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2020 Legislature to offer dueling visions for energy policy in face of climate change

Sen. David Senjem
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
State Sen. David Senjem, far right, is sponsoring a bill known that would make it harder for utilities to approve new fossil fuel power.

At a January hearing in Rochester, weeks before the Minnesota Legislature is to convene for 2020, Senate Republicans made the case for measured government intervention to promote clean energy. 

Voters increasingly support a transition away from fossil fuels, said state Sen. David Senjem, a Rochester Republican who was pitching a bill to make adding new coal and gas power tougher for utility companies. That shift is an issue “that we really can’t avoid and we’re not by any means attempting to avoid,” Senjem told a crowd gathered at the city’s Community and Technical college.

Shortly after, Rick Morris, an organizer for the Sierra Club, criticized the Republican bill as a half-measure that won’t phase out fossil fuels as fast as Gov. Tim Walz’s plan to require a carbon-free energy grid by 2050. Senjem’s measure is the “coal and gas forever bill,” Morris said.

The hearing previewed debate in the upcoming legislative session that begins on Feb. 11 over how far and how fast the state should restrict fossil fuels to reduce the effects of climate change. 

Leaders in the House, which has a DFL majority, and the Senate, which has a GOP majority, have promised to try to compromise on energy policy this year after a 2019 session that produced little. But key committee leaders remain sharply divided and some have already begun making their case for change in the November election to break a stalemate.

“I think to make change as meaningful as 100 percent (by 2050) we’re going to need new players in the Senate,” said Rep. Jamie Long, a Minneapolis DFLer, referring to Walz’s bill.

GOP agenda staked on ‘Clean Energy First’

Senjem’s bill is one of the top priorities for Senate Republicans, said Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, who chairs the Energy and Utilities Finance and Policy Committee. 

The idea behind the measure is not a new one; lawmakers have discussed the concept for several years. But Senjem has rolled out a revised version that Osmek said has the support of the GOP and powerful interest groups. Known at the Capitol as “Clean Energy First,” the policy generally requires utility companies to add clean energy to its system when it needs to replace or increase power — unless the carbon-free or renewable option would bring “unreasonable” costs to power customers or threaten the reliability of the energy grid.

State Sen. David Osmek, center, presiding over the hearing at Rochester Community and Technical College.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
State Sen. David Osmek, center, presiding over the hearing at Rochester Community and Technical College.
“Over time this ratcheting effect of implementing carbon-free resources whenever possible … will lead to an increasingly clean and ultimately decarbonized electricity supply to serve Minnesota in a way that protects ratepayers,” said Mike Bull, director of policy and external affairs for the Center for Energy and Environment.

A preference for clean energy exists in state law, though advocates for “Clean Energy First” say the measure will strengthen it.

Notably, and controversially, Senjem’s updated bill counts waste burning as renewable energy and lifts a moratorium on new nuclear power in Minnesota. It also includes technology to capture and store most greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants as a carbon-free option, along with hydropower.

Aside from its main provision, Senjem’s measure allows utilities to “maximize” employment of local workers and bill customers for the cost, and it directs the state to ask the regional power grid operator to study the construction of more energy transmission infrastructure.

Clean power advocates worry that a lack of transmission infrastructure in the Midwest is slowing and stopping new wind and solar projects since they can’t deliver the energy they produce.

Senjem’s bill has won early praise from utility companies that have been skeptical of tougher energy mandates, including Minnesota Power, Great River Energy and Missouri River Energy Services, for allowing an array of options to cut emissions, such as carbon capture and hydropower.

Gov. Tim Walz
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
Gov. Tim Walz
Gene Metz, chairman of the Rural Minnesota Energy Board, which represents 18 county governments in Southwest Minnesota, said he believes Walz’s bill for a carbon-free grid by 2050 would be too pricey for power customers. But the organization supports Senjem’s bill. 

Metz said the measure’s transmission study and its more gentle regulations can help boost renewable projects in his politically conservative region, which has seen an “economic boom” from wind power, while avoiding the risk of spiked energy bills.

In past years, Osmek has resisted “Clean Energy First” along with Walz’s bill, arguing the private sector is already moving to build clean energy without new state regulations. Xcel, for instance, has pledged to be carbon-free by 2050 on its own.

But he said Senjem’s measure provides worthwhile “guide rails” for the energy sector that protects ratepayers if using clean energy is too costly or unreliable. It opens the door for future use of nuclear technology for steady power in lieu of coal and gas plants, even if Osmek said he didn’t expect any new plants to open anytime soon in Minnesota. “Do Republicans believe that pouring carbon into the atmosphere is a good idea? Probably not,” Osmek said. “But how do we get there is the issue, and this is a very pragmatic approach.”

The turn is the result of months of work to revise the bill — not an eye toward politics, Osmek said. Still, Republicans hold a 35-32 Senate majority headed into the 2020 elections, and Senjem cited national polling support for renewable energy to kick off his hearing. 

The Rochester area is also crucial for the GOP. Not only is Senjem’s seat a target for DFLers hoping to flip the Senate, the city is increasingly important to statewide and congressional elections and becoming more Democratic as it grows in population.

DFL: ‘100 percent’ is still the goal

The basic premise of Clean Energy First has support from the DFL and from a range of environmental organizations. Walz proposed his own version in 2019. 

But many oppose Senjem’s new revised bill for including the carbon capture technology, as well as the nuclear power and waste burning provisions. Long, vice chairman of the House Energy and Climate Finance and Policy Division, said lifting a ban on new nuclear power is controversial among House Democrats.

State Rep. Jamie Long
State Rep. Jamie Long
And Rep. Jean Wagenius, a Minneapolis DFLer who chairs that climate and energy committee, said “defining coal as carbon-free even if it’s emitting carbon and defining burning of garbage as essentially renewable even though it will be emitting carbon” would undermine their goals.

Waste-to-energy facilities are currently included in Minnesota’s definition of renewable power, something House DFLers proposed ending last year. The governor’s Clean Energy First bill would leave that standard in place, but unlike the GOP bill, it does not lift the nuclear moratorium or include carbon capture and large hydroelectric plants as preferred energy options for utilities.

Walz’s 2050 bill sets a hard deadline to phase out emissions amid warnings from scientists of the dangers posed by climate change, but it does not rule out the use of nuclear, carbon capture and large hydropower for utilities to comply with the carbon crackdown.

Joseph Sullivan, a deputy commissioner for Walz’s Department of Commerce, told the Senate panel in Rochester that Clean Energy First is best in tandem with the carbon-free 2050 bill and another measure to promote energy efficiency. Together, the trio of legislation sends “an unmistakable signal to Minnesotans, energy producers and markets that carbon-free energy is necessary,” Sullivan said.

For House DFLers, that carbon-free by 2050 policy remains a top priority. DFLers argue wind and solar are quickly becoming the cheapest energy options and said the measure would not threaten a reliable power supply as the carbon ban kickstarts clean energy technology that is already improving.

In 2019, the House passed the 2050 bill but Senate Republicans shot it down. The chances of a change of heart in the GOP are slim, Long predicted. And some utility companies aren’t thrilled by the legislation, either. “I’m not holding out much hope this year,” Long said.

Still, Long said passing a Clean Energy First bill that both parties can agree to would be an important if “modest” step. “I’m going to push as hard as I can to make as much progress as we can on clean energy,” he said. “I think that’s what Minnesotans want and I’m hoping we have partners willing to work right along with the House.”

A repeat performance?

The biggest question for the 2020 session is whether the two parties will repeat what happened last year. 

Despite some common ground outside of the most controversial bills, lawmakers failed to pass much of any new legislation. Lawmakers also failed to spend tens of millions of dollars from a nuclear-waste fee paid by Xcel Energy earmarked for renewable energy projects. Both parties, for instance, planned to spend money to put solar panels on K-12 schools.

Nate O'Reilly, president of the Southeastern Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council, testifying in Rochester at a hearing for the Republican bill promoting clean energy
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Nate O'Reilly, president of the Southeastern Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council, testifying in Rochester at a hearing for the Republican bill promoting clean energy
The cause of that impasse is disputed. Long and Wagenius said Osmek refused to rule out spending $40 million to help businesses disrupted by the closure of a biomass plant in Benson, and that he doesn’t believe climate change is an urgent crisis. “People always want you to compromise and we certainly want to do that,” Wagenius said. “But you have to start with having a common understanding of the problem you want to solve.”

Osmek said the DFL duo wouldn’t budge from their own demands to pass their version of Clean Energy First and other legislation with the Xcel Renewable Development Account spending in order to score political points with their political base. 

In a recent meeting with the governor, Osmek said Walz offered to help facilitate discussions for next year. But he said he would quickly lose Republicans if Democrats demand their own “radical plan” for Clean Energy First and carbon-free 2050 “that is not workable.”

“I’m not terribly optimistic based upon the House’s attitudes,” Osmek said. “I’ve always been somebody willing to work, but there will be lines that I cannot cross.”

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/05/2020 - 11:12 am.

    “unless the carbon-free or renewable option would bring “unreasonable” costs to power customers or threaten the reliability of the energy grid.”

    And what is unreasonable? Xcel has already committed, Ironic, don’t you think, probably the largest electric producer in the state can commit, agrees there is a climate change issue, but the “R” politicians can’t figure it out. So what does a compromise look like, Hopefully, only 1/2 the state will suffer from climate effects?

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 02/05/2020 - 11:37 am.

      We already have very high electric rates and these plans would make those rates skyrocket. Germany tried this and people couldn’t afford electricity so they are going back to conventional power generation.

      All these renewable sources are unreliable at best and extremely expensive to build and maintain. Not to mention they require another form of energy as a back up for when they can’t produce. So you end up with double the infrastructure at least (not to mention the shear land size needed for solar and wind).

      If you want carbon neutral power, look to Thorium Reactors. The whole climate change business is all fraud. CO2 isn’t harming the planet. We actually need a lot more of it to provide more life and a bigger cushion of an ELE (if it ever falls below 150 ppm, all life will end).

      • Submitted by Eric Snyder on 02/05/2020 - 03:55 pm.

        “CO2 isn’t harming the planet. We actually need a lot more of it…”

        This isn’t backed up by any science and indeed contradicts current understanding. You’ve been misinformed, to put it plainly.

      • Submitted by Scott Walters on 02/05/2020 - 06:36 pm.

        We actually have average to slightly below average electricity rates in Minnesota. Facts are stubborn things. The average rate in Minnesota is 11.35 cents/kWh, which is 26th in the nation, and about five percent less expensive than the national average.

        Given that new wind and solar plants deliver electricity at lower cost than any other source, I see no logic for expecting an increase in costs by shifting to the lowest cost provider. Why would we spend more to build plants that pollute and actually need to buy fuel (that has to be imported to Minnesota)? Minnesota wind is free, Minnesota sunshine is free. Let’s use our free Minnesota resources before importing polluting resources from outside.

        • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 02/07/2020 - 03:01 pm.

          There isn’t a wind or solar facility than can deliver power cheaper than a gas fired plant. Wind and Solar EACH get 10s if billions a year in subsidies which is the only way they can be on par with gas or coal.

          “ A study by the University of Texas projected that U.S. energy subsidies per megawatt hour in 2019 would be $0.5 for coal, $1- $2 for oil and natural gas, $15- $57 for wind and $43- $320 for solar. Many of the renewable energy subsidies come in the form of a Production Tax Credit (PTC) of 2.3 cents per kilowatt hour. Wholesale prices for electricity in 2017 were between approximately 2.9 cents to 5.6 cents per kilowatt hour. Therefore the wind production tax credit covers 30% to 60% of wholesale electricity prices.”

          Yes our electric costs are high even at 26th in the nation, thanks to the last administration. All prices have been going up because of these bad policies. You push for Solar which cannot produce ANY power for 50% or more is the time and Wind which cannot produce any power roughly 75% of the time. Take away the subsidies and both would cease to exist overnight.

          • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/09/2020 - 02:42 pm.

            Looks like a lot of barnyard fertilizer here, You forgot the part (Same report)

            “On a $/MWh basis, renewable support is declining rapidly because our calculation method is based on country-wide annual $and MWh values, per technology, rather than on an individual project and its lifetime generation”

            You also forgot the part about, How much have we subsidized fossil fuel in the lets say last 100-150 years. Folks know how other folks can make facts lie. Fossil fuel has been subsidized one way or the other for what 150 years? Now we get some new technology and you claim unfair advantage after what 10 years? Why is Xcel moving 100% green? Last time I checked, Green technology doesn’t have to rape public land like oil and gas, got that factored into the cost basis? You also forgot the part that “The report does not include externalities (environmental or otherwise)” (Read air, land and water pollution),

          • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/09/2020 - 07:53 pm.

            PS: Looks like you are throwing that fertilizer with a super duper spreader! On a % basis looks just the opposite of your accusations, other than 2013 it has all been down, (but we all know in Trump land down is up and up is down) 2nd Point (Utilities get to raise their rates in order to keep pace with the stock market) They have to pay a comparable dividend to the market, in order to lure investors, they may also be investing today to lower rates long term, got a beef perhaps you should take it up with the PUC!


    • Submitted by Michael Miles on 02/05/2020 - 02:43 pm.

      Well said!

      What I find particularly alarming is that if one understands the scientific method, which I think would be a fundamental prerequisite for making policy decisions, then given the October, 2018 Report by the IPCC (stating that we must cut our CO2 emissions by 50% by 2030 and 100% by 2050 or face a runaway climate leading to human extinction), how can one attempt to negotiate a compromise to a fact?

      The only compromises that can be made are how to reach stated requirements.

      The alternative can be summed up in the adage:
      “Why let human extinction stand in the way of short term profit?”

      • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/06/2020 - 09:07 pm.

        The sad fact, it is rare to find a republican scientist, “Open minded” by definition is liberal, “closed minded” is conservative. They would rather have us all dead rather than admit they were wrong. Sen. David Senjem, appears to be the exception to the rule, probably because he was on a fact finding tour in Germany (I think that article was published in MinnPost) found entire cities and counties, 100% green, covering thier own needs and feeding back into the grid! So suspect, his party now looks at him as a traitor, rather than as this is an opportunity to create/transition one hell of a lot of jobs to the green science.

      • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/07/2020 - 12:43 pm.

        The science says don’t do it, and Trump and the Republicans do it anyway. We can at least be honest: The Left expects companies to clean up their own pollution, the right says dump it on the public. In short, steal from the many for the benefit of the few. That is Republican policy. So what is in the middle?

  2. Submitted by Alex Schieferdecker on 02/05/2020 - 01:02 pm.

    The Senate bill seems like an improvement over the status quo that would do no harm. Pass it in 2020 and strengthen it in 2021 if the DFL wins a trifecta.

    The loophole with carbon capture and waste burning should probably be closed. But nuclear power, as problematic as it can be, is critical to decarbonizing fast. It’s unlikely future nuclear plants will be built, but it’s silly for the DFL to oppose a bill allowing them.

  3. Submitted by Allen Frechette on 02/05/2020 - 01:37 pm.

    Removing the 30+ year old moratorium on new nuclear power imposed in reaction to the problems envisioned with storing waste fuel rods from the two light water reactors makes sense now that Generation IV nuclear power can actually recycle the spent fuel from these old reactors and poses no threat of a melt-down as they can be shut down passively. The lack of a definition in state law for “nuclear power” wrongly prohibits next generation safer options, including small modular reactors that can be built and deployed a lot quicker to avoid the need for natural gas plants that provide electricity when the wind and solar doesn’t meet the demand.

    • Submitted by Alan Muller on 02/11/2020 - 11:55 am.

      What a horrible thing to promote. Even if, for the sake of argument only, on supposed there are new and improved nukes coming along, the cost would be far higher than wind/solar/storage. Bad idea. No nukes!

  4. Submitted by Eric Snyder on 02/05/2020 - 04:00 pm.

    Of relevance in this discussion over renewable energy is whether everyone is up to speed on climate science. The following from last year was not an encouraging indication:

    “Minnesota House members revealed Wednesday whether they believe humans are causing climate change.

    It broke largely along party lines: 79 lawmakers, including all 75 Democrats, voted yes, and 50 Republicans voted no. Five Republicans did not vote.

    They voted on this sentence:

    “The legislature finds and declares that greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activities are a key cause of climate change.”

    That was all it was. No money, no regulations.”

    If any Republican (or anyone else) in office can’t understand the science or if they can’t grow beyond their crude partisan bias about this issue, they shouldn’t be involved in any decision with regard to energy policy.

    • Submitted by Allen Frechette on 02/06/2020 - 01:33 pm.

      America’s Republicans, are the world’s only major climate-denialist party. According to Open Secrets, they get 97% political contributions from the coal industry, 88% from oil and gas. One can only conclude, that unlike the men and women who risk their lives volunteering to serve our country, Republican politicians value their own well being above all else.

  5. Submitted by Alan Muller on 02/11/2020 - 11:57 am.

    Osmek’s bill sucks. (I attended both of his hearings on it.) But I wish I felt confidence in the DFL side being able to stand up to the utilities. It is too easy to imagine “clean energy bills” that do more harm than good.

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