Improving the Sustainability of Communities, Farms, and Farm Products

By Joel Tallaksen, Renewable Energy Scientist

August 2019

Over the last two decades, electric utility companies have significantly changed the ways they are producing and purchasing the electricity they sell to customers. The traditional coal plant, which produced around 65% of the electricity generated in Minnesota’s in 2004, is currently only supplying about 40% of the energy generated in the state.  In its place, a mix of natural gas and wind generation is leading to a more efficient and more environmentally friendly electric grid.  This change is being mirrored nationally as the costs for wind and the efficiencies of natural gas make these technologies more competitive and flexible in meeting the regions need for energy.

In particular, wind energy has brought jobs and revenue to Minnesota’s rural area. This is in contrast to coal and natural gas that must be purchased from other areas of the country. Solar energy is also beginning to account for a larger portion of production.  While the EPA data referenced here showed a slight solar generation increase in the 2016 data, the recent expansion of community solar in Minnesota should be reflected when the 2018 or 2019 data set is released.

The decrease in the use of coal for power production has resulted in a 32% reduction in the release of greenhouse gas emission as illustrated in the chart below.  Although natural gas does release some greenhouse gases when it is used for electricity production, it is significantly less than coal. Therefore, communities and households reliant on this power are more sustainable.

MN Electricity Production 2004    MN Electricity Production 2016

While the average household may or may not think a lot about their environmental footprint, Minnesota’s farms are beginning to think more about their footprint. Some of this is out of the practical need to reduce inputs into their farms and production facilities, but there is also the realization that being good stewards of the environment is good for business. A number of commodity groups have launched initiatives to help farmers understand how their farm operations and management decisions impact the environment.

Having access to more sustainable inputs allows farmers produce more sustainable products. Looking at swine production here at the West Central Research and Outreach Center, our average on-farm use of electricity per hog produced is around 36 kWh. The reduction in the utilities' emissions from electricity generation between 2000 and 2016 has meant that the emissions per pound of pork produced has been reduced by about 3.5%.  This might not seem all that substantial; however, it required no effort or change on our part. It also doesn’t include emissions reductions for all the electricity used in activities occurring outside our hog operation, such as production and processing of feed ingredients.

This data demonstrates how important inputs, such as electricity, are to our communities and farms in terms of producing sustainable products.  By encouraging utilities and others to provide more sustainable inputs, we keep Minnesota’s farm products competitive in a market where consumers are beginning to consider the environmental impacts of the food they buy.

Emissions from electricity production in MN

Emissions from electricity production in Minnesota and the US. Based on electricity production 2000 to 2016 data from electricity production facilities reported operations compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.