Tag Archives: minnesota

In praise of the prairie


As part of the “Our Fair State” series going on at streets.mn this week, I’ve posted a short photo post praising the western Minnesota prairie.

When most people think summer in Minnesota, they think north: lakes, coniferous forests, large noisy black birds.  But Minnesota actually has four biomes, and I would consider the prairie grassland the most neglected when we engage in communal nostalgia for Minnesota summer.  Luckily, we have some great parks on the prairie where you can see a little of what Minnesota might have been like before settlement.  And it’s beautiful.

All the ways we subsidize growth

Over at streets.mn, I reflect on a recent event I attended, ““Kicking the Habit: Unsustainable Economic Growth” that featured streets.mn contributor Chuck Marohn delivering his Strong Towns message.  I focus on one issue that is featured prominently in the Strong Towns narrative: intergovernmental transfer payments which subsidize growth and potentially hide the true cost of development.

In Minnesota, we build roads really well. If you look at the metro area, we’ve created a system where despite wide differences in job and housing density, commute times are virtually the same whether you live in Dahlgren Township or Loring Park in downtown Minneapolis. We also have a semi-famous regional government that makes connection to the same wastewater system easy, no matter where you are in a 7-county region that includes both farms and skyscrapers. All these things (and more) are made possible by shared resources, often collected from one area or community type, and sent to another with a different character. Somehow we’ve determined that this is a good thing (for ease of access, equity, environmental protection, political will, etc) As I listened to Chuck I thought, “you’d really have to remake how local governments interact if you wanted to promote (or even test) the idea that our “most productive places” should be differentiated from our least productive.

I won’t attempt to figure out how this can be done. But I think it’s valuable to think about all these “transfer payments”. There are more than most people ever think about. So, here goes:

Read the rest.

duluth flood - mpr

National Climate Assessment: trouble ahead

duluth flood - mpr

A draft of the US National Climate Assessment was released about a week ago, and the outlook for changes headed to the Midwest and country as a whole is not good.  Minnpost has a good look at the Midwest section (emphasis mine):

Climate change will tend to amplify existing risks from climate to people, ecosystems, and infrastructure in the Midwest. Direct effects of increased heat stress, flooding,

drought, and late spring freezes on natural and managed ecosystems may be altered by changes in pests and disease prevalence, increased competition from non-native or opportunistic native species, ecosystem disturbances, land-use change, landscape fragmentation, atmospheric pollutants, and  economic shocks such as crop failures or reduced yields due to extreme weather events.

These added stresses, when taken collectively, are 

projected to alter the ecosystem and socioeconomic patterns and processes in ways that most people in the region would consider detrimental.

Much of the region’s fisheries, recreation, tourism, and commerce depend on the Great Lakes and expansive northern forests, which already face pollution and invasive species pressure – pressures exacerbated by climate change. Most of the region’s population lives in urban environments, with aging infrastructure, that are particularly vulnerable to climate-related flooding and life-threatening heat waves.

CC Midwest temp rise

Over at MPR, Paul Huttner also has a good overview, highlighting the coming “climate shock” of project 5-degree warming headed to Minnesota.


Bottom line?

This magnitude of warming will likely cause some dramatic… and potentiallyalarming changes in our Minnesota Landscape.

Our forests will shift north. Pine forests may dissapear, and transition to hardwood forests in significant sections of northern Minnesota.

Prairies will also overtake areas that are now forested…possibly even the parts of Twin Cities metro.

Increases in the frequncy of extreme rainfall events will create more events like the multiple “500 to 1,000 year” flood events seen in Duluth and southern Minnesota in the past 9 years.

The changes we’re already observing in Minnesota will continue…and the pace of change is likely to quicken in the next 30 years. Our children will live in a very different Minnesota than our parents did.

How are we doing to address this challenge?  Haven’t US greenhouse gas emissions gone down recently?  Yes, but unfortunately not enough, and we can’t just worry about US emissions.  From the report’s mitigation section (emphasis mine):

Even absent a comprehensive national greenhouse gas policy, both voluntary activities and a variety of policies and means at federal, state, and local levels are currently in place that lower emissions. While these efforts represent significant steps towards reducing greenhouse gases, and often result in additional co-benefits, they are not close to sufficient to reduce total U.S. emissions to a level consistent with the B1 scenario analyzed in this assessment. 

And remember, hitting that B1 scenario is critical if we want to avoid the most dangerous impacts and potentially runaway climate change.  For more on what the world might look like if we stay on the emissions path we’re on, take a look at the World Bank’s most recent report on 4-degree warming.

What is a carbon tax worth?

California has begun a historic cap and trade market in carbon, completing the first auction, with permits going for $10.09 per metric ton.  I’m not sure cap and trade and the offsets it allows are the right way to go. But when I read this, I wanted to understand what such a program might mean for an average Minnesota energy consumer (after all, California is a distant and foreign land).

Xcel Energy, the electricity provider for most of the Twin Cities metro, produced 0.5266 metric tons of CO2e per MWh in 2011.  At $10 per mt, that’s about $5.31 per MWh, or roughly half a cent per kWh.  The EIA says the average Minnesota residential consumption is 813 kWh per month.  This seems awfully high, but we’ll go with it.  At that rate, the average residential customer would pay an extra $4 per month on their electricity bill.

Natural gas is trickier to estimate an average for, although some 2005 data says perhaps 650 therms per year, per household, using metro assumptions about people per household.  That seems low.  We used over 1,000 therms the last two years, but our house is old.  At 0.005 mt of CO2e per therm, the tax would increase the price of natural gas 5 cents per therm.  If you use 1,000 therms per year, that’s about $4.50 more per month.

So if something like $10 per metric ton was imposed in Minnesota, residential customers might see a utility bill increase of $8 per month, or $96 per year.  The California Public Utilities Commission has proposed a means to eliminate that cost.  Residential customers would actually be paid a dividend from the revenue generated by the auctions, which they say would more than offset the cost of the carbon tax.  Commercial and industrial users are a whole other ball of wax I haven’t touched here, and higher energy prices probably means higher product prices.

All this is not to say that a carbon tax or cap and trade system is appropriate for Minnesota (or the US).  $10 per ton is likely too low, their could be serious equity issues with offsets and increasing energy prices, and other tricky stuff.  But at $10/ton, direct energy costs to residents probably wouldn’t break the bank.



The Transportationist tells me that MnDOT is embarking on a 20-year State Highway Investment planning process (oddly called MNSHIP) and they have one of the better online engagement/feedback collection websites I’ve seen.

The tool lets you choose priorities and then view scenarios or approaches and tells you how each impacts your priorities.  Want better Twin Cities mobility? Pavement and bridge condition decline.  Want better pavement?  Traveler safety might have to lag.  It’s dynamic and displays trade-offs clearly.

Of course, all the approaches and impacts are based on the assumption that we don’t really invest more than we are now on transportation in the future, an assumption we should probably discuss if we’re looking 20 years out.

Chart - MN VMT 2011

Updating peak travel

Chart - MN VMT 2011

Chuck Marohn has a new post at streets.mn lamenting the long-term inaccuracy of modeling and projections – in this case, traffic projections.  Without commenting on his critique (ok, maybe a little: I think projections can be useful in many circumstances, especially when paired with scenarios), I wanted to update my old peak travel post from 2011.

The peak of auto travel in Minnesota is still 2006, with per capita travel peaking one year later.  For 2011 total auto travel continues to decline, although the decline is slowing (-0.15% versus -0.37% for 2009 to 2010).  2011 population estimates for Minnesota aren’t out yet, but I imagine the flatline trend is the same for per capita miles.  I’m told the Metropolitan Council (and MnDOT?) project growth in VMT in the 7-county metro to increase 1.5% annually through 2020.

Have we reached peak travel?  I’m not sure, but it sure is interesting to think about the reversal of an assumption (ever-growing auto travel) that’s been held for a generation or more.