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Renewable energy, consumer groups disappointed with energy bill

The jobs-energy omnibus bill passed by the Legislature contains several energy provisions that some stakeholder groups have opposed. Gov. Mark Dayton has not yet indicated whether he will sign it, though GOP leaders said they worked with the governor's staff to find compromise language.

Still, some groups, including clean energy advocate Fresh Energy, has asked Dayton to reject the latest version of the bill, saying it hurts rural energy customers and makes no real progress in moving Minnesota's economy away from fossil fuels.

Ten years after the state passed a law with specific greenhouse gas reduction goals, "this jobs and energy omnibus bill doesn't help Minnesota make any forward progress, but it does roll back some progress that we've made in the past," said Fresh Energy executive director Michael Noble. The Legislature and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty worked together on the Next Generation Energy Act of 2007, which set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

Here are a few of the provisions contained in SF 1456 that Fresh Energy, the Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota, CURE (a rural environment and energy group), Take Action Minnesota, MN350, Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light and ISAIAH oppose:

  • Small municipal and cooperative electric utilities would be exempt from the Conservation Improvement Program. This means those utilities would no longer have to offer rebates to customers who replace old appliances with efficient ones. "Losing the program seems to be a huge disadvantage, and I don't understand why there's that disparity between the big and small towns," said Creighton Horihan, a small business owner from Lanesboro who has taken advantage of such rebates. Mahyar Sorour of Take Action Minnesota agreed. "It's not moving us in that equitable right direction that would benefit all of Minnesotans in the state, rural and urban."

  • Disputes between rural cooperative utilities and members would be eligible for mediation instead of being resolved before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. This issue came up after the co-ops started charging fees for members who installed solar energy on their properties. Under compromise language, the PUC will still review the methodology used by co-ops to impose those fees, but the groups say the language could have a chilling effect on solar growth in rural Minnesota. Some lawmakers and the Minnesota Rural Electric Association have argued that the co-ops need to spread fixed costs among members evenly and can't afford the legal fees associated with disputes before the PUC.

  • Utility rates scrutinized by the Minnesota Public Utilities would have a goal of being 5 percent less than the national average. Energy efficiency advocates say other factors beyond the per-kilowatt-hour rate should be considered when comparing Minnesota to other states.

The bill also allows Xcel Energy to renegotiate contracts with biomass plants in Benson and on the Iron Range. Biomass energy is more expensive than wind and natural gas right now. And it repeals the Made in Minnesota solar incentive program.

In addition, the bill takes away cities' ability to ban plastic bags. Sorour said the measure is a blow to efforts in Minneapolis to move toward zero waste, which advocates have been pushing as a way to reduce the burning of Minneapolis garbage at the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, which is located near north Minneapolis.

A Minneapolis ordinance to ban plastic bags was set to go into effect next month. "This is good policy that works. We spend 12 million barrels of oil per year to manufacture a product that consumers use an average of 12 minutes before they throw it away. And where do they throw it away? On our landscape. It winds up in our lakes and rivers, streams," said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, as the House debated the bill Monday.

DFLers and the energy groups were happy to see language restricting the state's VW settlement money come out of the bill. The state is eligible to receive roughly $47 million from the federal government's settlement. In addition, language that could have accelerated oil pipeline projects in the state was also taken out.

"We made some significant changes from the original legislative position," said Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, in urging colleagues to support the bill. "There is significantly less policy. ... We did our very best to address the concerns the governor had."

Some DFLers are also urging a veto from Dayton. Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, called out the conference committee for failing to adopt a widely supported bill to establish new state privacy protections for internet browsing history.

"There is no prohibition in the statute right now for an internet provider to discriminate in its pricing or refuse to provide service altogether to a person who would decline to allow their data be collected and disclosed," Latz said.

MPR reporter Tim Nelson contributed to this report.

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