Minnesota has 17 years to reach 100% renewable energy. Experts say we’re already behind schedule.
Minnesota’s renewable energy transition is on a tight timeline that experts say could get even tighter as more wind, solar and transmission line projects seek regulatory approval.
The demand for renewable energy and a bolstered power grid to support it is rising as the state moves toward its new standard of 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040.
But because the critical transmission system that moves electricity across the state of Minnesota will take at least a decade to build, experts say the delays threaten the development of renewable energy projects.
“It’s really needed just to keep projects moving,” said Betsy Engelking, vice president of Bloomington-based National Grid Renewables. “If we don’t have significant transmission until 2033 and we have to meet some zero-carbon standards by 2040, we’re starting to run over time, now out of time.”
Energy infrastructure across the United States is tightly regulated by the nation’s grid operators, as well as federal and state authorities.
In Minnesota, the Public Utilities Commission is responsible for approving route and construction permits for energy facilities.
Data obtained by 5 INVESTIGATES show a steady increase in permit approvals for wind, solar, and high-voltage transmission lines over the last six years. In 2017, the PUC approved a total of five permits. Last year, that number more than doubled.
Joseph Sullivan, vice chairman of the PUC, acknowledges the 2040 mandate will lead to a flood of applications that will challenge the agency.
“The work is getting more complicated and more complex,” said Sullivan. “We have excellent staff, and they do a good job. But fundamentally, there’s a bandwidth issue.”
It took Engelking’s company three years to get a permit from the PUC to build the Plum Creek Wind Farm, a 400-megawatt project that would be located in southwestern Minnesota.
But that project, which was approved by the state in 2021, still can’t start generating renewable energy until it’s also approved by the larger regulatory system that oversees the nation’s power grid.
The Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, has determined a new transmission line must be built before the wind farm can connect to the existing grid.
“It’s costly, it’s controversial, and it takes a long time to build,” Engelking said. “There’s lots of opportunities out there to build renewable projects. There’s just no place to plug them in.”
A recent study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found projects are waiting an average of five years for approval to connect to the grid. In 2008, the research found that wait time was less than two years.
The Wind Belt
Even with the plan to build a dozen long-range transmission lines, energy expert Beth Soholt said there’s concern in the industry that the demand for renewable energy will continue to outpace the infrastructure that carries that power.
“The fact is that every transmission line in the Midwest that has been put into service has been full,” Soholt said. “The capacity on that line has been spoken for before it’s even put in service.”
The lack of transmission is already creating a bottleneck in Minnesota’s Wind Belt, the southwestern corner of the state where currently hundreds of wind turbines are generating power for the rest of the state.
Molly Malone, a county commissioner in Murray County, said rural communities are banking on the state’s transition to 100% renewable energy.
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She said the wind farms are critical to achieving Minnesota’s energy standard but also are vital for the local economy.
“I don’t see a lot of new industries knocking down our door to come out here,” she said. “This is a unique opportunity for us.”