Frontiers: Energy transformation

Energy Transformation

It seems like we’ve been talking about renewable energy and the “green economy” for decades, but major changes to the nation’s energy system are just getting started and Minnesota is leading the way.

Portrait: Ellen AndersonEllen Anderson, senior advisor on energy and the environment to Gov. Mark Dayton and a former Minnesota state senator, discussed the major drivers of change in the energy market and what Minnesota is doing to be a leader on the clean energy front. Anderson delivered her presentation, “Energy Transformation: Minnesota’s Bright Future in Clean Energy,” Oct. 9 as part of the Institute on the Environment’s weekly lecture series, Frontiers in the Environment.

In her speech, Anderson compared the evolution of the energy system to that of the telecommunications system. While today’s high-tech cell phones and Internet would make the telecommunications system unrecognizable to early inventors, the electric system in the United States has remained largely the same. That is about to change, according to Anderson.

“By 2025 or 2030, we won’t recognize our electricity system, either,” she said. “Really, this is despite the fact that we have an enormous political battle going on in our country over climate change and energy policy. Despite that, I believe the energy system will be and is becoming significantly cleaner and less polluting, more distributed and less centralized and more controlled by customers, and that traditional business models and traditional utility economics are going to evolve.”

So what’s behind this energy transformation? The rapid decline of coal as the dominant electricity source in the United States, market changes encouraging companies to set energy and emissions reduction goals, and stronger public support for renewables are all driving a shift away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy.

When it comes to setting renewable energy goals, Minnesota is at the front of the pack. In 2007 the state legislature passed a renewable energy standard, and by 2050 the state wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent from 2005 levels. With such ambitious objectives, state and federal agencies nationwide have their eyes on the Gopher State.

“We have strong goals in place,” Anderson said. “We have strong leadership by our governor, by our universities and by our companies, and what we do in Minnesota does drive national policy. I’ve had conversations in Washington, talking with industries and states and the Obama administration, and they are really interested in hearing about the perspective of heartland states that are traditionally dependent on coal, have a strong economy and have moved forward on developing clean energy sources. Minnesota really is the leader in that universe.”

Transforming the energy system takes time, and Anderson warns against moving too quickly, cautioning that transformation has to be slow, gradual and good for the economy. But if renewable energy growth continues on its current path, Minnesota has a lot to look forward to.

“What we do can help drive national policy, and that can help drive global policy,” Anderson said. “Our leadership in a transforming energy economy is a huge opportunity for us, and I think we’re poised for a really bright future if all these predictions come true.”

Watch Anderson’s full presentation online.

John Sisser is a communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment.