The Minnesota Senate Must Do Better on Clean Energy Legislation: Here’s How

March 3, 2020 | 4:27 pm
Bao Chau/Unsplash
James Gignac
Midwest Senior Policy Manager

Right now, the Minnesota legislature has a chance to do something big on clean energy—but will the Senate step up to make it happen?

Last May, the Minnesota House of Representatives passed an omnibus jobs and energy bill that would increase deployment of solar and wind power, as well as energy storage, in a smart and cost-effective manner. The House also recently introduced a budget proposal on energy and climate that features investments in solar projects, energy efficiency, and clean transportation.

The Minnesota Senate, however, is a different story. It is considering a much weaker bill that fails to advance the state’s climate and clean energy leadership and, in some ways, would represent a step back. The biggest omission is that the Senate bill lacks science-based targets to put the state on a path to 100 percent clean energy. Instead, it would create more opportunities for utilities to rely on fossil fuel generation while weakening Minnesota’s preference for renewable energy by allowing less-desirable resources to qualify for the preference.

To be sure, the Senate bill does include some positive elements, including a requirement for utilities to develop or revise demand side management programs; conduct transition planning for host communities and the workers of retiring power plants; and completion of a coordinated electric transmission study. These are good things, but much more is needed. Below are some key areas in which the Senate bill needs to be improved to better align with the House’s progressive leadership on clean energy and climate.

1. Science-based targets

Numerous recent climate science reports, including last summer’s Killer Heat in the United States report by UCS, show that we need to be taking rapid action to reduce emissions. Yet, the proposed Senate bill does not have any targets in place for increasing renewable energy use in the near-term or achieving 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050. Requiring utilities to analyze a target of 50 to 75 percent energy from new carbon-free resources is too low, especially when current generation and out-of-state generation would be exempted, when technologies that are not actually carbon-free can be included, and when Minnesota’s current existing generation is still only about 25 percent renewable. For policy to effectively reduce carbon emissions and integrate larger amounts of renewables onto the grid, it must apply to total energy needs and be accompanied by targets, timelines, and enforcement mechanisms.

2. Remove geographic restrictions

The Senate bill would allow Minnesota utilities to continue relying on coal and gas for their electricity, first by exempting currently proposed new natural gas plants and second by only applying to power generated within Minnesota. This would provide a loophole for coal and gas plants located in other states like North Dakota and Wisconsin that supply power to Minnesota consumers under long-term contracts with rural electric cooperatives and other Minnesota utilities. Indeed, UCS recently released an issue brief examining how Minnesota co-ops remain tied to memberships with larger generation and transmission co-ops that own out-of-state coal plants, creating barriers to climate action and increasing costs. Instead of continuing to pollute for decades at higher costs, cooperatives that own coal plants should look to replace them with new wind or solar projects that could benefit rural communities, including in Minnesota.

3. More appropriate definitions of eligible technologies

First, the Senate bill should not include municipal solid waste incineration as a qualifying renewable energy source. Waste incineration produces dangerous air pollutants that contribute to respiratory and other health problems for communities near the plants and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. These facilities are often located near lower-income communities and/or communities of color, placing an unjust pollution burden on those communities. Second, carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects should be required to meet technically and economically feasible carbon capture levels of 90 percent or more to be eligible. Third, while UCS is a strong advocate for energy storage as a cost-effective solution to integrate high levels of wind and solar, it is not an energy source, but rather shifts energy from one time period to another. UCS released a policy brief a few months ago that shows that complementary, equitable energy storage policies are needed to deploy energy storage and reduce emissions. Fourth, like storage, hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy source. Only energy storage that reduces reliance on and emissions from fossil fuels by storing renewable energy, and only hydrogen produced from a renewable or carbon-free energy sources, should be considered carbon-free.

4. Encourage transition from coal and gas to renewables

The Senate bill currently gives utilities too much leeway in maintaining existing fossil generation and building new natural gas plants. The proposed changes to the public interest determination would weaken the Minnesota Public Utility Commission’s authority to prioritize renewable energy and give utilities loopholes to avoid investing in renewable and carbon-free generation in favor of fossil generation. In addition, entitling utilities that retire fossil generation to own the replacement generation—as the Senate bill would do—might not be the lowest cost option for consumers or result in equitable outcomes for environmental justice and under-served communities. This is especially true when the bar set for greenhouse gas reductions is below what is technically and economically possible, below what utilities have already committed to, and much lower than what science tells us we must achieve. In order to achieve an equitable clean energy future that prioritizes community benefits, we need robust stakeholder engagement for all proposed electric generation that takes environmental justice concerns seriously and encourages competition for new generation, combined with significant emission reduction goals.

Minnesotans deserve strong climate and clean energy legislation

Overall, the Senate bill limits Minnesota’s ability to continue its leadership role in addressing climate change, building a clean energy economy that equitably benefits all communities, and keeping costs affordable for customers. It has been more than a decade since Minnesota passed major climate and clean energy legislation. Since the Next Generation Energy Act was passed in 2007, several other states have committed to increasing renewables to more than 50 percent by 2030 and achieving 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050 or sooner. Many other states are actively considering these policies, and Minnesota should be among them.

Last year, Governor Walz and Lt. Governor Flanagan proposed the “One Minnesota Path to Clean Energy” that includes a commitment to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050, investments in energy efficiency, and setting a true “Clean Energy First” policy that directs utilities and regulators to prioritize clean energy over fossil fuels and support local hiring for clean energy jobs. Rather than introducing legislation that weakens the definition of renewable energy and allows utilities to prioritize fossil fuels for new energy needs or for plants located out of state, the Senate should focus on addressing the real obstacles to renewable energy expansion.

Minnesotans deserve energy policies that truly prioritize renewable energy and require utilities to show they cannot meet electricity needs reliably and affordably with clean energy before allowing new fossil fuel generation. Given the urgent need to make significant progress in curbing carbon emissions this decade, we cannot afford to continue passing legislation that discusses clean energy but does not advance it.

Thank you to UCS colleagues Meghan Hassett and Steve Clemmer for contributing to the content of this blog post.

About the author

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James Gignac is Midwest Senior Policy Manager for the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Prior to joining UCS, Mr. Gignac served as environmental and energy counsel and as assistant attorney general to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, where he worked on a variety of regulatory, legislative, and litigation matters involving clean energy, climate change, and environmental protection.