Minnesota tailpipe emissions policy to focus on EVs, renewables

Source: Jeffrey Tomich, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Minnesota’s electric utilities more than did their job cutting power-sector carbon emissions in line with a 2007 law that called for an 80 percent reduction in economywide greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century.

Now those same utilities may play an important role in tackling a tougher task — slashing tailpipe pollution — by helping encourage electric vehicle adoption.

A report by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) on the state’s effort to cut climate-warming emissions confirmed the transportation sector is now the state’s largest source of carbon pollution. And the leading solution to reducing those emissions is electrification.

In addition to the midcentury goal in Minnesota’s Next Generation Energy Act, the law also established interim goals of a 15 percent greenhouse gas reduction by 2015 and 30 percent by 2025.

The biennial progress report, based on data through 2016, confirmed what was already known. Minnesota fell short of its first goal even though power-sector emissions have dropped 29 percent from 2005 as wind and solar energy projects replace aging coal-fired generation.

Overall, economywide greenhouse gas emissions are down 12 percent through the end of 2016. And transportation emissions, the bulk of which is from cars and trucks, are down just 8 percent.

The MPCA report notes that federal regulations have reduced tailpipe carbon emissions. But there are more vehicles on the road today, driving more miles. And many consumers are choosing to drive larger vehicles, eroding some of the gains in vehicle efficiency.

Other states across the country are facing the same reality, and increasingly a shift to more electric vehicles is seen as a solution.

“Clearly electrification is going to be part of the answer,” said Todd Biewen, director of the MPCA’s environmental analysis and outcomes division.

But convincing individual consumers to trade their gas guzzlers for electric vehicles is a different kind of challenge than steering a handful of utilities to retire coal plants for new wind and solar generation.

That’s especially true now, when gasoline prices are below $2 a gallon.

Already, local governments, state regulators, policymakers and private companies are at work on ways to help encourage reductions in transportation emissions.

“That’s the way it’s going to happen,” Biewen said. “Leadership from different places. There’s a lot of interest.”

Path to electrification

Incoming Gov. Tim Walz (D), who was sworn in yesterday, has said helping Minnesota meet its 80 percent greenhouse gas emissions reduction target will be a priority. Local governments are at work on helping to curb transportation emissions by replacing diesel buses with electric ones.

Just last month, the Public Utilities Commission directed the state’s three investor-owned utilities to take steps to encourage EV adoption by helping educate consumers and proposing rate designs, policies and investments (Energywire, Dec. 14, 2018).

Xcel Energy Inc., the state’s largest utility, has already seen one EV-related pilot approved and two others are pending. The company has five other pilot programs to help accelerate penetration of plug-in vehicles (Energywire, Oct. 17, 2018).

And the Pollution Control Agency has proposed using as much as 15 percent of Minnesota’s $47 million share of the Volkswagen AG settlement to install electric vehicle charging stations.

Electrification of transportation is seen as a key for Minnesota, in particular, because of the vast wind resources in the Upper Midwest that can make nighttime car charging especially attractive for consumers.

In fact, a report last year for the McKnight Foundation said Minnesota’s power sector will need to continue to take on the bulk of the state’s transportation and space-heating demand if the state is to meet its 80 percent goal by 2050 (Energywire, Aug. 6, 2018).

J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director for Fresh Energy, a St. Paul-based advocacy group, said the power sector’s carbon reductions driven by the state’s renewable energy standard serve as an example of the kind of economic and environmental benefits that can come from a transition to clean energy.

Hamilton noted that Minnesota’s 29 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by the power sector was mirrored by a 29 percent increase in gross state product during the same 2005-2016 time frame. Meanwhile, Minnesota electric bills rose at a rate lower than inflation.

The report shows “we can rapidly decarbonize the power sector to benefit everyone,” and the same benefits can be had from reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and heating and cooling buildings.

“The takeaway is we need to put Minnesota on a path to electrify our economy,” she said.

Meanwhile, the stage is set for further carbon emissions reductions in Minnesota’s power sector. More than a half-dozen additional coal units, including more than 1,300 megawatts at the state’s largest coal generator, the Sherburne County Generating Station, are slated for retirement in the coming years.

And Minneapolis-based Xcel last month pledged to transition to 10 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050 and to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent to 2005 levels in all eight states where it operates by 2030.

“That’s going to continue to be a good news story,” Biewen said.