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Standoff Over Minnesota Energy Policy
By Marisa Helms
Minnesota Public Radio
May 15, 2001
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It looks like the state of Minnesota will have an energy reliability law by the end of this legislative session. The Senate and House have passed differing versions of a bill, so a conference committee will have to work out the differences. One major point of negotiation will be deciding what role conservation and renewable energy will play in state energy policy. A final state bill could look very much like the Bush-Cheney energy proposal, which President Bush will outline when he visits Minnesota on Thursday.

The Minnesota House and Senate disagree over how to ensure reliable energy sources in the future. The main differences center on investments in conservation and renewable energy. The debate mirrors the one occurring at a national level over President Bush's energy policy.
(Photo/Department of Energy)
THE MAIN DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE SENATE AND HOUSE BILLS is in how each body views renewable energy and conservation. The Senate bill mandates the state's energy industry buy or increase its generation of renewable energy by at least 10 percent by the year 2015. Wind, solar, hydropower and biomass are the main sources of renewable energy.

The House bill focuses on making it easier and faster to build power plants in Minnesota. It has minimal renewable, environmental and conservation provisions. Critics call the House bill a disappointment and a missed opportunity. Paula Maccabee of the Sierra Club says the bill did not take the steps necessary to increase conservation or to invest in renewable energy.

"It's reliability, and it's also 'how do we get reliable energy that's clean.' Wind energy is clean, biomass energy is clean and it's reliable. And then if we're going to have these old coal plants, we have to clean them up. Either that, or repower them with natural gas," says Maccabee. "So the the environmental agenda and the energy agenda could be the same one. That was a win-win choice that was available for the House of Representatives, they didn't take it."

But the author of the House plan, Rep. Ken Wolf, R-Burnsville, says his bill has always been about generating a steady, reliable source of power. Wolf says mandates for renewable energy and environmental regulations do not belong in his bill. But, he says, the bill does call for a small increase in the amount of money that power companies must pay for conservation efforts. There's also a provision that encourages investment in distributive generation technology.

"If you want to build a small manure digester plant for a group of farmers to run your farms with, and you have excess capacity, it requires you can connect up to the grid and sell it on the grid. That way you can take care of other people and not build a whole new power plant to put on the grid, and probably reduce the requirement for transmission lines," says Wolf.

For many environmentalists, such provisions aren't enough. They say the philosophical orientation of the House bill is outdated. They say instead of looking backward to the old way of energy production, which includes expensive power plants that run on fossil fuels, the state should look to the future.

Similar complaints have been brought against President George Bush's national energy policy which he'll outline in his visit to St. Paul. After initial criticism that the Bush plan did not address conservation, the administration in recent days has been talking up the role of conservation in national energy policy.

For environmentalist Bill Grant of the Izaak Walton League, the fact the Bush administration modified its position is encouraging. Grant is a member of the POWER coalition, a group that's lobbied both the House and Senate to include renewable energy, conservation and consumer protections in any energy legislation. Grant is optimistic that some of the "green" provisions in the Senate bill can be negotiated back into the final legislation.

"What is important, I think, is that we will move forward now with an energy bill this year. And we hope that we can work closely with the House and Senate conferees to develop what can still be, I believe, a useful bill coming out of this session," Grant says.

The energy policy conference committee should meet over the next few days. The Legislature must adjourn by midnight Monday.