MADISON — Minnesota and Wisconsin are similar in size and geography. They have roughly the same population and climate. Yet over the past decade, Minnesota has become a leader in clean energy, while Wisconsin remains largely dependent on fossil fuels.
The diverging approach is due in part to a slate of clean energy policies that helped spur wind and solar development in Minnesota, while “modest and outdated” policies have done little to encourage similar growth across the border, according to a recent report by an environmental law and business advocacy group.
In 2010, Wisconsin had about 7.5 megawatts of solar panels, more than three times as much as Minnesota, according to data from the Solar Energy Industries Association. Ten years later, Minnesota has more than 16 times as much solar and has maintained a roughly five-fold edge in terms of wind energy.
In 2019, Minnesota generated nearly 22% of its total electricity from wind and solar, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In Wisconsin, wind and solar account for less than 3%.
As a result, Minnesota is reducing pollution and saving money while Wisconsin continues to import fossil fuels and miss out on clean energy job creation, said Andy Olsen, a senior policy analyst and co-author of the report by the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center.
“Wisconsin’s heavy carbon footprint is a liability for our economic future,” Olsen said. “A clean energy economy will bolster prospects.”
While Wisconsin regulators approved a handful of solar farms this year that will dramatically increase the state’s renewable energy footprint, Olsen said the state could benefit from some of the policies that have spurred clean energy across the border.
“It’s ironic to be watching Wisconsin fall further and further behind over the years,” said Olsen, who moved to Wisconsin in 1991 in part because of the proliferation of small wind turbines that were popping up on farms.
Key policy differences
Minnesota has one natural advantage when it comes to wind: Developers have long been attracted to Buffalo Ridge, a wind-swept expanse with few residents.
In Wisconsin, where the wind doesn’t blow quite as hard, settlement patterns make it more challenging to put up big turbines, said Michael Vickerman, policy director for Renew Wisconsin.
But that’s not the whole story.
In 2011, Wisconsin lawmakers suspended new rules designed to streamline the siting and permitting for wind turbines and later introduced bills that would have created onerous setback requirements. While the bills failed and the rules ultimately took effect, Vickerman said the political climate spooked wind developers, who went elsewhere.
Olsen points to other policy differences such as renewable energy standards, which require utilities to produce a certain amount of electricity from clean energy sources such as wind and solar.
Though it was one of the first states to establish a renewable energy standard in 1999, Wisconsin’s 10 percent goal is now one of the weakest in the Midwest.
Minnesota has already achieved far more ambitious goals, and Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility, has reduced its carbon emissions by 38 percent and is on track to be more than 60 percent carbon-free later this decade.
Then, in 2013, Minnesota lawmakers passed additional mandates that required public utilities to generate at least 1.5% of their electricity with solar by 2020.
Minnesota’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, has also committed to producing carbon-free electricity by 2050 and plans to shutter its remaining coal-fired plants by 2030. The WEC Energy Group, which serves more than half of Wisconsin’s electric customers, pledged to cut carbon emissions by just 80% and has indicated plans to burn coal through mid century.
“It’s pretty clear that Xcel has been responsive to state policy. It’s also to the benefit of Minnesota that they’ve done so,” Olsen said. “It would be great to have such a player here in Wisconsin.”
Note: This story has been updated. A previous version misstated the difference between rates in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
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