy and energy efficiency sector.

North Dakota Opposes Minnesota Renewables Push

As has become  the norm in America, if someone is for something, a bunch of people will be opposed to it. Just west of Minnesota is North Dakota, which is proud of its coal-fired generating plants and likes to sell the electricity they make to Minnesota. The Flickertail State has threatened to sue its neighbor to the east, claiming the commerce clause of the US Constitution forbids Minnesota from refusing to accept North Dakota’s high carbon electricity.

This is precisely the sort of hypocrisy we have come to expect from reactionaries. When it is convenient for them, such as when the federal government mandates certain public health policies, they hide behind the notion of state’s rights. But at other times they are only to happy to wave the flag of federalism if they think it will give them an advantage.

In this case, NoDak might have a bit of a problem. “Minnesota is under no legal duty to prop up North Dakota power plants,” Michael Gerrard, founder of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, told Grist. He said Minnesota could not discriminate between in-state and out of state electricity generators, but that is not the situation here.  The state is requiring clean power across the board, from in-state and outside sources.

Gerrard pointed to a comparable 2015 case in Colorado, in which a fossil fuel industry group sued the state over a renewable energy standard it passed in 2004. The group argued the standard overstepped Colorado’s authority under the U.S. constitution, a similar argument to the one North Dakota is threatening to make. But a federal court upheld the standard.

And here’s the thing. That decision was written by Neil Gorsuch. “We have one of the conservative Supreme Court justices saying that a state clean energy standard is fine,” Gerrard said. “So I think the outlook, if this case gets to the Supreme Court, would be favorable to Minnesota.” Game, set, and match to Minnesota.

Texas Fights Renewable Energy

Texas has installed more wind energy in the past decade than another state. But just like Big Tobacco, Big Oil never, ever gives up the fight to fill the skies with deadly pollution. The fossil fuel industry is furiously peddling the myth that renewable energy resources failed during the freakish cold snap that gripped the state in the winter of 2021. And of course, Texas is ground zero for the oil and gas industries in America. The companies have bought a lot of members of the state legislature and it is time for those feckless public servants to repay the investment the industry has made in them — if they hope to get re-elected, that is.

According to the Wall Street Journal, many Texas Republicans are supporting legislation that would prop up conventional power sources. Renewables have “become a four-letter word,” said James King, a landowner along the Pecos River in Val Verde County, where wealthy residents are pitted in battle against a planned wind farm. King, a descendant of the family that established the King Ranch, has placed much of his property into a conservation easement that will permanently limit the way it can be used. He is all in favor of renewables, just as long as he doesn’t have to look at them.

One of the bills introduced in the state legislature this year would require wind and solar projects to pay fees that would mostly benefit fossil fuel plants. Another would offer low cost loans for building or upgrading natural gas-fired generation. That one is pending voter approval in November.

At issue is the foundation of the Texas energy grid, which traditionally only pays for electricity that is generated, unlike most other grid operators which pay producers who can bring electricity online when needed. The largest producers of gas-fired electricity in Texas want to be paid for their standby capability and think renewables should help fund those payments.

The Takeaway

Many CleanTechnica readers focus on the low cost of renewables and assume that if electricity from wind or solar is cheaper, it will automatically push out conventional thermal generation. Not so. There are tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars at stake and nobody wants to see their share of the pie reduced — even if there is a full on five-alarm climate emergency underway.

“Power is a dangerous drug; it can maim, it can kill,” according to a Jimmie Buffett song. So is greed. The fossil fuel crowd can see the cliff ahead and are trying everything they can think of to delay the transition to renewable energy as long as possible. They have no concerns about humanity. They only want to keep the gravy train going. If a few hundred million people have to die to make that happen? They can look back and say, “I got mine, brother. Too bad about you.”

In the final analysis, basing our economic model on a weaponized version of capitalism that rewards sociopaths the most may be the greatest threat to humanity of all.

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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