Bill on electric co-op disputes heads to Dayton

A bill that would take away state regulators' authority to settle certain electric utility disputes is on its way to Gov. Mark Dayton.

Right now, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission handles complaints from electricity customers who get their power through an electric co-op. One common dispute is over additional fees customers are charged after installing solar or wind energy on their properties.

The co-ops say the extra fees are justified, but the customers dispute that and say they're being treated unfairly. The PUC is overseeing several such disputes, but the legislation would send them to a third-party mediator instead.

"I have constituents that are fearful for the projects they want to put in place, and are we going to disincentivize solar or wind or anything that may come in the future, and also disincentivize the jobs that have been created in Minnesota alone around this industry?" said Sen. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, during the Senate floor debate on Thursday.

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But proponents of the bill said the co-ops shouldn't have to come to St. Paul to defend their practices.

"This is local control. You may not like it, and solar providers may not like it, but co-ops are democratically elected. They represent the interests of the ratepayers that they represent," said Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound.

Co-op utilities are run by a board of directors made up of co-op members, who elect the board. But critics have said many co-ops aren't moving swiftly enough to embrace renewable energy and say that could put rural members at a disadvantage.

The Senate passed the bill 39-26 on Thursday, following an 89-37 vote last month in the House.

Dayton has not said whether he will sign the bill.