As Republicans take Minnesota’s legislature, clean energy still on the table

While Republicans will control both houses of Minnesota’s legislature next year, a recent forum suggests clean energy policy – particularly for solar and electric vehicles – will still have a place in the conversation.

Speaking at the legislative preview last week on energy, transportation and climate change mitigation sponsored by the Environmental Initiative, Rep. Pat Garofalo, chair of the House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance Committee, praised the state’s community solar program for being a cheaper alternative than rooftop solar and suggested the program should win bipartisan support.

Garofalo also sided with solar installers in disputes with the state’s Public Utilities Commission over solar garden rules. He accused the PUC of “changing the rules in the middle of the game,” creating “regulatory uncertainty” that “pulled the rug out from under” developers.

However, he also expressed frustration with the Renewable Development Fund’s “Made in Minnesota” (MiM) solar program.

The state effort is designed to encourage solar panel manufacturers to locate in Minnesota through subsidies intended to spur the industry while helping homeowner and commercial businesses afford solar. Due to its popularity the state holds a lottery for applicants.

Garofalo said MiM is “not creating many jobs and not reducing pollution.” The annual $15 million budget – for the 10 year program – produces few megawatts (MWs) annually despite a significant outlay of money, he argued.

In the program’s first year, 2014, just 5 MW were installed, he said. Considering the budget the state should have seen many more megawatts of solar installed in the MiM program by now, Garofalo argued.

“That’s just plain stupid,” he said, referencing the low power output of the program. “We need to stop doing dumb things and start doing smart things.”

Garofalo promised to look at redesigning MiM to “be more beneficial” but offered few details.

Republican Sen. David J. Osmek, chair of the Energy and Utilities Finance and Policy Committee, suggested money from the MiM program might be redeployed to build out electric car infrastructure. Garofalo also noted that Minnesota may receive as much as $44 million from the Volkswagen diesel engine settlement that could deployed for cleaner burning energy sources.

The money could be used for helping move garbage haulers and other trucking operators from diesel to electric or natural gas powered vehicles, he suggested. “We want (transportation) to be cleaner and cheaper,” he said. “I don’t know anyone who wants it to be more expensive and more dirty.”

A bipartisan electric car bill sank last year, he said, though it may be an area where progress can be made this year. Rep. Frank Hornstein, a Democrat from Minneapolis, said with greater vehicle infrastructure Minnesota could become an “innovation hub” for electric cars.

Osmek called for affordable, dependable and balanced approach to energy that would include continued use of nuclear and coal-based electricity generation. “There’s a place for coal” in the state’s energy mix, he declared, while noting nuclear “is the elephant in the room.”

Garofalo added that hydro and nuclear energy need to be part of dealing with climate change because they have few emissions.

Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis) pointed out that despite the state’s strong renewable energy portfolio it actually is failing to make progress toward climate goals. He proposed a higher renewable standard, improved funding of the Conservation Improvement Program, a more aggressive energy efficiency program and expansion of distributed energy.

Meanwhile, Hornstein called for continued research into biogas and anaerobic digesters as a source of clean, renewable energy.

Climate change, he noted, is a direct result of how communities are planned and the state should consider how land use regulations can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

During the discussion,the seven term Garofalo said he was “more excited” than he’d even been for a legislative session.

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