Environmental justice and electricity generation in Minnesota

The electricity generation system in Minnesota is in the midst of a transformation, moving towards cleaner energy production and lower greenhouse gas emissions. State renewable energy policies and goals, public utilities’ actions to replace coal-fired power plants, and market forces are leading to less pollution from the energy sector.

Environmental justice embodies the principles that low-income communities and people of color should not be disproportionately exposed to pollution, and that those individuals should have the opportunity to be involved in decisions that affect them. Since electricity generation has historically been a major source of air pollution in the state, the MPCA seeks to evaluate the source of this pollution and impacts on communities over time.

The Next Generation Energy Act is a Minnesota law that sets goals for greenhouse gas emissions reductions across all sectors of our economy. In Minnesota, electricity generation is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions; this is also the sector in which the greatest reductions in emissions have occurred.  Utilities have also announced plans to continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the 2020s by shutting down coal plants and relying more on renewable energy.

A tool to explore power plant emissions and environmental justice

Actions that reduce GHG emissions at power plants also reduce other pollutants that directly harm human health. In the midst of this power-sector transition, the MPCA wants to understand how these changes might impact communities. Are the communities most vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution seeing the benefits of the overall reductions in emissions?  The MPCA developed a data and mapping tool to begin to explore how changes in the electricity generation system in Minnesota may impact communities around the state, especially communities of concern for environmental justice.

Black silhouette of power lines on green background

Power plants and environmental justice

Interactively view maps and charts that show how the locations of power plants and their estimated emissions may impact areas of potential environmental justice concern.

What are some observations can we draw from the data?

Lower emissions in areas of environmental justice concern. There are fewer power plant emissions in areas of concern for environmental justice now than there have been in the past. Electric generating units in areas of concern for environmental justice in the Twin Cities used to emit more pollutants than units in other places in the metro area. As of 2015, however, those emissions had fallen, and are currently similar to levels of emissions in areas of the metro that are not of concern for environmental justice.

Coal-fired facilities are closing. Coal-fired electric generating facilities in Minnesota have been in transition for the past 15 years, starting with Xcel Energy’s Metropolitan Emissions Reduction Project, which replaced coal-fired units at the High Bridge facility in St. Paul and the Riverside facility in Minneapolis with gas-fired combustion turbines. Since then, changes in state statutes, federal regulations, expanding wind generation, and the increasing availability of low-priced natural gas have resulted in closure of additional coal-fired plants and the construction of natural gas turbines, along with greatly expanded wind and solar generation. Small municipal utility coal-fired units are also shifting away from coal. The closure of coal plants combined with the installation of highly efficient air pollution controls at remaining coal plants owned by Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power has resulted in significant reductions in coal combustion-related pollution in Minnesota. Utilities in Minnesota project that additional coal-fired units will close by 2030, given the continued evolution of electricity generation.

Natural gas electricity generation has expanded. Today, because of its low cost, natural gas is usually the fuel of choice for fossil-fuel generated electricity. Natural gas units emit far less pollution than coal units because it is a cleaner fuel and the combustion system is much more efficient. Electric utilities in Minnesota will continue to add gas-fired generation over the next decade. The tool includes gas plants planned for installation by 2030 when the MPCA is aware of their planned locations.

What are the potential health implications of exposure to these pollutants?

This tool includes emissions estimates of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and fine particles from power plants.

Minnesota Health Department’s Environmental Public Health Tracking web tool contains information about parts of the environment that can influence health. This data source may be viewed in informational text, maps, tables, or charts. ZIP code level maps of the metro area are available for health outcomes such as asthma.

The MPCA MNRISKS tools are also online and may be used to prioritize sources within a variety of areas including: counties, census block groups, and cities.

Why these years?

  • 2005: Next Generation Energy Act was adopted in 2007 established greenhouse gas reduction goals and addressed Minnesota’s greenhouse gas emissions from energy production. The greenhouse gas reduction goals are framed as reductions from the baseline year of 2005.
  • 2015: This represents the “present,” and is the most recent year for a quality checked and approved air pollution emissions inventory.
  • 2030: This represents the “future.” Investor-owned utility resource plans now make projections for the need for generation out to 2030.

For information about emissions from the years between the past, present, and future selection dates for this tool, go to these emissions inventory tools:

How does the MPCA define an area of concern for environmental justice?

The MPCA evaluates census tracts to determine if people living there constitute either a higher percentage of people of color or a higher level of households living below a poverty threshold. Specifically, an “area of concern for environmental justice” is a census tract that meets one or both of these demographic criteria:

  • The number people of color is greater than 50%; or
  • More than 40% of the households have a household income of less than 185% of the federal poverty level.
  • Additionally, the MPCA considers communities within tribal boundaries as areas of concern.

In 2015, 29.5% of Minnesotans statewide are living in an area defined as an area of concern. In the 7-county Twin Cities metropolitan area, 27.8% of people live in an area defined as an area of concern.