Q&A: Michael Noble departs Fresh Energy with optimism for future of climate policy
January 23, 2023 - Mohamed Ibrahim
Michael Noble, a leader in climate advocacy for more than 30 years, is stepping down as executive director of Fresh Energy, an organization that works to shape policy toward a cleaner energy grid.
Noble and Fresh Energy played a significant role in the passing of the 2007 Next Generation Energy Act, signed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, landmark climate legislation that required Minnesota to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent between 2005 and 2050.
With Democrats now in control of both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office for the first time in nearly a decade, Minnesota climate advocates are optimistic. They hope lawmakers will move on more legislation – like a bill passed by the House Climate and Energy Finance and Policy Committee Wednesday that would require utilities statewide to provide 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040 – amid the worsening climate crisis.
Noble spoke with MinnPost via Zoom for this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
How have you seen politics around climate change evolve over the years?
The science of the climate crisis has been pretty much crystal clear for 40 or 50 years, but federal politicians in both political parties dilly-dallied for 40 years and made very little progress in Congress. So it’s really been up to the states to show leadership and momentum and incremental improvements on public policy. That has happened in many states, and Minnesota has been one of them, but the big problem for the whole climate crisis policy movement has been that in the past 10 years, the issue has become extremely partisan. One of the two major political parties does not even acknowledge that it’s an issue that needs solutions, and that was a deliberate and strategic investment by the oil industry — special mention has to go to Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries. Now we’re in a situation where only one party is working on it, which is extremely difficult for durable, sustained progress.
Both in Congress last summer, and the Minnesota Legislature this spring, sweeping climate solutions are being proposed and advanced but with incredibly narrow majorities because only the Democrats are committed to action. This is such a big, tragic shift in history and it’s taken a long time to get to this partisan place because back in 2005 to 2010, there were great national and local climate leaders from the Republican Party. U.S. Sen. John McCain was arguably the foremost climate leader in elected office, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed five or six sweeping climate policies into law when he was governor in 2007.
What would you say were the biggest steps Minnesota has taken toward clean energy?
That’s a hard question because it’s a 30-year arc. If I had to pick the three biggest years, they were 1994, 2007, and 2013. 1994 was the year we jump-started renewable energy — we were one of the first states. In fact, Minnesota built the first industrial wind farm anywhere between California and Denmark The 1994 legislation required Xcel (Energy) to invest approximately a billion dollars in renewable energy, and one of the very first investments with modern industrial wind farms out on the Minnesota Buffalo Ridge.
No. 2 is 2007, and I always refer to 2007 as the year we ran the table because of all our coalition partners and all of our allies working together, we passed four big things into law. We passed a law that said everybody who sells electricity and Minnesota had to have a quarter of their electricity from wind or solar power by 2025, and instead they got there by I think 2016 or 2017. Then, we modernized all our laws for utilities investing in energy efficiency, we boosted them up, and we made them more rigorous. And then we prohibited the construction of new coal-fired power plants unless the utility would reduce its emissions an equal amount elsewhere in the system – basically, a ban on coal-fired power construction. And then we also set into law goals for the climate crisis. They’re not as ambitious as science requires now but they were as ambitious as science was understanding.
The third big year was 2013, when we passed five big bills that made solar energy more affordable, more available, more open to everybody participating and guaranteed them a little slice of the market. However, 2023 is the pinnacle of the clean energy movement because of the leadership of Gov. Tim Walz, the new majority in the Senate, and the speaker, Melissa Hortman.
What do you think are some of the most immediate actions the Legislature should take in clean energy?
Eighty percent of the solution to the climate crisis is just doing two things: getting all the carbon out of our electricity supply, and then electrifying everything we can. Everything that runs burning fossil fuels, we should instead try to run it on clean electricity. It would be better. For example, our cars, our trucks, our trains, our water heating in our homes, space heating in our homes, all of that can be done with clean electricity. Electrification is decarbonisation. This is why carbon-free by 2040 is such a high priority.
The No. 2 priority is leveraging what the federal government did last summer: the Inflation Reduction Act was not only groundbreaking, it was truly transformational. It basically puts wind, solar batteries, electric cars, heat pumps, and about a dozen other climate solutions on sale at 30% off. Imagine having a market now for all of these technologies that have been evolving over the last 30 years, and now it has the full faith and credit and weight of the U.S.Treasury behind it for the full 10 years, making everything 30% cheaper. Now it’s gonna take off. So Minnesota passing the clean electricity standard right now has this enormous wind in our sails behind us because of the federal government paying almost a third of the cost. Holy cow, that’s a good deal.
How is our state government going to get as much of that federal money as we possibly can? Because if we’re slow at the switch, then the money goes to Wisconsin or Arkansas, why would we want that? We need to get as much as we possibly can get to help our economy and help our getting our state prepared for the future and to compete.
Given that relatively recent momentum on climate policy, how hopeful, or bleak, do you think the situation is should things continue as they are?
I went from bleak to hopeful in 2022, and I always want to credit the youth climate movement worldwide. I always highlight the activists who were mad and demanding and understood that it wasn’t just a public policy topic, but it was their lives. I just admire so much how, starting in 2018, the little girl in Sweden who wouldn’t go to school on Fridays, Greta Thunberg. There was already a youth climate movement worldwide — she didn’t start the movement — but she lit a fire under it and made it a global climate movement led by Indigenous people, and Black and Brown people, and high school students and college students and people just immediately out of college. The movement had been led by old people like me. The national big green environmental groups are all led by white men in their 60s and 70s, and then the movement just said “We’ve had enough of this stalling and delay and your policy strategies that are going nowhere, we have a new strategy.”
The old strategy is out — taxing carbon and controlling carbon and regulating carbon. That’s yesterday’s strategy that the big green environmental groups had. The youth climate movement had the strategy to focus on justice, to focus on bringing new voices to the table, to focus on making sure that this economic revolution is strong enough to lift up people who got left behind. The next focus is standards. Let’s make rules of the game. It’s not that we’re anti-capitalist, it’s just that capitalism has to have rules, and one rule is there can’t be carbon in the economy. The third leg of the stool is investment. So what all those strategies did for 40 years was to try to make fossil fuels more expensive and the youth climate movement said “Stop it. Let’s make clean energy cheaper.”
The justice voice brought more people into the movement. The standards send a signal to industry that you can prosper and you can do well and your stockholders can be happy, but there’s rules to the game, and the rule is you’ve got to get the carbon out. There’s no CO2 allowed, that’s going to be a standard just like we have seatbelts standards. You cannot buy a car in America that doesn’t have seatbelts because we have federal standards. Well, this new standard is going to be that you can’t sell electricity in America unless you take the carbon out. Then investment: Let’s make the solutions cleaner. Who is going to politically be opposed to incentives, like if I put solar panels on my house, I spent $9,000 but the federal government sent me a check for 30%. They helped. So that’s going to be extremely popular.
There’s going to be more progress on climate in the next four years than there has been in the last 40 years, and it’s going to be a combination of policy, technology getting cheaper, and more and clever ways for investment to flow into the sector. The emphasis on justice is going to spread the wealth. More businesses will be started by people who don’t necessarily look like me. More workers will be coming into the field with high skilled, high wage jobs that can support a family. The inclusion and justice part is every bit as important as the standards part. I’m very enthusiastic.
We’ve talked about what state and federal officials should do, but what role do you think the public should play in helping remedy the climate crisis?
People always ask us “What about changing my light bulbs and buying an electric car?” Of course, everybody should do that if they can afford to do that. If they’re able, they should focus on how they reduce their own contribution to the problem.
But I always point out that if you’re a soccer mom and you have to get seven kids to the soccer field in Blaine, you cannot invent a minivan that runs on wind power. You cannot build that, you cannot design it, you cannot invent it. We need private industry to build a minivan that runs on wind power and we need the government to say “Damn it, there ought to be minivans that run on wind power.” So why do we put it on the mom? That her carbon footprint is the problem? You can Google the phrase “carbon footprint” and you’ll find out that that whole terminology was invented by the oil industry so nobody looks at them.
It’s not that people can’t do something. People can. I just don’t want people to feel like it’s their fault. It’s not their fault. You need a minivan to get seven kids to soccer.
Do you have any plans for after Fresh Energy?
I do tell everybody I’m not retiring, I’m rewiring, so I promise I’ll stay in the climate field but I need to do something high-leverage.
That’s the challenge I’m asking of myself now as I rewire. Spending 30 years trying to rewire Minnesota, now I’m rewiring my own life and I have the next four to five months to figure out what actually am I going to do when I grow up.