The Value of Renewable Energy: How Much Does Reducing Carbon Emissions in Minnesota Affect the World?

If there’s one argument renewable energy advocates in Minnesota always turn to, it’s that wind and solar energy reduce carbon emissions and help “save the planet.” In fact, when it comes down to it, this is the only benefit they can claim renewable energy to have.

Renewable energy has very little value as a power producer—it’s not as reliable as other forms of energy, it’s more intermittent and difficult to predict, and the imposed costs it has on other forms of energy make it among the most expensive sources of energy around. Coupled with government mandates, renewable energy complicates the energy system like no other energy source does.

Therefore, if renewable energy is to have any value at all, it needs to be weighed against the extent to which it helps reduce carbon emissions and “save the planet.” Unfortunately, this claim is only half-right—if that.

Minnesota’s energy-related carbon emissions have decreased by 10.3 million metric tons (MMT) from 2000 to 2015, going from 98 to 87.7 MMT, respectively.

If you were to only hear this part, 10.3 MMT seems like a lot. But that diminishes once you bring in the rest of the world.

The United States and Europe were pretty much the only areas in the world that saw a significant decrease in energy-related carbon emissions from 2010 to 2017. These two economic powerhouses decreased emissions by a combined 675.3 MMT—again, seemingly a win for renewable energy advocates.

However, this decrease was entirely offset by one country alone: India.

Over the same period of time, India increased energy-related carbon emissions by 682.4 MMT. Worse yet, India represented only 22.4 percent of the overall increase in global carbon-emissions. China increased by 1,128 MMT, and the rest of Asia by 572.8. Other countries and areas that increased carbon emissions were Mexico (31 MMT), Canada (34.3 MMT), Russia (35.5 MMT), the Middle East (366.5 MMT), South and Central America (122.5 MMT), and Africa (126.4 MMT).

So, retracting back to Minnesota’s decrease of 10.3 MMT over a longer period of time, we see how little of an impact renewable energy in our state actually has on global trends.

This isn’t to say that we can’t be leaders of new technologies and innovation, but we have to ask how much of this innovation should come at the expense of low-income households who are hit the hardest by rising electricity rates.

This poses an interesting question to lawmakers and regulators: just how much are you going to value renewable energy, which displaces very little carbon-emissions, over having affordable electricity for all Minnesotans?

Any decrease in emissions Minnesota is to make will surely be met with increases elsewhere. The $15 billion-plus Minnesota has spent on renewable energy since 1994 to achieve merely 1.5 percent of total U.S. emission decreases seems too high to be considered a valuable investment.

Truthfully, the impact renewable energy has had in Minnesota has been on anything but reducing carbon emissions on any significant scale. The large majority of the impact has been on electricity rates, which have skyrocketed in recent years.

Minnesota used to be among the states with the lowest electricity prices. Since taking on the challenge of reducing carbon emissions and increasing the number of renewables on the energy grid, Minnesota lawmakers and regulators have allowed electricity prices to increase to the point we are no longer below the national average. In fact, Minnesota has jumped from the 18th lowest electricity rates in 1994 to the 18th highest in 2016.

If renewable energy is valued as reducing carbon emissions but it has done little to succeed on that, then what is it going to take for Minnesota to reverse course and start prioritizing affordable electricity again?