Last week, Minnesota signed into law Senate bill SF 4, establishing an ambitious goal to achieve 100% clean energy by 2040, joining 25 other states with 100% clean energy or zero greenhouse gas emissions commitments.
But what does this bill actually mean for environmental justice communities in MN, and what comes next?
Defining “clean” energy
The bill contains two standards that all electric utilities in the state are required to meet: a renewable energy standard (RES) and a carbon free energy standard. The RES has existed in MN since the passage of a 2007 law requiring utilities to procure or generate 25 percent of their electricity sales from renewable sources. SF 4 updates this standard to 55 percent renewable electricity by 2035. SF 4 also updates what energy technologies can count towards meeting this RES.
With the passage of the bill, municipal solid waste (MSW) incinerators in counties with specific population densities would no longer count as renewable sources of energy. Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC) is an MSW facility in Minneapolis that has endangered the health and well being of the environmental justice community it is located in for decades. HERC will no longer receive renewable energy credits, further weakening the economic viability of the facility. This is a tremendous victory for community leaders and advocates who have been fighting for the closure of this facility since its inception. Currently, the anti incineration campaign led by community leaders, and community based organizations in Minneapolis are mobilizing residents to demand that Hennepin County shut down the HERC incinerator.
Another update to the RES includes the addition of large existing hydro power as a renewable source of energy. While the standard does not incentivize the creation of new large hydro facilities, it provides new incentives to keep existing large hydro facilities with damaging environmental and social impacts.
Along with wind and solar, the standard continues to incentivize biomass and other MSW facilities at large that do not meet the specific HERC exemption. Additionally, the standard continues to define hydrogen power generated from wind, solar, hydro and biomass as renewable. Hydrogen combustion leads to NOx emissions, long term exposure to which can lead to chronic respiratory disease and higher rates of emergency room visits among other public health risks. Studies have shown that burning pure hydrogen can generate six times more NOx emissions than methane combustion.
In addition to the RES, the new carbon free standard requires that all electricity sold in the state must be generated from carbon-free sources by the year 2040. Carbon free means any technology that does not create carbon dioxide emissions which includes all the technologies that can be used to meet the RES as well as nuclear. While MN law bans building new nuclear plants, the two existing nuclear plants will likely remain in operation for years to come. Xcel Energy’s Prairie Island Nuclear Plant is located next to the Prairie Island Indian Community reservation, burdening an indigenous community with a growing nuclear waste stockpile.
Environmental Justice Provisions
The bill defines “environmental justice areas” as areas that meet one or more of the following criteria: (i) 40 percent or more non white population (ii) 40 percent or more residents over the age of 5 have limited English proficiency (iii) 35 percent of households are below twice the federal poverty level (iv) located within Indian country as defined by the US federal government. This is a more expansive definition than how the Biden Administration has defined “disadvantaged community” through the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool.
Utilities will be required to submit a report to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) every two years, the impacts of facilities designed to meet the utility’s standard obligations on environmental justice areas. Utilities will also be required to report on efforts taken to retain and retrain workers employed at generating facilities that the utility has ceased operating or designated to cease operating.
In the implementation of the standard, PUC is required to maximize benefits to local workers and environmental justice communities. The PUC must ensure that through this standard, high quality jobs are created locally, ensuring that workers have the tools needed to adapt during this energy transition particularly in EJ communities. The PUC must also ensure reduction of harmful emissions in EJ communities and availability of affordable electric service in low income communities.
The commission would also have to take into account impacts on EJ communities when considering requests for modifying or delaying implementation of the carbon free standard.
In the coming months and years, it will be important for Minnesota to implement SF 4 in a way that prioritizes the needs of EJ communities. This will require close collaboration between community based organizations, community leaders, residents, utilities, government agencies, businesses and a commitment to ensure that the transition to a clean energy future is both equitable and sustainable.
The Road Ahead
Here are the next steps we recommend as SF4 moves to an implementation phase:
- Prioritizing Emissions Reductions in Environmental Justice Communities: Currently, the state of MN does not have a comprehensive plan for phasing out fossil fuels specifically in communities overburdened with multiple sources of pollution. As studies have shown, restricting fossil fuel generation in EJ communities can spark enduring public health benefits, including reductions in lung and heart ailments, asthma, diabetes, and developmental problems in children. Notably, our fellow Midwestern state Illinois’ Climate and Equitable Jobs Act includes a plan to phase out fossil fuels from the state’s power sector by 2045, with retirement tiers for coal and gas plants based in part on the plants’ proximity to environmental justice communities and local pollution impacts. We hope that implementing state agencies in MN and the PUC can think creatively about prioritizing phasing out of fossil fuel plants in communities that are in most need of reduction of pollution burden.
- Increasing wind and solar energy production: Minnesota will need to significantly increase its production of wind and solar to meet its carbon free goal. The new carbon free standard pushes utilities to meet their clean energy goals faster. However, the bill also contains flexibility for utilities to modify or delay meeting these standards if there are impacts on electricity rates, reliability of the grid or if electrification of certain end uses creates more demand than anticipated. Utilities can also meet their interim benchmarks towards the 2040 carbon free by purchasing renewable energy credits while continuing operation of fossil fuel plants. Multiple studies have shown that Minnesota’s 100-percent carbon-free electricity goal by 2040 is achievable while meeting accelerated electricity demand. We urge that the implementation of the bill avoids any delays in ramping up renewable energy production.
- Supporting a Just Transition: Just transition as a process and practice has evolved to center the principle that a decarbonized economy should not cost workers or community residents their health, environment, jobs, or economic assets. The new carbon free standard could create new jobs, including jobs in construction, installation, and maintenance of renewable energy facilities. SF 4 also sets prevailing wage requirements for workers hired to build large-scale projects and additional provisions for the utilities and the PUC to support transition of workers at facilities that will cease to operate as a result of this standard. In addition to SF 4 provisions, we hope local and state governments commit to setting up just transition funds to support workers in transition to a clean energy economy, ensuring that new jobs created prioritize health and safety of workers, provide livable family-sustaining wages, and are accessible to communities that have historically been underinvested in and underemployed.
- Meaningful Public Engagement in implementation: The most important aspect of equitable implementation of SF 4 is a robust public engagement process. Here is a model for community engagement which CEED has adapted from National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee’s public participation guidelines.