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Taking Action to Create a Modernized Electric Grid

By: Timothy Nolan June 5, 2023

Tim Nolan is a highly skilled Climate Reality Project - Central MN Chapter member with extensive sustainable development and climate change expertise. (See his RealityHub profile to learn more background.) In this article, Tim highlights the importance of modernizing and greatly expanding our nation’s power grids, utilizing Smart Grids and Microgrids.

Image from Smart Grids and The New Age of Energy (
Image from Smart Grids and The New Age of Energy (

Minnesota has established new goals for clean energy generation. This creates a new carbon-free standard requiring utilities serving the State to get their electricity from carbon-free sources, starting with 80 percent by 2030, 90 percent by 2035, and 100 percent by 2040. Currently, renewable energy -- like wind, solar, and hydropower -- is the largest share of our state's power supply at 29 percent.

This policy has been labeled “landmark” and touts Minnesota as a leader in clean energy. It is also being said we are “crushing it” in addressing climate change. The reality is, we have a long way to go to achieve this standard and our Greenhouse Gas Emissions reduction goals. Between 2005 and 2018, Minnesota saw a modest 8 percent reduction while nationally there was a 13 percent reduction. A January 2023 State report to the legislature indicated Minnesota’s GHG emissions declined 23 percent between 2005 and 2020. However, while GHG emissions in the transportation sector had fallen -18% since 2005 – compared to -1% in 2020 – most of that decrease is attributed to the reduction in aviation and vehicle usage during the pandemic. The progress Minnesota has seen so far has been concentrated in the electricity generation sector. Since 2005, all other sectors have seen only modest reductions or emission increases. Industrial, residential, and commercial sectors increased by 15 percent or more and are heading in the wrong direction.

Minnesota is not the leader many think it is and progress is often overstated. According to the Clean Energy States Alliance, 21 other states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have already established some kind of 100 percent clean-energy standards. In 2022, Minnesota was 19th in percent electricity generation by wind-water-solar sources. Bordering South and North Dakota, and Iowa are ahead of us. In addition, in 2021 the Clean Energy Business Network (based on federal Energy Information Administration data) ranked Minnesota number 24 by state with the lowest CO2 energy emissions rate, just ahead of Georgia and Louisiana, and just behind Arizona and Alabama.

The reality of decarbonizing – moving away from energy systems that produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions or capturing emissions from the atmosphere – to meet ambitious goals to reach 100 percent clean electricity and net-zero emissions, will require action on a transformative scale. Dramatic amounts of additional utility-scale and distributed (not centralized) zero-carbon generation will be needed to decarbonize the power system and maintain grid reliability. This will require a doubling or tripling of the size and scale of the nation’s transmission system.

In a 100 percent clean electricity future, large amounts of wind, solar, and storage will be necessary in varying densities in many locations, and transmission will be critical to ensuring energy can be delivered from where it is produced to where it is needed. It is important to accelerate the development of all types of clean electricity generation. But there is not enough transmission available to connect all the proposed new generations to the grid and deliver energy to customer centers. This will get more complicated as the demand for renewable technologies deployment accelerates.

A decade’s worth of energy system studies focused on the decarbonization of the U.S. electricity system and economy have found that significant transmission expansion is essential to realize effective low-carbon energy systems at the lowest cost. This involves a well-designed Smart Grid system that can deliver affordable, clean electricity any hour of the day or night, and includes microgrids integrated across the system. A microgrid is a system of energy sources, energy consumers, and energy storage. This system can operate independently from the traditional centralized power grid.

Microgrids can help bridge the gap between electricity supply and demand while making use of locally available energy resources. Microgrids replace conventional power practices and use localized electricity sources (supply) to power buildings, communities, and vehicle charging loads (demand) that normally connect to the traditional centralized power grid, but can disconnect and function autonomously. Microgrid infrastructure enables a transition to a decentralized power system that is more reliable, affordable, and sustainable.

Smart Grid and microgrid development face serious impediments in Minnesota. Many of these involve policy barriers and uncertainties. We already have a ten-plus year history of related studies, a few applications, utility, and commercial activities. In 2023 the University of St. Thomas Center for Microgrid Research will receive $7.9M in funding to continue its innovation efforts and bring key investments to our state. The microgrid platform remains a technical and economic work in progress offering substantial opportunities to develop microgrids that provide tangible and important benefits.

Success will take true leadership, innovation, and transformative actions. Deployment hinges in part on efforts to advance the policy landscape so that it accommodates and supports microgrids, allows their development, and serves to attract available capital. We need to collaborate across sectors, identify and develop opportunity sites, and apply the tools and resources to accelerate commercial readiness. The time has never been more urgent, and the opportunity has never been better. Successful deployment and capturing the benefits will breed more success.


Want to learn more?! Note that Tim Nolan has written a 15-page brief on Smart Grids and Microgrids. It can be found on our chapter website. Smart Grids and Microgrids | Central MN Chapter (

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