A panel of top Minnesota energy regulators on Monday outlined some of their biggest fears about the transition away from fossil fuels, like a public backlash if there are blackouts or fierce national debates over how to build carbon-free power that could hamstring state efforts.
“A major reliability event will set us backwards,” said Joe Sullivan, vice chairman of Minnesota’s Public Utilities Commission. “The public will absolutely revolt.”
Sullivan, who is a Democrat, said the five-member PUC, which oversees the state’s energy system and utilities like Xcel Energy, has to manage the transition prudently to prevent a “backslide” that would damage the push to address climate change.
“I don’t want this planet to turn into Venus,” he said.
A prudent transition, Sullivan said, includes keeping power rates reasonable when the industry is in a “once in a 50-or-60-year building cycle” for energy infrastructure. Those projects will have costs that flow into power bills. And Sullivan said prudent management means ensuring reliability of the power grid because the “margin of error gets tighter” as old fossil fuel plants are replaced with renewable power.
Sullivan was interviewed with three other state officials by Energy News Network reporter Frank Jossi at a conference hosted by the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group for solar and energy storage developers.
Louise Miltich oversees energy planning and regulatory work for the Minnesota Department of Commerce. She told the crowd that she worries about not moving fast enough away from fossil fuels, even if the state is on a trajectory to reach its goal for 100% carbon-free energy by 2040.
“I worry about that push, the last 10-to-20%, and what it’s going to take to get that done,” she said. “We have this unprecedented moment where there’s incredible money out there that can help us do that last push, and so I worry about waiting. I worry about thinking we’ll solve it when it’s right there in front of us.”
Miltich said the energy transition is not completely in Minnesota’s control, subject to “market forces and philosophies that stretch well beyond our geography here in Minnesota.” And she said tensions over “who can own what, how we will pay for it” and more will “tie us up in debate to the point where that debate doesn’t even matter anymore.”
“Because indeed the planet is turning into Venus,” she added.
There is often debate in the energy sector over the bounds of Minnesota’s community solar program, which allows people to subscribe to a shared plot of solar built by independent developers that is smaller than what utilities typically build. And the mix of what kinds of solar should be built are often in dispute as well. “We need it all,” Miltich said. “We need rooftop, we need distributed, we need community solar gardens, we need utility-scale solar.”
Catherine Neuschler, executive director of the Environmental Quality Board, which sets environmental rules for which energy projects undergo review, said some rules have not kept pace with how the energy landscape has changed. And she questioned if Minnesota has adequately researched where it can build solar to reduce controversy over issues like using up farmland. She also said the state should better identify the scale of solar and other climate infrastructure it needs and decide what to prioritize for protection as development moves ahead. “Maybe in Minnesota it’s water resources,” Neuschler said. “It probably is tribal treaty rights.”
Lissa Pawlisch, director of the commerce department’s energy development section, said what keeps her up at night is whether this phase of infrastructure development will be done with “equity and justice centered.” That includes disadvantaged communities and the rights of tribal nations, Pawlisch said.
She added that sometimes people think “engagement and process” in developing new energy projects “means that things slow down.”
“And I think that engagement and process can actually be the catalyst to speed things up because we can create community buy-in,” Pawlisch said.