2010 March 17: MN: Editorial: Don’t back away from renewable energy commitment

2010 March 17: MN: Editorial: Don’t back away from renewable energy commitment

3/17/2010 11:30:04 AM
At the end of last year, 37 states had set some type of goal related to the percentage of energy they produce from renewable sources such as wind, solar or hydroelectric. All but five (North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia and Vermont) have legally binding targets that power companies must meet, or face some type of penalty.

On Monday, Rep. Marty Seifert, one of the top contenders on the GOP side to replace Gov. Tim Pawlenty, introduced a bill that would let Minnesota back away from its commitment of using 25 percent renewable energy by 2025. Seifert voted in favor of the energy standard in 2007, but he now says it should be replaced with a "good faith" goal.

Make no mistake: Minnesota has set the bar high. Only a few states are pursuing a 25 percent renewable goal, and of those, only Illinois and Oregon are trying to get it done by 2025. (New York is the most ambitious in terms of its timetable, seeking 24 percent renewable energy by 2013.)

But there are many reasons we should stand by our commitments to renewable energy, rather than weakening them. For starters, there’s the most obvious one: A "good faith" standard is simply a nice way of saying "toothless," which means it will have no impact. Right now, renewable energy is more costly than electricity produced from coal or natural gas, so without a legal imperative, utility companies would have no incentive to invest in alternative energy infrastructure.

With the standards in place, however, companies like Xcel Energy must act. That’s why, starting this month, Xcel is offering to help its customers with the cost of installing solar panels on their homes. For the average, 3.5 kilowatt system, Xcel will pay $7,875, about one-third of the total cost. The "Solar Rewards" program is expected to attract more than 1,300 participants in the next three years.

Then there’s the matter of pollution. If you, your aging parents or one of your children has a respiratory system that’s compromised by asthma or some other breathing problem, you’re aware that our region’s air quality has been poor this winter. Granted, much of the small-particulate pollution that’s blanketed southeastern Minnesota came from out-of-state sources, but what comes around, goes around. Energy produced on wind farms kept 62 million tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere last year, the equivalent of taking 10 million cars off America’s highways. Without renewable energy, our air would be even dirtier.

Finally, there’s the direct economic impact of renewable energy, which is quite apparent in southern Minnesota. Each of the hundreds of wind turbines that dot our landscape don’t just represent a million-dollar investment — they also represent jobs for manufacturers, installers and maintenance workers, as well as a direct revenue stream for the landowners who sign long-term leases with wind-energy companies.

Farmers wouldn’t be taking land out of production if they weren’t making money from wind energy, and Riverland Community College in Austin wouldn’t be offering a degree program in turbine maintenance if there wasn’t a demand for skilled workers.

But if Minnesota backs away from its commitment to renewable energy, all bets are off concerning future research and growth in the wind and solar industries. If "green energy" developers don’t have a guaranteed market for their product, they’ll go elsewhere. And what’s worse, we might face a future in which wind turbines wouldn’t be worth maintaining. If neighbors believe a spinning windmill is an eyesore, imagine what they’d think of one that’s slowly rusting away over the course of years.

We recently editorialized about the need for the Minnesota Legislature to stick with a set of stringent high school graduation standards, to give them time to work before deciding they were too severe. The same thing can be said about our renewable energy standards. We’re just three years along in a process that was supposed to take 18 years to complete.

It’s far too early to be bailing out.

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