Clean energy policies can help drive economic development in rural Minnesota

Wind power has become an important source of economic development for rural Minnesota. The Legislature needs to keep at it.

The Minnesota economy is showing severe strain from fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands of people are unemployed and the stay-at-home order is keeping many businesses from opening their doors. While we think about the toll for small businesses, restaurants and other “non-essential” companies, the tragedy facing rural Minnesota farmers and agriculture industries is just as dire. Farmers have been living with depressed commodity prices for years, but the pandemic has pushed them even further. Ethanol plants, which consume nearly 40 percent of the state’s corn, are idled. Dairy farmers are forced to flush their milk down the drain, and hog producers are unable to sell their animals because the meatpacking plants are shutting down. 

Fortunately, southwestern Minnesota has been able to diversify its economy with the infusion of wind energy. Since the inception of the production tax in 2002, over $100 million has been returned to rural Minnesota counties and townships. This is in addition to millions more in stable land lease payments, now standing at $26 million annually.

Energy efficiency has also provided financial benefits.  Farmers and businesses of all sizes are constantly looking for efficiencies to lower their costs of operation. In Nobles County, we have adopted more efficient lighting, electrical motors for ventilation and heating systems for our grain dryers. These practices are no-brainers because the energy savings is greater than the cost of adoption. 

The Minnesota Legislature has an opportunity to build on these two successful polices. The Clean Energy First bill and the Energy Conservation and Optimization, or ECO Act, can help further drive economic opportunities across our state.

The ECO Act builds upon Minnesota’s nation-leading energy efficiency programs to include efficient fuel-switching and load management. Currently, customers using delivered fuels cannot participate in certain energy efficiency programs offered by their local utility. ECO would remove that barrier, allowing greater customer choice of fuel source and type of systems used in their homes and businesses.

Load management technologies help avoid energy use when it’s most expensive, but also enables use when energy is at its cheapest and cleanest. Optimizing energy use maximizes our locally produced wind and solar energy resources. ECO is an opportunity to help residents and businesses save energy and money while supporting local economies.

And, projects supported by ECO are usually local jobs in electrical, heating/cooling, ventilation and insulation installation. These types of projects are typically designed and carried out by local businesses, installed by state licensed contractors who use locally sourced products.

Clean Energy First provides a framework as we transition away from large power plants to more renewable energy while maximizing opportunities for high-quality construction and operation jobs. Clean Energy First also contains robust transmission planning, which is of key importance to building new wind and solar projects. In the past year, there have been many wind and solar projects canceled because there is no more room on the bulk transmission system. This is a loss of good paying jobs, million in land lease payments and revenues for local communities.

There is no silver bullet to rebound from the pandemic, but passing Clean Energy First and the ECO Act can be an important component in our recovery and would yield long-term benefits for the entire state.