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Move to renewables could accelerate under approved climate and energy omnibus

(House Photography file photo)
(House Photography file photo)

Rising energy prices and the increasingly daunting challenges of climate change framed much of the discussion in this session’s meetings of the House Climate and Energy Finance and Policy Committee.

The omnibus bill it approved Thursday will attempt to address them.

Sponsored by Rep. Jamie Long (DFL-Mpls), HF3337, was replaced by a delete-all amendment, further amended, and approved on a 10-7 party line vote. It now heads to the House Ways and Means Committee.

The bill would significantly increase the state’s commitment to weatherizing homes, employing solar power as an electricity source, and getting around in electric vehicles. It would also establish a “competitiveness fund” that could bring more federal money to the state, and create an innovative finance authority to give a boost to alternative energy projects.

“This is a bipartisan bill,” Long said. “We have bipartisan provisions that are both in this bill and in the Senate’s. There were a number of things we had in our bill last year that we didn’t put in the bill this year. And that’s because we are really trying to focus on finding that common ground where we can agree on common sense solutions that will help move us forward as a state.”

Its companion, SF4269, sponsored by Sen. David Senjem (R-Rochester), awaits action by the Senate Finance Committee.

The bill’s $120.5 million in appropriations for fiscal year 2023 are divided between the state’s General Fund and the Renewable Development Account, a state-administered fund designed expressly for the purpose of developing renewable energy sources in Minnesota. Xcel Energy pays into it with annual fees of between $350,000 and $500,000 for each cask of nuclear waste it stores at its Prairie Island and Monticello facilities.

Of the bill’s $40.2 million allocated from that fund for fiscal year 2023, it would provide $10 million to a competitiveness fund designed to unlock federal monies available via the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Among the other projects funded by the account would be:

  • $6.5 million for a geothermal energy demonstration project at a school in the Anoka-Hennepin School District;
  • $5 million in grants to businesses to develop decarbonization technologies;
  • $5 million in incentives for the installation of solar energy generating systems;
  • $4 million in incentives for installing energy storage systems;
  • $4 million for installing solar energy infrastructure on state facilities;
  • $3 million for electric buses;
  • $1 million for residential electric panel upgrades; and
  • $1 million for a solar contingency fund for St. Paul’s Highland Bridge project.

The bill contains $80 million in appropriations from the state’s General Fund. In addition to another $10 million for the competitiveness fund, other projects it would finance include:

  • $30 million for a weatherization assistance program;
  • $10 million for an innovative finance authority;
  • $5 million for an “Energy Alley” startup fund;
  • $4.1 million for electric vehicle charging in state parks;
  • $4 million to support solar projects on state infrastructure;
  • $3 million for the Solar on Schools program;
  • $3 million for local government climate mitigation grants;
  • $2.3 million for residential electric panel upgrades;
  • $2.1 million for electric vehicle charging at rest stops;
  • $2 million for a community clean energy transition program; and
  • $1 million for a weather resiliency program.

Five amendments to the bill were adopted at Thursday’s meeting. Two were technical amendments that clarified language and appropriations. Others clarified that counties must authorize and approve an electric vehicle charging station at a county building; co-operative and municipal utilities would be exempt from some of the bill’s energy storage provisions; and mining would be added to the industries that qualify for using energy benchmarking.

Much of the debate centered upon an amendment offered by Rep. Chris Swedzinski (R-Ghent) that would have deleted all appropriations and many of its policy changes.

“This will save millions of dollars by putting them back into the pockets of ratepayers,” Swedzinski said, a sentiment echoed by Rep. Mary Franson (R-Alexandria) and Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen (R-Glencoe), who spoke of the move toward renewable energy sources as “taking us down a primrose path of nonsense.”

“Energy affordability is the main concern I’m hearing from my colleagues on the other side of the aisle,” Long said. “Clean energy is more affordable. … If you want right now to have the cheapest form of energy, it would be wind power. But you don’t have to take my word for it. You should look what utilities are actually filing to the Public Utilities Commission as the cheapest cost path forward. They are moving towards clean energy because it is cheaper. We had a utility in this state try to give away a coal plant for a dollar and they could not find a buyer for it.”

The Swedzinski amendment failed on a party-line vote.

“There’s been some discussion that says, ‘The climate problem is so hard. Why should we even try to do anything in our bill?’” Long said. “Collective action problems are hard, members. I agree with that. When you’re trying to solve a big problem that a lot of folks contribute to, there are two options. You can all throw up your hands and you can make the problem worse. Or you can all try together to make the problem better. And that’s what we’re trying to do in this bill.”

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