Minnesota Emerges as the Midwest’s Leader in the Clean Energy Transition

Six months ago, John Delurey, the senior regional director at Vote Solar, would have said that Illinois “sits on the shoulders of some of the most robust and equitable climate legislation in the country and region.” But after this year’s legislative session, Minnesota is giving Illinois a run for its money as the equitable clean energy state in the Midwest, he said.

Legislative sessions recently wrapped up in the two Midwestern states that saw the most clean energy transition efforts in the first quarter of the year. The states, where Democrats control both legislative chambers and have Democratic governors, saw a slew of bills introduced this session promoting clean energy and environmental justice. Still, each had generally different aims and outcomes.  

A new report by the NC Clean Energy Technology Center at North Carolina State University logged proposed and adopted policy changes for the decarbonization of the electricity sector. Decarbonization is generally the reduction of carbon dioxide in any sector. According to the report, Minnesota was the most active state in the Midwest and third behind Massachusetts and California nationally. Illinois was second in the region and fifth nationally, with fewer measures proposed and enacted.

While the report listed at least 16 electricity decarbonization bills introduced in Illinois, none advanced to the other chamber. The report listed 20 actions in Minnesota, most of which did not advance, but the ones that did include a new statewide clean energy standard and updated long-term utility plans. 

Experts say the difference in each state’s number of actions taken and how many of those measures were enacted can also be attributed to differences in electric utility markets between the two states, when their 100 percent clean energy standards were set and the political makeup of their legislative bodies. Minnesota’s Senate flipped from Republican to Democratic control in the 2022 midterms. 

Illinois had a head start, setting its 100 percent clean energy standards two years ago with equitable clean energy job opportunities at the center of its promises. According to the report, 65 percent of its electricity is from clean energy sources, versus 55 percent in Minnesota.  Illinois’ actions noted in the report mainly were implementation measures related to the existing clean energy targets and renewable portfolio standards, said Autumn Proudlove, the author of the report and associate director of the NC Clean Energy Technology Center.

Now, with additional federal incentives from the Inflation Reduction Act for states to transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy, legislators in almost all states took and continue to take steps to decarbonize polluting sectors, including electricity. This was especially true in Minnesota, where Democrats saw more opportunity for action in this session from the new “trifecta” control of the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature.

“We certainly saw [Minnesota] Democrats coming into this session with a long and ambitious list of things that they wanted to get done, and they really accomplished that,” said Annie Levenson-Falk, executive director at Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota.

In February, Minnesota passed a 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2040 law that also streamlines permitting for renewable energy projects, defines what qualifies as renewable energy and ensures that constructing or retrofitting of major electric facilities receive the prevailing wage in the state. The new law also includes provisions excluding large polluting incinerators near environmental justice communities from counting toward its 100 percent target and ensuring that all Minnesotans have access to and benefit from clean and renewable energy.

Other actions include reforming its community solar program to cater to more low-income households and approving a new clean transportation standard.

“[Minnesota is] starting to look a bit more holistically at these targets and what it means for the state and consumers,” said Proudlove.

Both states are now at a similar point where they need to build out more transmission and renewable capacity and storage, said Delurey from Vote Solar.

However, Minnesota seems ahead of Illinois regarding permitting and the cumulative impacts of air pollution in environmental justice communities, he added.

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On top of setting one of the country’s most ambitious clean energy standards, Minnesota also passed a new rule requiring regulators to consider existing pollution levels in an area before granting or renewing a permit within or near an environmental justice community.

In Illinois, a version of an environmental justice bill was introduced for the second time and fell short of votes in the Senate. It would have created a legal definition of “environmental justice” and required cumulative impact assessments and more public engagement in air permitting decisions.

“This was going to be the time that we could get across the finish line,” said Samira Hanessia, energy policy director at Illinois Environmental Council. “As disappointed and frustrated as we are, it’s not the end of this policy. We feel very strongly that this policy has to happen.”

On Thursday, the Illinois General Assembly passed two bills supporting public-private partnership funding as a mechanism for large transportation projects, including the expansion of Interstate 55. Environmental justice advocates and community members pushed back on the last-minute actions by lawmakers, arguing that the bills would advance projects that will deteriorate air quality in communities already burdened by high air pollution. 

For clean energy advocates in Illinois, one of the most notable wins so far this year was the passage of a bill that revoked the ability of local governments to limit or ban wind and solar power. A controversial bill to lift the state’s moratorium on new nuclear facilities also made it through both chambers and is awaiting Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature. Minnesota still has a ban on new nuclear facilities. 

The work is still ongoing for both states. Minnesota is now tasked with implementing all that it’s passed in a short amount of time, a challenge that Illinois is already seeing after it passed the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act.

“This session put out some big goals at the start of some of the implementation, but there’s a lot of work to do,” said Levenson-Falk. “How do we do it in a way that is most fair for everybody in Minnesota and gets the best results?”

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                Aydali Campa covers environmental justice at Inside Climate News. She grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona and taught third and fourth grade in Oklahoma City before pursuing a master’s degree in investigative journalism from Arizona State University. As a bilingual reporter with experience in multimedia, she has covered education, Covid-19 and transborder issues. Her previous work can be seen in The Wall Street Journal, The Arizona Republic and Arizona PBS.

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