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The House passed its energy policy bill 70-63 despite concerns that the bill initially lacked the votes to pass. The bill requires investor-owned utilities to produce 4 percent of their power by 2025 from solar sources. The bill drew criticism from Republicans for its exemptions for timber and taconite mining in northeastern Minnesota, moves that they claimed were made to win votes.

House passes new solar standard for utilities

Melissa Hortman (Photo: MN House of Representatives)

The House passed its energy policy bill 70-63 on Tuesday after a day of protracted delays and concerns that the bill lacked the votes to pass.

The centerpiece of the bill is a new standard for investor-owned utilities like Xcel Energy to generate 4 percent of their electricity from solar sources by 2025. The bill goes further than the Senate, which has opted for a 1 percent solar standard because 4 percent didn’t have the support to get out of committee.

The bill, which exempts all electrical co-operatives and municipal utilities, would ramp up to a half of 1 percent solar by 2016, and then 2 percent by 2020 before reaching the final goal.

The day began on the House floor with Majority Leader Erin Murphy calling for a recess to caucus for about an hour to 1-hour-and-a-half. But session didn’t reconvene for several hours, and the House broke for another caucus before the energy bill was taken up. Speculation was widespread throughout the Capitol halls that the votes for the bill were in doubt.

In the ensuing floor debate, a couple of controversial amendments drew close votes. On final passage, DFL Reps. Roger Erickson of Baudette, Gene Pelowski of Winona and Mike Sundin of Esko voted against the bill. The House Energy Policy Committee’s lead Republican, Rep. Pat Garofalo, voted in favor of the bill after subjecting it to harsh criticism. As the bill was nearing the vote on final passage, Garofalo warned that the bill won’t pass the Senate.

“There’s no way you have 34 senators who will vote for this level of insanity,” Garofalo said.

Solar energy is currently a comparatively expensive form of energy, although advocates say they expect prices to decline in the future. In addition to the standard, the bill contains financial incentives to the nascent solar industry that advocates say will create jobs and roll back climate change, but critics regard those measures as boondoggles that will ultimately increase costs for rate payers.

On the House floor, an amendment from the bill’s chief author, Energy Policy Committee Chair Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, exempted the timber and taconite industry in northeastern Minnesota from the bill. The amendment, which elicited an outcry from Republicans, brought the House bill into conformity with the current version in the Senate.

“The mining industry is particularly susceptible to the boom and bust whims of the world commodities market in a way that’s more uniquely affecting them than other industries in the state of Minnesota,” Hortman said. “We want to make sure that power costs aren’t a reason that contributes to their boom and bust cycles.”

Republicans accused DFLers of cutting a deal with the Iron Range delegation in exchange for getting enough votes to pass the bill. Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, said the northeastern Minnesota carve-out was simply unfair for areas in the rest of the state with industrial power users.

“Members, I’m a state representative,” Beard said. “Every one of you people are, too. You ought to be ashamed to vote for this amendment.”

While energy policy deliberations this year have been dominated by solar energy, the issue of nuclear energy turned out to be a sticking point prior to the debate on the bill, according to two lobbyists. Rep. Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, offered an amendment to repeal the state’s moratorium on new nuclear power plant construction that came within two votes of passage. Proposals to lift the moratorium have split DFLers in recent years and were rumored to be wreaking havoc behind the scenes for the majority caucus in the run-up to Tuesday’s debate.

Peppin said renewables won’t be able to supply the state’s future power needs and that policymakers should consider nuclear power because it doesn’t emit greenhouse gases. “There is nothing wrong with renewables,” Peppin said. “If you’re going to do renewables, you better have a backup plan, or we’re all going to be paying for it. You’re going to have to consider whether you want to move to building more coal-fired power plants or if you want more nuclear power plants.”

But Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, said resource plans among Minnesota utilities don’t anticipate the need for increased base load power. He also noted that the federal government still lacks a plan to store nuclear waste. “There is little or no indication in those resource plans that investor-owned utilities in Minnesota have a base load need, a base load problem, that they think can be solved and dealt with additional nuclear power generation without a permanent place to store spent nuclear fuel,” Anzelc said.

In an indication of how much the nuclear issue split the DFL caucus, the moratorium repeal narrowly failed on a 67-65 vote that saw DFL Reps. David Dill, Tom Huntley, Kim Norton, Gene Pelowski and Mary Sawatzky side with the Republicans. Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, who voted in favor of repealing the nuclear construction ban in 2011, wasn’t present for the vote on the amendment.

The bill is seeking to increase the amount of renewable energy that homeowners and businesses can produce while receiving favorable prices from utilities for the excess power they generate. Through a program called net-metering, utilities are required to buy power from small renewable energy generators at the retail rate. Hortman’s bill would allow net metering customers to generate 1 megawatt, up from the current 40 kilowatts of capacity.

Republicans sought to strip the net-metering increase out of the bill. Garofalo, who offered that amendment, said the increase would amount to four football fields of solar panels on a residence. The increased power, he said, would cause a financial hit to utilities at times when the amount of electricity on the grid exceeds the demand.

“Going to 1 megawatt is beyond insane for residential production,” Garofalo said. “Again, four football fields of solar panels would be allowed under this bill. And your utilities — whether they need it or not, regardless of the cost — would be mandated to buy this power.”

Hortman said the bill allows utilities to seek an exemption if their loads get too high. She also listed several states that allow for 2 megawatts or more for net metering.

Garofalo’s amendment failed 70-60, with Erickson joining all Republicans in support.

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