EDITORIAL: Is carbon-free a realistic goal? Or simply a worthy one?

Feb. 4—Minnesota's ongoing effort to wean itself off of fossil fuels is a textbook "glass half full or half empty" situation.

Optimists can cite the following information, taken from the 2022 Minnesota Energy Factsheet and new data released Tuesday by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency:

* Today, 52% of our state's electricity comes from zero-carbon sources, including wind, solar, hydroelectric and nuclear. Nationally, the average is just 39%.

* Emissions from the power-generating sector have declined 40% in the past decade, and overall emissions have declined 54% since 2005 — compared to a 35% reduction nationwide.

* 81% of all new electrical generation capacity added in the past decade has been renewable.

* Minnesota ranks first in the Midwest and ninth in the nation for its overall energy efficiency programs.

Pessimists, however, can offer their own data and arguments:

* Methane release from livestock in Minnesota has increased 10% since 2005.

* The release of nitrous oxide from row-crop agriculture increased 9%.

* Emissions from Minnesota's industrial sector increased 14% between 2005 and 2020, and emissions from the residential sector — especially the use of natural gas — grew 14%.

* Much of the recent decline in greenhouse gas emissions is due to two years of decreased activity during the pandemic.

Regardless of which data set you prefer, Minnesota appears to be on track (or nearly so) to meet the goals of 50% less emissions by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050 — targets set by Gov. Walz last year in his Minnesota Climate Action Framework.

Those are ambitious goals, but Walz and the DFL-controlled House of Representatives have decided to tighten the timeline. Last week, the House voted 70-60 to require utility companies that sell power in Minnesota to be entirely carbon-free by 2040.

It's a good goal. A great goal, actually. If met, it would mean future generations of Minnesotans would breathe cleaner air, drink cleaner water, eat healthier fish and experience fewer catastrophic storms, floods and droughts.

But is this goal achievable? And if so, at what cost?

Given that Minnesota currently has a moratorium on any expansion of nuclear energy, the only path toward the carbon-free goal will be a massive expansion of wind, solar and hydroelectric power. And, with the increasing popularity of electric vehicles, it's likely our state's consumption of electricity will increase substantially in the next 25 years.

The e-vehicle, in fact, can illustrate an important point. If you live in one of Minnesota's major cities, then you probably can find a charging station when you need it. But if you need to drive your battery-powered car from Grand Rapids to Ely, or from Worthington to Morris — well, then you'd better plan carefully, especially during the winter. The charging infrastructure simply isn't in place yet. Not even close.

The same can be said for Minnesota's overall electrical grid. Those of us who live near a nuclear plant, or in areas where wind turbines have dotted the landscape for decades, might not appreciate the massive task that lies ahead for power suppliers in other, lightly-populated parts of the state.

The switch to zero-carbon electricity in such areas will be expensive, so who will pick up the tab for the initial installation of solar panels, wind turbines and transmission lines? Is Minnesota OK with the possibility that people in remote, lower-income areas could pay significantly more for power than city-dwellers — or will have little choice but to install their own wind turbine and solar panels?

On Jan. 24, our Opinion page included an op-ed written jointly by the presidents of three southeastern Minnesota energy cooperatives. They rightly pointed out that, even without a legal mandate, the state is on pace to derive just 5% of its electricity from coal by 2035 — at which point wind, solar and hydroelectric will meet 50% of the state's electrical needs.

They further argued that the technology to fully shift from carbon-based electrical production to renewable energy "is not developed yet, much less deployed."

In support of that claim, it's worth noting that the Biden Administration just announced a mining ban on 225,000 federally owned acres in the Superior Nation Forest. Renewable energy requires ample supplies of cobalt, lithium, nickel and copper, and Minnesota won't achieve true energy independence if it must import the raw materials needed to build the solar panels, wind turbines and the batteries it will need to store power for days when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine.

We don't like to emphasize the obvious, but the truth is that the glass is both half-full and half-empty. Minnesota is indeed well ahead of the pack in its changeover to renewable energy, but the protection of our air, water, fields and forests requires us to keep up the pressure, rather than resting on our collective laurels.

Therefore, we support mandating zero-carbon electricity by 2040 — but with some caveats. The state must ensure that the initial and future costs of this change will be shared equally across all regions of the state, even if that means using tax dollars to subsidize the process. Small cooperatives should have ample opportunity to seek extensions beyond 2040, so long as they are making progress toward the carbon-free goal. And, most importantly, no resident of Minnesota should be at risk of having their power turned off because their utility provider missed a deadline.

Do we expect Minnesota's power grid will be carbon-free by 2040? Probably not, but that doesn't mean the goal isn't worth pursuing — and we might be surprised by the outcome.

Back in 2007, plenty of people were skeptical when Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed Minnesota's Next Generation Energy Act, which required utility companies to produce 25% of electricity from renewable sources by 2025.

That benchmark was reached in 2017, proving that you'll never know 'til you try.

Editor's note: Jonah Goldberg's column this week can be found at PostBulletin.com/Opinion.