We all see solar panels daily, whether or not we register them. On the side of some telephone poles, on a few street signs, even small lamps in gardens. The technology of photovoltaic cells is becoming more compact by the year and efficiency is going through the roof. Literally.
But that still doesn’t mean everyone wants one on their home. Or even that they necessarily can. Renters may face the predicament of wanting to power their homes with solar power with an inability to do so. Home owners might not have the funds to cover expensive up-front costs of photovoltaic installation. What many are left with is a wish to utilize solar technology without anyone to grant it.
Until now. When you pair power grid advancements with recent legislation you get a winning combination. A previous MN2020 blog pointed to the new mandate in Minnesota, which is 1.5% of our energy being produced by solar power by 2020. The overall goal is to have 10% by 2030.
What we also got out of that bill was a push to promote community solar gardens. Community solar gardens allow Minnesotans to partake in clean energy with relative ease. They sign up, the group purchases panels to be installed in a common area, and group members reap the clean energy benefits. This takes away from the bother of multiple installations and grid hookups while promoting renewable energy and receiving cash credits on their electricity bills.
One Minnesota community solar garden has already been in the works. The Hennepin-Wright project in Rockford has started construction and is slated to be online soon. But these community solar gardens are not just for rural communities. They are coming right here to the Twin Cities.
When you head down Lake Street, look up. One is being built right in Minneapolis atop Northern Sun Merchandising. Applied Energy Innovations and MN Community Solar project will produce up to 40 kW, which could power up to 10 homes. The solar panels will be made right here in Minnesota while creating more than a dozen jobs.
With the economic and environmental benefits coming from community solar gardens, I have no doubt we can expect to see more of them popping up throughout the state.
One of the maddening things about the foreclosure crisis for housing activists is how simple it would be for banks to resolve many of the cases that end in eviction. Community organizations have expended significant energy and taken dramatic actions defending homes from the banks one home at a time for homeowners like Bobby Hull, Monique White, and Rose McGee, who should never have been at risk for eviction in the first place.
This session, many of those same organizations came together to ask the legislature to regulate foreclosures in Minnesota, dramatically reducing the number of Minnesota families displaced by banks. Directing the grassroots power of foreclosure victims and their neighbors directly against a powerful financial industry lobby, the coalition got off to a slow start and the bill initially seemed destined to die in committee. Activists staged call-ins and sit-ins in what looked very much like last-ditch acts of desperation to revive a dead bill.
Toward the end of session, though, elements of this legislation resurfaced in a new bill SF 1276 and made it to the Senate floor.* In the bright spotlight of a public floor vote, conservative Senator Branden Petersen was the only representative in either house willing to go out on a limb for the banking lobby against common sense reforms to help Minnesotans stay in their homes. The 61-1 vote in favor of the bill in the Senate was followed quickly by an even more resounding 123-0 vote in the House.
The persistence of grassroots activists at Occupy Homes MN, ISAIAH, MN Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, Minnesotans for a Fair Economy, and the rest of the coalition paid off. Thanks to their efforts, the Minnesota legislature passed one of the most aggressive foreclosure prevention bills in the country, putting an end to “dual tracking,” requiring lenders to offer modifications to all eligible homeowners, requiring services to ease the paperwork burden for modification applicants, and giving homeowners a right to sue to stop a foreclosure if mortgage servicers fail to follow the law. Had this been enacted years ago, it could have already prevented thousands of foreclosures. It will prevent thousands more in the years to come.
The vote should serve as a warning to the “too-big-to-fail” set and encouragement to foreclosure activists around the country. No party is willing to stand with big banks in public in 2013. When the vote was called, the Minnesota legislature voted with homeowners.
*An earlier version of this story conflated two separate bills.
Long before southeastern Minnesota’s rich Silica Sand deposits became an attractive energy industry resource, companies had been mining modest amounts of silica in the region for less controversial purposes, such as glass-making, abrasives, and golf course sand traps, according to the DNR.
Those wary of more mining advocated for a 1-mile buffer around trout streams and lakes to decrease the potential threat of pollution from the mines. Industry retorted that the buffer would effectively halt new mines, resulting in a compromise.
Sweeping statewide regulation is pretty much off the table. The process for creating a new silica sand mine in southeastern Minnesota goes a little something like this: Find a spot, do a study, get a permit, build a mine. The hydraulic study is intended to determine whether the mine will pollute and the DNR permit is to keep mines in check that are operating within one mile of trout streams in a specific part of southeast Minnesota.
While the standards could have been stronger, all in all, it is better than no regulation. The new silica sand mine regulations require at least four different environmental entities be involved in the process. The Environmental Quality Board (EQB) will be given $1 million over two years to create an interagency task force to “provide technical assistance regarding the mining, processing, and transporting of silica sand and develop the model standards and criteria.” The EQB will also review the standard process for approving a silica sand mine and determine whether new steps should be taken due to the increased mining interests.
The MPCA and the Department of Health (DOH) will evaluate air quality issues around silica sand mining. The MPCA will adopt rules to control particulate emissions and the DOH will develop air quality health-based values. The DNR is not only responsible for the permitting process but also for overseeing silica sand mine reclamation, should it happen. They are allotted $600,000 the first year for silica sand mining rulemaking.
However, actually following the interagency group’s recommendations is up to the local governments and municipalities. This is one of the elements that makes me nervous. Should one county (let’s say it is upstream from another) allows lax standards, it can affect the entire watershed. A statewide regulation could have set a consistent standard to avoid this problem.
As silica sand mines boom over the next few years, Minnesota needs strong oversight and local government cooperation to protect southeastern waterways. We can only hope the resources allocated to the studies and permitting process are used effectively and more will be provided if necessary. If not, we can expect to see big problems with southeastern Minnesota’s water and public health.
For the first time since Feburary 2010, Minnesota’s economy lost jobs two months in a row. The North Star State shed 11,400 jobs in April after dropping 3,300 in March.
The jobs reports for the last six months have inspired optimism. If that trend had continued, it would have relieved worries about the state’s economic growth. But with the significant losses in April, that relief may have to be put on hold.
Trade, Transportation, and Utilities (TTU) and Government were the hardest hit in April. With weakness in trucking and wholesale trade, TTU dropped 5,700 seasonally-adjusted jobs. The drop in this sector exemplifies the greatest weakness in the private sector in 2013: weak demand. Consumers cannot afford to buy more things, and businesses are not betting that they consumers will anytime soon.
Government jobs contracted by an additional 2,000. After finally returning to pre-recession employment levels at the end of 2012, the government sector, which includes all levels of government as well as public school employees, has fallen in each of the last four months. The contraction this spring has largely been driven by cold spring and federal sequestration. The later than usual spring has delayed the opening of municipal parks and golf courses, and the hiring has also been delayed.
April was not solely a gloomy month for the state economy, however. Unemployment fell one-tenth of a percent to 5.3%, the labor force participation rate ticked up to 70.9, and the number of unemployed Minnesotans fell below 160,000 for the first time since June 2008.
A main reason that it took a full five years for unemployment to drop below pre-recession levels is that only two of Minnesota's five largest sectors have grown since then. Jobs in Health Care and Professional and Business Services have increased by 43,000 and 15,000, respectively.
On the other hand, three of the largest sectors in the state are still shrinking. There are 6,400 fewer government jobs in Minnesota than in 2008, or about 2% of the total, although employment in this sector has remained much more stable than other areas of the economy.
Manufacturing and Trade, Transportation, and Utilities have only barely begun to recover from their low points in early 2010. Both sectors are highly dependent on the health of consumer spending, since they include making, transporting, and selling products. Seeing these two large sectors struggling to increase employment again points to the mediocre nature of the recovery. As jobs and household wealth have stagnated, consumer spending has not grown fast enough to spur producers and distributors from adding many jobs.
The Minnesota labor market is improving, but slowly and not without set-backs. Five years later, the state has not recovered from the Great Recession.
Encouraging some people in poverty to access assistance programs like food support (formally the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) can be tough. This is especially true of senior citizens. While about 65 percent of eligible Minnesotans participate in SNAP, only 41 percent of eligible seniors do. The reasons for this disparity are plentiful: stigma, lack of awareness, the desire for independence, and the challenges of applying, to name a few.
One recent change will lower that last barrier. Minnesota recently introduced a streamlined application for seniors age 60+ that consists of only two pages. The standard SNAP application for most participants is eight pages long plus seven pages of instructions. (The standard application also screens for health care and cash assistance, which is convenient if you want to apply for multiple programs but cumbersome if you only need one.)
Once someone submits their SNAP application, they must go through an interview with a county benefits determiner. Minnesota offers a phone-interview option, meaning that homebound seniors can still easily apply. They can even designate another person (like a family member or care aide) to do their grocery shopping for them.
Minnesota’s eventual plan is to offer a shorter SNAP application for people of any age, which would be a terrific step towards ending hunger in Minnesota. Increasing SNAP investment is a smart move, especially considering that it’s paid for with federal dollars, not state. Studies show that every $5 in new SNAP benefits generates up to $9 in economic activity—and since benefits are spent at local grocers, local communities reap the rewards. Improving access to nutritious food also lowers health-care costs. Every time we make it easier for people to utilize the benefits for which they are eligible, we make a better Minnesota.
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Another Minnesota real estate bubble is forming; this time on the country side, with prime farm land prices rising to record highs.
Two Kansas City Federal Reserve officials use regression models to show why everyone, especially in the Midwest, should be downright leery about these price spikes and the debt loads they carry. The Fed’s Main Street Economist highlights that while farm debt-to-asset ratios do not yet appear to be in the danger zone (20 percent or higher), data for 2012 and the winter land sales of 2013 are still unknown.
Farm booms in the 1910s and 1970s were succeeded by farm bankruptcies and widespread farm financial crises in the 1920s and 1980s. And just like nonfarm households, farm families leverage existing wealth (assets) in times of low income to support consumption and make existing debt payments.
If you’ve been paying attention the last six years, you’ve seen this play out in housing market problems and home values that are now, at long last, showing signs of recovery. If your memory stretches long enough, you will recall the farm financial collapse of the 1980s that followed similar bubbles and bursts, from which a large percentage of rural Minnesota communities never did significantly recover.
While we don’t know for sure the condition of today’s farm operations heading into another growing season, we have been properly warned. The fed officials point out USDA projections that show 2014 U.S. net farm income likely to fall 20 to 25 percent below 2013 levels and stabilize in that range in the coming decade.
Further, they cite projections that net returns for raising corn – the biggest driver of land prices – will likely fall from averaging $580 per acre the past two years to fall below $350 per acre by next year. At the same time, the Fed farm experts found farm debt outstanding at commercial banks rose 5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012 and by 5.7 percent at Farm Credit System institutions. This compares with commercial bank and Farm Credit leverage increasing by less than 1 percent annually since 2008.
“History has shown that significant increases in farm leverage set the stage for deleveraging cycles and farm busts if land values fall,” they concluded.
“Whether this farm boom simple fades or busts depends on the wealth effect and how farmers finance agricultural investments.”
Ambitious legislation to expand Minnesota's Renewable Energy Standard has been scaled back for now. A compromise between the state's legislative chambers stripped a House plan that would have put Minnesota on a solid path to generate 40 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2030. Positive news for clean energy and jobs advocates remains, however. The compromise legislation includes a 1.5% solar standard by 2020 and wide expansions to how much solar non-utilities can generate that include a number of financial incentives.
Prior to the conference committee, which yielded this compromise, here's the original legislation each chamber passed. The spirit of these two bills had been the same: decrease our dependence on fossil fuels, mainly through increasing our use of solar, wind, hydroelectric, hydrogen, and biomass.
One of my favorite parts of both bills—which remains in the current legislation—is the ‘Made in Minnesota’ provision. There is a clear push to keep photovoltaic cell production in the state. This creates green jobs and keeps money here. Also still in both bills are a series of studies to garner more information about renewable energies and their potential for Minnesota.
However, these bills diverged in a few ways as well. A big distinction is the mandate on solar energy utilization. The House called for 4% of renewable energy in the state to come from solar, while the Senate's plan called for a 1% solar RES, each by the year 2025. The new legislation calls for a 1.5% solar standard by 2020, with a goal of 10% by 2030.
Perhaps the biggest difference was the House bill’s advancement of a new RES which would jump from 25% by 2025 (for public utilities minus Xcel) to 40% by 2030 (for investor-owned utilities minus eligible co-ops and municipalities). The Senate bill pointed to this as a distant goal.
While the House bill was much more in-depth and created a stronger incentive for renewable energy, the solar advances in the compromise bill and the promised studies keep Minnesota on a path toward a cleaner, greener, more sustainable environment.
South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugard stopped at the Mall of America this week trying to recruit Minnesotans to migrate westward to fill jobs in his state. This is a novel twist on the past few decades when “free rider states” have tried to lure businesses across state lines by offering subsidies at the expense of school children, local tax bases, living wages and quality of life factors.
In this case, South Dakota is trying to lure people. South Dakota Labor and Regulation Secretary Pam Roberts told the Associated Press the state has 10,000 unfilled positions open. That isn’t a lot, but South Dakota has a low unemployment rate and has lost population in some areas to outmigration in recent decades.
Compared with states such as Texas, which has higher unemployment (6.4%) and spends enormous funds (51 percent of state budget) on subsidies to lure businesses from California, Illinois and other states, our South Dakota neighbors are being downright neighborly.
My best recollection of a state raiding party coming to Minnesota was in the late 1960s when “Ten Tall Men” from Tennessee, a play on a movie picture title, came to Minnesota trying to lure some of our locally-grown businesses. Gov. Harold Levander, and more precisely his playful press secretary Bob Swanson, recruited former Minneapolis Lakers great and NBA Hall of Famer George Mike to assemble 10 taller Minnesotans to greet the visitors from Tennessee.
The arrivals were given Minnesota-made gifts, tourist information and business brochures and were told to look around, enjoy themselves, and were told they’d be welcome if they chose to “defect.”
Look around, Governor Daugaard and Secretary Roberts. If you like what you see and enjoy the amenities of urban development, you can always move here when you leave office. And please be neighborly; spend some money while you are here.
As broad coalition of faith, labor and environmental organizations push for increased renewable energy standards in Minnesota, we’re hearing a lot of the usual push back about rising costs for consumers. Recent experience shows, however, that price spikes for expanding renewable energy standards haven’t materialized. In fact, since implementing the 2007 Renewable Energy Standards, renewables have in some cases driven down energy prices, according to compliance reports filed with the Public Utilities Commission.
One Xcel Energy filing says during 2008-2009, prices were 0.7% lower with wind on the grid. Minnesota Power reported that “renewable expansion plans produce no negative cost impacts to customers.” Ottertail Power initially saw a slight decrease in price with renewable energy, followed by two years of minimal increases. Many cooperatives, which wouldn’t be mandated to follow any increase under proposed new standards, also saw little or no negative impact because of the 2007 RES.
Environmental leaders say since the 2007 Next Generation Energy Act took effect, Minnesota has done a magnificent job increasing its portion of renewable energy production, going from just 5 percent to 17 percent renewable. Many of the state’s utilities are meeting or exceeding the current standard; therefore, strengthening the current renewable standard from 25 percent renewable by 2025 to 40 percent by 2030 is the logical next step.
Those who support increased energy standards say evidence showing price spikes represent budgeting outliers, and attribute most price spikes to utilities’ poor business decisions.
Furthermore, expanding renewable energy options provides a hedge against fossil fuel price spikes. Unlike coal or natural gas power, you don’t have to pay any extra for the wind or sun.
Decreasing carbon output will also have long-term economic benefits. Each extreme weather event connected to climate change costs businesses, communities, and the federal government millions and billion to clean up and rebuild.
We’ve done plenty of debating around this issue, and now we also have real data to help evaluate renewable energy standards. Generally they’re working well. Energy costs haven’t skyrocketed as feared and we’re exceeding standards in many cases. Earlier standards have also encouraged investment in and development of new and more cost effective green energy technology. So why shouldn’t we raise the bar? The only question left is how high?
I think it's finally safe to say winter is over. But then again, that's what we thought last week. What the heck Minnesota?! Snow in May? REALLY?
I was not all that annoyed about the cold, I can deal with that. As my teachers at the School of Environmental Studies told me: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”
What I cannot get over is the amount of salt that gets dumped on our roads, driveways, and sidewalks. And as we begin a transition into a brief spring then summer, I think about how much our waterways suffer from our sodium chloride addiction. Minnesotans know the value of our lakes, so it is important to remember that our actions during winter months are permanently changing the way we use our water.
With our vast amount of freshwater lakes and rivers, you can only imagine what salt does to an ecosystem. And we are not talking just a little salt. We are talking around 350,000 TONS a year. And it only takes one teaspoon of salt to contaminate 5 gallons of water.
As there are no natural mechanisms in place to break down chloride, it all starts to settle to the bottom of the water. This changes water turnover and oxygen mixing. Salt also increases the chance of algal blooms (which destroy natural fish habitats) and it is flat out harmful to the fish themselves. It is even in the groundwater, effecting what comes out of the tap.
The problem at hand is not difficult to comprehend or fix. The Minnesota Department of Transportation, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency have all recognized the issue and have taken steps to alleviate it. But more can be done. Solutions include everything from shoveling more (less snow = less slip) to using more sand (sometimes traction is enough). Minnesota could also utilize more environmentally friendly de-icing products such as Calcium Magnesium Acetate. Although the initial cost may be higher, the amount saved in water quality maintenance, clean-up, and health benefits are well worth it.