Green Matters: Mac hosts Power Dialog on renewable energy

This Monday, Macalester hosted a Power Dialog to discuss renewable energy in Minnesota. Mac was only one of many sites across 20 states where members of academic communities convened this past week to discuss how states might respond to the Clean Power Plan proposed by President Obama last August. The Clean Power Plan aims to reduce US carbon emissions by 32 percent of 2005 levels and relies on individual states setting their own goals to contribute to this target. The Environmental Protection Agency created the Clean Power Plan under the Clean Air Act by classifying carbon dioxide as an air pollutant.

However, the Clean Power Plan is not in force. To the surprise of many members of the legal community, this February the Supreme Court granted states and industry groups a stay to the Clean Power Plan, preventing it from being implemented or enforced. The Plan will go to review at the US District Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia this fall. In the meantime, states must decide whether to move forward to reduce carbon emissions in their energy sectors, despite not being required to do so.

Thanks to the support of many departments on campus and a dedicated group of students, Macalester hosted a panel dialog to discuss Minnesota’s position on this issue. Attendees included Macalester students, staff and faculty, along with college students from St. Thomas, St. Kate’s, St. Olaf, Hamline, Augsburg and high school students from the School of Environmental Studies. Panelists were leaders in industry, politics, civil service and NGOs, ranging from Chris Clark, the head of Xcel Energy in the Upper-Midwest, to Commissioner John Linc Stine of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), and including representatives from both political parties and the NGO Fresh Energy.

So, what is Minnesota’s Clean Power Plan? It doesn’t exist, yet. However, Minnesota is well-positioned to lead the way on clean power in the US.

“We’re very confident that all of this [energy transition] can be managed in an affordable way,” the Commissioner of Public Utilities said.

Minnesota’s strong position can be attributed to the fact that, though we’re a historically coal-dominated state, we don’t actually have coal within our borders, meaning that we spend millions of dollars per year buying fossil fuels from surrounding states. This unfortunate environmental and economic reality, when coupled with the fact that we’re geographically well-situated to produce wind power, has historically encouraged bipartisan cooperation on renewable energy legislation.

Unfortunately, Minnesota has recently begun to move away from such cooperation. DFL Representative Melissa Hortman commented that there is now only one member of the Republican party in the Minnesota House who will acknowledge that climate change is real and caused by humans (said representative was also a panelist at the Power Dialog).

Disagreements surfaced on the panel, perhaps most notably during a clash between Chris Clark of Xcel Energy and Representative Hortman over net metering, the practice of allowing energy consumers to also produce energy, typically through solar panels, and return the excess to the grid. These sorts of disagreements create space for new voices and new solutions.

Environmental Studies Professor Roopali Phadke who moderated the panel said of the disagreements,“We [as observers] can ask, ‘where can we insert ourselves in this conversation?’”

Students were eager to do just that, asking panelists a range of questions, with many students wanting to know how they could make a difference. The panelists all reacted enthusiastically to the student involvement question and several took it as an opportunity to recruit for their organizations and political pathways.

“This has turned into a job fair! This is amazing!” Professor Phadke quipped. Though it was comical, it’s also true: we do need people advocating for clean energy, not just through NGOs and activism, but also in politics, civil service and the energy industry.

President Brian Rosenberg, gesturing at the panelists, told students in his opening speech, “Your work, far more than the work of any of us up here, will shape our future.”

Students on campus are already passionate about getting involved, as evidenced by the fact that the panel was organized by six Macalester students for whom the work was well worth it.

Organizer Becca Krasky ’19 said, “I think it went really smoothly. We did a lot of planning and it paid off.” However, even such a well-organized dialog can’t cover everything.

Organizer Martin Moore ’18 acknowledged, “A lot of the discussion was focused on relying on technology and did not address the issues of overconsumption and environmental justice.”

That said, dialog attendees responded positively to the panel overall, setting a great precedent for energy conversations at Macalester. During dinner after the panel, audience members had engaged discussions with panelists at their tables.

“We’re really looking forward to next year,” Moore said. The Power Dialog provided a strong foundation for discussing clean energy in Minnesota, while still revealing there is much work to be done and a need for new voices to join the conversation.