Getting to Green: Minnesota's energy future

Lawmakers pass reforms to cut red tape for clean energy projects

An aerial view of wind turbines
Wind turbines spin above cornfields at the Bent Tree Wind Farm near Hartland.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

An effort to make it easier for clean energy projects to get needed state approval was part of a flurry of bills passed in the final hours of the Minnesota Legislature’s 2024 session.

Supporters say the reforms were needed to streamline permitting for solar and wind farms and power lines Minnesota needs as it shifts to clean energy.

Clean energy developers and utilities have complained the state’s permitting process is a roadblock to getting new wind and solar projects and transmission lines built. 

That's because it takes a long time, often several years, to get the needed permits. They say that process is even more sluggish with more renewable energy projects applying.

Last year, state lawmakers passed a law requiring utilities to get 100 percent of their electricity from carbon-free sources by 2040. To meet that goal, Minnesota needs more wind and solar, battery storage and transmission lines to move electricity to population centers.

“There was kind of a renewed thought that, ‘OK, now we have this very aggressive carbon-free standard, and we should really take a closer look at the permitting process to ensure that we can get these projects moved through in a quicker manner,” said Peder Mewis, regional policy director with Clean Grid Alliance, which works to advance renewable energy in the Midwest. 

Clean energy advocates and utilities argued that without permitting reform, it would be tough for Minnesota to meet that 2040 deadline.

An aerial of solar panels
Solar panels at the Dundas Solar Garden near Dundas.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The Public Utilities Commission created a working group to suggest changes to the permitting process, many of which were incorporated into the bill.

“I think where we landed was a transformative piece of legislation that sets Minnesota on a path to achieve 100 percent clean energy by 2040,” said Gregg Mast, executive director of Clean Energy Economy Minnesota.

The new language consolidates Minnesota’s permitting requirements into a single law, and it shortens the timeline for state regulators to review and permit those projects.

It creates two separate processes: a standard review for smaller wind and solar projects and power lines, and a major review for larger projects such as major transmission lines or power plants. 

Utilities that want to build wind and solar projects will no longer require a certificate of need from the Public Utilities Commission, declaring that the state needs the energy the project will produce.

The bill also moves environmental review staff from the Department of Commerce to the Public Utilities Commission, a move aimed at improving communication.

Initially, some environmental groups raised concerns about the bill. They worried energy projects might get a less rigorous review, or that there would be less opportunity for the public to comment.

In the end, the reforms were made without sacrificing the opportunity for public input, said Patty O’Keefe, with the Sierra Club’s North Star chapter.

“There’s still going to be lots of opportunities for people to engage at the (PUC), and share with state regulators and with the utilities what they want from the clean energy transition,” she said.

Transmission lines frame four wind turbines in the distance
Wind turbines spin above cornfields at the Bent Tree Wind Farm near Hartland.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

However, environmental groups didn’t get everything they asked for. They wanted new natural gas plants to have to undergo a tougher environmental review. That was not included.

“For us, natural gas is not the type of carbon-free resource that we are hoping to head for with the 100 percent law,” said Sarah Mooradian, government relations and policy director with Clean Up the River Environment, or CURE.

But Mooradian is pleased the bill requires a stringent environmental impact statement for pipelines that transport carbon dioxide from power plants. And it provides $1 million for an independent study of the impacts of CO2 pipelines.

Supporters say the bill won’t resolve all of the delays with getting clean energy projects built and connected to the regional electrical grid. 

Mewis estimated the reforms will probably shave six to nine months off the permitting process.

“All of this will help move things forward in a quicker manner,” he said. “But we still do have other challenges that need to overcome.”