Energy and Telecommunications
Renewable Development Fund and biomass
Last year the Republican-led Legislature made major changes to the state’s Renewable Development Fund, rolling back financial incentives that support the local solar manufacturing industry, allowing the termination of power purchase agreements for biomass, and redirecting funds traditionally focused on renewable energy projects and research to support affected communities facing closure or conversion of three biomass facilities. In November, the Public Utilities Commission approved Xcel Energy’s plan that will result in closure of biomass plants in Benson, Virginia, and Hibbing.
Xcel Energy argues the Benson buy-out will lead to long-term cost-savings of $345 million, and the Iron Range buyouts, $87 million. The buy-out proposals have been met with large opposition from loggers and timber companies in northern Minnesota and from the state’s turkey industry. Wood industry representatives have said hundreds of loggers and other workers could lose their jobs from the Iron Range contract buyouts, and turkey industry representatives say the shutdown of the Benson plant would abruptly leave some bird farmers without an outlet for manure. Opponents of last year’s changes to the RDF felt these decisions were made rapidly, without adequate public discussion. These issues are likely to come up in 2018.
The Legislature suspended the residential PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) Program last year and directed the Department of Commerce to conduct a task force that would recommend consumer protections for the program. The task force failed to reach an agreement, and it appears there will be two separate bills coming forward. One will be sponsored by the coalition of legal aid, bankers, credit unions, realtors, and the Center for Energy and the Environment. The other will originate from Renovate America, the company that does PACE financing in California and is interested in starting up in Minnesota.
The issue of lien positon remains the main issue on which there is significant disagreement, and many of the task force members see the issue as unresolvable by the task force. The coalition draft subordinates the residential PACE lien to that of any mortgages on the property. Renovate America states that the PACE concept is not workable without the PACE lien retaining its superior position, which is maintained in their draft. The Department of Commerce issued the task force report on January 15.
Renewable Energy Standard
Last year a bipartisan bill backed by Governor Dayton was introduced to strengthen and expand Minnesota’s renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors (S.F. 1531). Key to the proposal is an increase to the state’s Renewable Energy Standard to 50% by 2030, up from 25% by 2025. Currently, more than 21% of electric power comes from such sources as wind and solar, and Minnesota now has 57,351 clean energy jobs. Advocates say clean energy is driving job growth and innovation in every part of the state – especially in Greater Minnesota. Many Republicans have been cool to the idea, and the proposal did not advance in 2017. Advocates are pushing for a hearing in 2018.
Republicans are likely to want to repeal the state’s 23-year moratorium on building new nuclear power plants, arguing that the state needs this source of reliable power. Opponents have argued that Minnesota’s utilities have not been asking for more baseload power, there is no long-term solution for storage of toxic nuclear waste, and Minnesota needs to move away from nuclear energy. Renewable energy is increasingly reliable and affordable.
Enbridge Oil Pipeline
The Enbridge Line 3 project, a proposed replacement and expansion of an existing oil pipeline along a route across northern Minnesota, will continue to be an issue. Sen. Osmek has expressed frustration with what calls the Dayton administration’s efforts to delay or prevent Enbridge’s construction of the pipeline. Last fall he said he proposed legislation to bypass the administration for approval of the project.
In late December, an administrative law judge’s decision set back the timeline for PUC regulators to rule on the fate of the controversial Line 3 project. The PUC had planned to make a decision on the pipeline in April 2018, and the judge’s ruling set the timeline back two months, to June 2018. This ruling followed the PUC’s December 7 decision that the Department of Commerce’s final environmental impact statement for the project was “inadequate.” The PUC allowed Commerce 60 days to amend three relatively narrow aspects of the EIS, including how a route alternative would need to be changed to avoid sensitive topography in southeast Minnesota. Enbridge line supporters have been highly critical of the delay resulting from the judge’s ruling, saying it is another in an endless string of delays on the project. Pipeline opponents have been strongly supportive, saying the judge should take the time to make a thorough and informed decision.
The Federal Communications Commission reversed its 2015 decision regarding net neutrality, which ensures a free and open internet for consumers, in December of 2017. Twenty-two states, including Minnesota, have sued over this decision, and others are planning on passing legislation at the state level to protect internet access for consumers.
Legislation will be introduced in 2018 to protect the principles of an open and free internet, including language to safeguard net neutrality in Minnesota. Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications, regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites.
Last session, legislators promoted a measure that required any internet or telecommunications company that seeks state permits, pole attachment agreements, easements, or state contracts to live up to high consumer privacy standards. Although the measure passed nearly unanimously, these protections were left out of the final Jobs and Energy Bill. DFL legislators will press the issue in 2018, and will add language that requires companies to live up to specific basic net neutrality principles.