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The Prairie Island tribe wants to get to net-zero emissions. Its biggest roadblock may be House DFLers

Prairie Island sits next to one of Minnesota’s two nuclear plants, yet the tribe has never benefited from money paid to the state by Xcel for storing radioactive waste there.

Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant
The Mdewakanton reservation is next door to an Xcel nuclear plant and a cache of its radioactive waste.

The Prairie Island Indian Community wants to drastically change their energy use in order to reach net-zero carbon emissions in their power grid. And they want Xcel Energy to pay for it.

That’s because the Mdewakanton reservation is next door to an Xcel nuclear plant and a cache of its radioactive waste. As a kind of payment for storing that spent fuel in dry casks at Prairie Island, Minnesota requires Xcel to set aside money in a state fund to develop renewable energy that can decrease the need for nuclear power. Yet so far, the money has never been used by the plant’s closest neighbors.

“No other human beings are located that close to a nuclear power plant in this entire country,” Jessie Seim, the tribe’s general counsel, told a panel of House lawmakers last week. She later added: “We believe that this project not only moves toward a sustainable and clean energy future, but it also is a recognition of the historical injustices borne by the Prairie Island Indian Community.”

Politicians of all stripes have embraced the idea. But Seim was at the House hearing to reprimand an unlikely holdout: House DFLers.

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Leaders in the House, which is led by a DFL majority, have promised a far smaller amount of Xcel cash for the net-zero project than their counterparts in the governor’s office and the GOP-controlled Senate. While House Democrats are certainly supporters of clean energy and frequent tribal allies, their leaders instead chose to book more money from Xcel’s fund for other renewable projects around the state. Their offer, Seim bluntly countered, was “not adequate.”

History of the fund

The Legislature set up the renewables program in 1994 as a condition for allowing Xcel to store the nuclear waste at the Prairie Island plant. The safety of storing waste there has been debated over the years. At the time, lawmakers required $500,000 per year for each dry cask of spent nuclear fuel at Prairie Island— about $9 million.

Jessie Seim
Jessie Seim
The yearly amount has since ramped up, in part to extend the length of time for waste storage at Prairie Island and for nuclear waste kept at Xcel’s Monticello plant. In 2017, Xcel paid $25.6 million into the renewables account. A 2018 report by Xcel says $327 million had been set aside since the program began.

That money has bankrolled dozens of projects, but tribal leaders at Prairie Island say they have never asked for cash from it, and never received any either.

In 2018, the community set out to change that. Their net-zero idea means the tribe would generate enough renewable energy and conserve enough energy to cover or offset the amount of power it needs.

Shelley Buck, president of the community’s Tribal Council, said the hefty investment in clean energy is warranted because of the unique strain Xcel’s plant puts on their community. For example, Buck said, there’s only one reliable road away from Prairie Island. Sometimes that road is blocked by trains. In a worst-case scenario disaster at the plant, “we could be stuck there,” she said. About 300 tribal members live in Prairie Island, which represents about 30 percent of total membership.

“We’re literally on an island,” Buck said. “Us and the nuclear power plant.”

Map: Prairie Island

The argument was enough to win over Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, who led a charge last year to give Prairie Island $40 million over five years out of the Xcel fund. The measure, however, eventually was part of a broader omnibus bill vetoed by Dayton for reasons unrelated to Prairie Island.

On Monday, Garofalo said he believes the nuclear facility and its waste is safe, but that it “just makes sense that some of this money should be directed to this community for renewable energy projects.”

This year, Gov. Tim Walz’s budget plan has $46.2 million from the Xcel account over three years for Prairie Island’s net-zero project — the tribe’s full request.

The debate in 2019

Buck said the biggest component of the net-zero effort is a project to install solar panels over car ports at the tribe-owned Treasure Island Resort and Casino. Walz budget documents say that project would cost $25 million and take up to three years. The Xcel money would also go to energy conservation projects, geothermal power and more.

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“We wanted to not only reduce our dependency on the energy that’s generated from plants such as Prairie Island plant,” Buck said, “we also wanted to be good stewards of the land. Which is our whole being, our whole premise of being Native American.”

Walz and Republicans have agreed on little so far this year, but GOP budget plans released last week had $46.2 million over five years for Prairie Island. The majority of money in both plans would come in the next two-year budget that lawmakers are currently debating.

By comparison, the House DFL budget proposal has just $5 million in the next two years for Prairie Island, and another $5 million in the following two years.

So why the difference? Documents produced by Democratic leaders say they would spend $32 million, for a “Solar on Schools” program out of the Xcel fund in the next four years, which is more than Walz and Republicans booked for the program. The DFLers would also invest in rebates for those who buy electric cars, among the wide range of green-energy friendly programs in the House budget plan.

State Rep. Jamie Long
State Rep. Jamie Long
The solar schools project is a centerpiece of House DFL efforts to fight climate change this year. Along with Walz, they also hope to move the state’s energy grid to carbon-free power sources by 2050.

Rep. Jamie Long, a Minneapolis DFLer and vice chair of the House Energy and Climate Finance and Policy committee, was enthusiastic about the Prairie Island net-zero proposal. He called it an “exciting” way to help the community “most impacted by spent fuel storage.” Yet Long also said the Legislature must “balance priorities.”

“The fund itself is not specific to one community,” he said of the Xcel money. “It’s a statewide issue and it was a deal with the state of Minnesota.”

For her part, Buck said the fund has been benefiting others since it was created more than two decades ago. The $5 million in the House budget would hardly make a dent in their project list, Buck said. “I mean, we’re not even going to be able to start,” she said.

“We’re just trying to be good stewards like we’re supposed to be,” Buck said. “That’s who we are. It’s what we are.”