BEMIDJI -- On the campaign trail and in his first year in office, Gov. Tim Walz often has spoke about the need for Minnesota to transition to clean energy and about his goal to do that by 2050.

The proposal, introduced in the 2019 legislative session, would require all electric utilities to use only carbon free energy resources by 2050. The proposal also would require utilities to prioritize efficiency and clean sources over fossil fuels when replacing or adding new power.

Walz introduced the proposals in March and re-committed to the initiative in June, citing climate change as the key reason, calling it an existential threat.

"We must take immediate action," Walz said in a press release. "If Washington won't lead, Minnesota will. That is why I am proud to announce a set of policy proposals that will lead Minnesota to 100 percent clean energy in the state's electric sector by 2050."

Xcel Energy, the state's largest utility, has already committed to generate 100 percent of its electricity from clean sources by 2050.

The goals announced by Walz and Xcel Energy follow progress already made in Minnesota. According to a report from the Minnesota Department of Commerce, 24.9 percent of the state's electricity came from renewable energy sources in 2017, up from 8.4 percent in 2007.

Regional entities providing power to Bemidji are part of the equation. For example, Otter Tail Power, which serves western Minnesota as well as areas of North and South Dakota, supplies about 20 percent of its energy to customers through renewable, emission-free sources, with the intention of increasing the percentage over the next six years, according to its website.

Carbon dioxide emissions, meanwhile, have fallen by 31 percent from 2000-2017 for Otter Tail. By 2022, Otter Tail's website states emissions will have decreased a total of 33 percent.

Otter Tail's renewable work has included both solar and wind power. Regarding the latter, the company owns wind generation equal to 138 megawatts per hour and purchases more than 107 megawatts per hour. Starting in 2017 and through 2021, the company states its considering to add 300 more megawatts per hour of wind energy.

On the solar side, Otter Tail Power offers a publicly owned property solar program to Minnesota customers. The program offers cash incentives to publicly owned facilities that install solar systems.

Reliability needed

Beltrami Electric Cooperative in Bemidji also offers a solar program through its community solar garden, which participating members can earn solar energy credits through. Since installing the solar panel garden, 86 members of the cooperative have signed up.

The cooperative also has 34 percent of its total capacity come from wind generation, according to Sam Mason, Beltrami Electric director of member/energy services.

However, Mason said to handle the energy needs of the state, especially considering common Minnesota weather, an all-of-the-above approach is still suitable.

"Those base load plants are what keeps the lights on when it's dark, 30 below and the wind isn't blowing," Mason said. "I think energy in the future will come from a multitude of sources. We're going to have a greater number of renewables, but we'll also need those base load plants that can keep the lights on."

Mason also said there's a concern on the access to renewable energy infrastructure based on income.

"One of my fears with the pushes we're seeing out there is the wealthy will be the only ones able to afford these things," Mason said.

Nationwide, though, one organization has taken steps to allow residents to come together and purchase solar systems in cost effective ways, including in Bemidji.

Solar United Neighbors helps organize solar cooperatives, where a group of residents come together to collectively hire a contractor, getting a bulk discount in the process. In Bemidji, more than a dozen Bemidji-area homeowners came together with the organization's help to purchase solar equipment for their houses.

"Our cooperatives have a lot of reasons they want to go solar. Some of them do it for the environmental impacts, while others are interested in lowering their electric bills," said Emily Stiever, a regional field director for SUN Minnesota. "I think our cooperatives are a great way to really accelerate residential solar, and help jump-start a community's interest in solar."

In total, SUN has helped establish 204 neighborhood cooperatives throughout the country and have added five in Minnesota in the past 18 months.

"Our goal is to work in all 50 states, Stiever said. "In Minnesota, we'd like to help as many towns, especially rural areas, organize their own cooperatives. Even if someone doesn't join the co-op, they've at least heard of it and now see it in their community."

Cost efficiency and environmental awareness

Public entities in Bemidji have committed to a greener future too, such as BSU joining the Second Nature Climate Commitment.

"We signed on to have a carbon neutrality commitment," BSU Sustainability Project Manager Jordan Lutz said. "BSU as an institution is committed to reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. Hearing about Gov. Walz's proposal to green the state's electrical network aligns well with BSU's goal."

The city of Bemidji has also taken initiative over the past decade to become a more sustainable community, such as joining the United States Mayors Climate Protection Agreement and becoming part of the Minnesota GreenStep Program.

The GreenStep Cities program helps cities like Bemidji strategize and implement more sustainable features. Along with GreenStep, the city also took advantage of the state's Guaranteed Energy Savings program.

Through the program, the city was able to upgrade eight city buildings, water treatment plant and city streetlights with more energy efficient technology and features.

"Gov. Walz's plan is to increase renewable energy, and part of the way we do that is reduce some of the energy we use to begin with, and that's what the city has done," Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht said. "If we're going to build facilities, we should incorporate those kinds of things. With the Carnegie restoration, when we replaced all of the HVAC, we worked with Otter Tail Power for energy efficient motors to use less electricity."

Rita Albrecht
Rita Albrecht

In September, the city joined several other communities in approving a resolution recognizing climate change and urging the United States Congress to levy a revenue neutral fee on carbon emissions. The goal is to encourage less fossil fuel use and to reduce the nation's CO2 emissions to 10 percent of 1990 levels by 2050.

"We have a changing climate that is impacting cities in a negative way," Albrecht said. "It costs us more to react to some of these events. I think there is a reason for communities to think about how climate change is affecting the work we do and if it's costing us more money."