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Gregg Mast: Unprecedented investments poised to make Minnesota an energy innovation hotspot

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By Gregg Mast, Minnesota Reformer

In my two decades of working in the clean energy industry and engaging with the Minnesota Legislature, I have never before seen progress on energy and climate like I did this session.

The package of bills passed this year is nothing short of transformative for Minnesota’s energy industry. Starting with the passage of the 100% carbon-free energy by 2040 law, there was a clear commitment to advancing Minnesota’s goals to be a national leader in the race toward a cleaner energy future.

The Legislature then kept up the momentum, passing nearly $200 million in matching funds for the state to leverage federal money from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act. They also passed significant investments to help consumers and businesses adopt energy efficiency and cleaner energy solutions and appropriated $15 million for a high-voltage transmission line in Minnesota Power service territory.

To reach the state’s 100% carbon-free energy requirement on time, we need to keep up the momentum by investing in tech innovation, supporting our entrepreneurs and clean energy businesses and working together to solve the transmission and permitting challenges that threaten the state’s ability to achieve its goals.

Entrepreneurs and startups require support to learn, grow and scale up. Many Minnesotans have heard of Minnesota’s Medical Alley, which is widely recognized as one of the most dynamic and successful medical technology clusters in the world. Medical Alley works closely with its members to foster collaboration and innovation, and to promote the region as a global leader in medical technology and health care innovation. This same kind of intentional collaboration and connective tissue is now happening for Minnesota’s energy innovators through Minnesota Energy Alley, a $3 million appropriation passed in the environment budget bill.

The Minnesota Energy Alley initiative will provide this critically important avenue for the clean energy industry while also bringing jobs and investment to the state. In addition to building targeted programs to support energy entrepreneurs to learn and grow, Minnesota Energy Alley will provide seed funding to innovators and startups to help them commercialize their products faster. The ultimate goal: Get more energy technologies into the marketplace, which will boost job creation and attract additional investment while helping decarbonize our economy, and fast.

Similar ventures to expand startup and innovation programming have produced impressive results. ​​For example, Vertue Lab in Oregon was initiated with $6 million in state funding. After a decade of programming, over 450 jobs have been created and they have secured $230 million in follow-on funding. Which means $38 of private investment generated for every dollar of the initial state investment. If Minnesota follows suit, we can expect over $114 million in private investment to be injected into the state from the Minnesota Energy Alley investment.

This type of work was initiated in the state through Clean Energy Economy Minnesota and Grid Catalyst with incredible technologies already under development here. With Minnesota Energy Alley, this work will be supercharged to support new energy solutions and ventures helping to gain needed traction in the market while retaining and attracting even more talent and businesses here.

Vessyll, which is one of the startups involved in Grid Catalyst’s accelerator program, has attracted interest from customers due to their innovative approach to energy storage. The company noticed a gap in the market for mid-sized battery storage solutions and is capitalizing on that with their battery energy storage system, the Vessyll, which holds up to 46.5 kilowatt-hours of power. This is three times more storage than Tesla’s Powerwall and is intended for use in commercial and industrial spaces, as well as some larger residential applications.

While innovators and entrepreneurs work on solutions to get us to 100% carbon-free energy, we need to be intensely focused on improving the infrastructure needed to deliver carbon-free energy from where it is generated to where it is consumed — but the current regulatory process is slowing us down. Permitting reform is a vital step in the transition to a carbon-free economy.

Due to government regulation, permitting transmission infrastructure projects takes far too long and costs too much. This is especially important at a time when the Midwest (and the nation) are eager to lower energy costs and enhance energy security, while also achieving greenhouse gas reduction goals established — and demanded — by corporate and industrial customers, utilities, and energy consumers.

The nation’s transmission infrastructure is old and must be modernized. Most of the country’s transmission lines were built in the 1950s and 1960s and were expected to last 50 years. Many of these lines are far past their expiration date. Despite the obvious need for investment, permitting for critical transmission infrastructure remains burdensome and lengthy. To reliably handle our growing electrified economy that yearns for energy security, to harden our infrastructure to handle the effects of climate change and charge electric vehicles, we must invest in our transmission system now. We can’t afford to wait years for permits before we can build.

In order to achieve the goals set out in the Minnesota Climate Action Framework and the 2040 law, we need to dramatically increase the amount of carbon-free energy we are building and connecting to the grid. Currently in Minnesota, 55% of our power is carbon-free, with renewables contributing 31%. This past legislative session created the roadmap for the state to achieve its decarbonization goals. The next step is speeding up the permitting process, investing in infrastructure and lifting up our innovators and entrepreneurs to allow this work to get done faster — while also supercharging our economy and creating well-paying jobs now and long into the future.

Note: Gregg Mast serves as the executive director for Clean Energy Economy Minnesota, an industry-led, non-profit representing the business case for clean energy in Minnesota. Gregg has over 15 years of experience working with clean energy technology, policy and finance.

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