Minnesota Takes Two Steps Backward on Energy Policy

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The Minnesota Environmental Partnership is proud to feature the following post as part of a series of columns as part of a Student Voices Series issues. This is part of a continuing collaboration with Macalester College’s Geography Department and its students.

Contributed by Eliana Langer, Macalester student —

Minnesota legislators are undoing decades of progress on renewable energy, public health, and civic engagement. On February 9, 2017, the Minnesota State Legislature passed two bills that are aimed at gutting renewable energy in Minnesota and raising costs for consumers. Together, these bills cripple a movement towards renewable energy that is better for the environment and healthier for Minnesotans than the alternative. They also bypass important independent oversight on utilities in Minnesota, setting a dangerous precedent.

Two summers ago, I worked on a campaign with the Sierra Club’s North Star Chapter to shut down the largest coal-fired power plant in Minnesota, the Sherburne County Generating Station (Sherco). We gathered signatures, postcards, and input from Minnesotans, small businesses, and advocacy groups across the state. The consensus was clear: Minnesotans and the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) supported a switch to cleaner energy. Sherco’s two generators are to be closed in 2023 and 2026. Xcel was asked to explore renewable alternatives to fill the energy needs left by the shuttered coal plant.

The first bill, HF 113/SF 85, authorizes Xcel Energy to construct a natural gas power plant in Becker, MN to replace Sherco. At the PUC meeting in October 2016, when the decision was made to close Sherco, Xcel submitted a proposal to construct a natural gas-fired plant in its place. The PUC requested that Xcel explore renewable alternatives, but this bill green-lights Xcel to build a natural gas plant without PUC approval. There are economic and environmental costs. Renewables are becoming more cost-efficient, but natural gas prices are expected to rise; the bill is designed to allow the company to shift future costs onto consumers without PUC oversight. Natural gas releases releases large amounts of methane, which also contributes to global warming.

The other bill, HF 235, weakens an in-state solar initiative funded through the Renewable Development Fund (RDF). Known as the “Made in Minnesota” solar initiative, homeowners and small businesses who install solar panels made in Minnesota are given RDF-funded tax rebates. Xcel Energy contributes to this fund because of an agreement that allowed nuclear waste storage tanks to be installed on Prairie Island. HF 235 will allow Xcel to phase out payments to the RDF and will hobble the fund’s ability to support renewable energy. The fund has a $15 million per year annual budget through 2023, but it will peter out if HF 235 is passed and businesses drawn by the state’s promises to support solar energy will leave.

These two bills undo intentional and collaborative decisions made by the state’s citizens, activists, and the PUC, an organization whose goal is to “protect and promote the public’s interest in safe, adequate and reliable utility services at fair, reasonable rates”. Bypassing the PUC diminishes the role of independent oversight and citizen engagement. Furthermore, the RDF was created in close cooperation with the Prairie Island Indian Community, and weakening it threatens its goal of restorative justice.

By passing these two bills, state legislators have failed Minnesotans on many fronts.They are stopping the growth of solar energy sources in Minnesota, and limiting the jobs and economic boon that stem from that booming industry. Because they are bypassing the PUC, the legislators are choosing to grant more power to Xcel Energy, a near-monopoly in Minnesota, at the cost of rate-payers’ wallets and health. The natural gas plant is expected to provide only 150 jobs. By comparison, if Xcel used a wind power plant to offset Sherco’s energy production, it would create 1,150 jobs and cost rate-payers $1 million less over 20 years. HF 113 was signed into law in late February, wreaking havoc on the PUC’s ability to protect consumers today and in the future. By passing this law, the Legislature and Governor Dayton empowered Xcel, a near-monopoly, at the cost of consumers and devaluing a process of meaningful civic engagement before and during PUC meetings.

HF 235 has not yet been signed into law. Made in Minnesota supports a strong economy, provides jobs, and ensures clean air for all Minnesotans. It encourages environmental justice and is cost-efficient today and in the long-run.

Minnesotans fought for their voices to be heard, and succeeded, through the PUC hearing process two years ago. The values of social justice, a healthy environment for all, and citizen engagement are again at risk. The victory won in 2015 will be lost unless Minnesotans take action again.

Now is the time to call state legislators and Governor Dayton to voice disapproval at the passing of HF 113 and to ask Governor Dayton to veto HF 235. Information on who represents you and how you can reach them can be found online at https://www.leg.state.mn.us/leg/legdir or by calling (651) 296-8338. Governor Dayton’s office can be contacted by calling 651-201-3400.

Eliana Langer
Macalester Student

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