Growth of green energy sector surges in Minnesota

Alexandria Industries, which designs and makes aluminum industrial products, doesn’t look like an “alternative-energy” company.

However, about 10 percent of its 400 employees in Alexandria, Minn., produce aluminum arrays for the fast-growing solar-energy industry.

“Solar is about 10 percent of our business, and we’re going to grow it to about 20 percent … within five years,” said Mark Turley, the renewable energy markets leader at Alexandria. “The other businesses grow at a 3 to 5 percent annual rate. Solar is a viable market, like medical or trucking or automobile or health-and-fitness equipment. Most industries are embracing it. Five years ago we didn’t have a market code for our solar work.”

Alexandria Industries also is a leading indicator of Minnesota’s fast-growing clean-energy economy, rooted in wind, solar, conservation, technology and even software, in a state that historically imported its energy — oil, coal and natural gas — from other states and countries.

Clean Energy Economy Minnesota, an advocacy group that ranges from small green-energy outfits to the gigantic likes of Cargill and Cummins Power, said in September that Minnesota’s clean-energy jobs grew 5.3 percent in 2016 to 57,351 jobs. That compares with all-industry growth of 1.4 percent and 4.2 percent for professional and business services, the fastest-growing of the 11 major industrial sectors tracked by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Clean-energy jobs account for only 2 percent of state jobs so far.

The Minnesota data, part of a Midwest report by Chicago-based Clean Energy Trust, doesn’t include jobs created from corn-based ethanol.

“This report tells the story of how Minnesota’s rapid transition to cleaner and more sustainable sources of energy is driving job creation all across our state,” said Gregg Mast, executive director of Clean Energy Economy Minnesota. “Companies and communities, small or large, are prospering.”

This fast-growing sector is an economic turbocharger because it essentially is creating jobs that replaces some importation of oil, natural gas and coal with conservation and homegrown energy. Energy efficiency comprises the largest component of Minnesota’s clean energy jobs. Minnesota’s solar and wind energy firms, which grew 15 percent last year, employ 5,700-plus people.

“This report is further proof that renewable energy is good for health, environment and our economy,” said Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, a business veteran.

The solar and wind industries have benefited from temporary tax credits to spur the scale and efficiency that have driven down production costs.

Moreover, there are environmental and health benefits from less carbon being pumped into the atmosphere. The cost of pollution and health implications, such as weather-related coastal destruction or higher medical costs, traditionally have not been included in the economic analysis.

President Donald Trump’s administration is rolling back some environmental rules to favor, particularly, the decades-old shrinking coal industry. However, the public and other industries, increasingly, are hip to a cleaner, jobs-growing economy. The preponderance of climate scientists, economists and national security experts, say the risks to the economy and the country from volatile weather are too great to not transition to a greener economy.

Industry, not just environmentalists, is driving this train. For example:

• Xcel Energy, which just announced a 300-megawatt wind farm in northeastern South Dakota, plans to be the first U.S. utility to surpass 10,000 megawatts of wind generation, more than enough to power every home in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Publicly held Xcel also has been one of the best energy companies to own stock in in America of late.

• Globe-spanning Cargill concluded years ago that climate change posed significant risks to Midwest and global agriculture. Cargill has stepped up its commitment to reduce greenhouse gases through energy efficiency and will build its use of renewable fuels from 14 percent to 18 percent by 2020. Retired Cargill CEO Greg Page is a leader of the Risky Business initiative on the economic and environmental returns of moving to a greener economy.

• Gigantic Exxon Mobil last week said it plans to plug methane leaks and upgrade leaky production technology. This makes environmental, economic and public relations sense. Plus, methane is a valuable gas that can be captured and sold.

• A number of energy-related small businesses have bloomed in innovative Minnesota. They include Ever Cat Fuels of Isanti, which uses a green-chemical process to turn used cooking oils and other waste into several million gallons of biodiesel fuel annually; Burnsville-based 75F, a 50-employee software company that helps small commercial-building owners save up to 50 percent of the annual heating and cooling costs while improving indoor-air quality; TruNorth Solar, an Edina-based solar installer, and design-and-engineer firm SolarPod of Burnsville.

“Supporting this expanding industry through market-based public policies that create stability and predictability for our homegrown business is in the best interest of all our constituents,” said state Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point.

 

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.

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