How Does Minnesota Really Get Its Electricity?

A report released on April 30 claims that Minnesota generated 54% of its electricity from “carbon-free” sources in 2023. But is it true?

That 54% headline figure for “carbon-free,” or “zero-emissions,” sources also include nuclear power alongside wind, solar, and hydropower. If one omits nuclear, monthly Energy Information Agency (EIA) estimates suggest that only 31.4% of Minnesota’s electricity generation was from “renewable” sources in 2023. The Minnesota Department of Commerce corroborates that figure from 2023, but clearly delineates between renewables and nuclear.

The report also examines electricity generation, but neglects to discuss electricity consumption. In 2022, Minnesota imported about one-fifth of its electricity from Canada and across state borders through the regional electric grid, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce. These areas are not covered by Minnesota’s renewables mandates, and so may generate their electricity through reliable sources such as natural gas.

Minnesota consumers benefit from having reliable, dispatchable sources of electricity across the border, but they’re also relying more on natural gas within the state. Natural gas electricity generation grew 7% through 2023 and has doubled through the past decade.

The report also glosses over the other ways Minnesotans use energy, not just electricity. The same Department of Commerce source states 73% of total energy consumption was from petroleum, coal, or gas in 2019. That distinction is why Tara Narayanan, an analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance, disparages “other sectors… including transportation, industry and agriculture,” for not “pulling their weight.”

It’s also worth noting that in October 2023, EIA changed the way it measures energy consumption generated by solar, wind, geothermal, and hydropower, which may make it difficult to compare figures from early 2023 with late 2023. It’s unclear how the report’s methodology took this into account.

The cost of 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040 — as mandated by the blackout bill signed in 2023 — will be astronomical. Our modeling showed a cost of $313 billion through 2050 and devastating blackouts.

If one is serious about reducing emissions, nuclear power is a critical means of doing so: it is high in energy intensity, low in emissions and land use, and can run nearly 24/7/365. However, a 1994 state law banned the construction of new nuclear power facilities, and the ban remains in effect today. Only 12 other states similarly ban new nuclear construction. The blackout bill could have embraced new nuclear power plants and other technologies but left those barriers in place.

Bundling nuclear with their favored technologies of wind and solar to achieve a “zero-emissions” statistic of 54% is aimed to mislead readers into believing that Minnesota is a paradise of wind turbines and solar panels. Looking beyond the news spin is critical.