Climate Strike

Youth organizers of the Minnesota Youth Climate Strike lead chants near the Capitol on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — Minnesota Senate Republicans on Thursday, Jan. 2, announced they'd introduce a plan to require the state's electric utilities to move away from fossil fuel sources.

A similar plan had bipartisan support last year but came up short in the divided state Legislature. Now, with the support of a key gatekeeper in the Senate, it could have a path to the governor's desk.

Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, chairs the Senate Energy and Utilities Committee and previously opposed the proposal to require electric companies to prioritize carbon-free resources when building new power plants or replacing retired facilities. Exceptions would apply if the clean energy alternative can be proven to be unaffordable or can't meet the need of the facility under the plan.

The measure varies from existing law in that it would require the utility companies to show that a renewable energy source alone or in cooperation with other clean energy sources can't meet the expected need. Current law indicates that that standard is met if the renewable energy source alone can't meet the needs of a new or refurbished facility. Nuclear, solar, wind, hydropower, carbon sequestration and municipal solid waste would be classified as clean energy.

The new GOP push behind the plan comes as the state weighs how it will transition 70% of its electric generation sources in the next two decades and as individual electric companies have set goals for themselves to transition away from fossil fuel sources in the next 30 years.

Public campaigns aimed at reforming the state's clean energy policies have also surged in recent months, with thousands of young people skipping school to rally against climate change at the Capitol and in communities around the state.

“‘Clean Energy First’ addresses our long-term energy needs in an affordable and reliable way by allowing technology and the economy to drive innovation in the energy sector," Osmek said in a news release. "Mandates only drive up cost; we need to keep that in perspective as it relates to the cost of energy in Minnesota for all energy consumers.”

News of Senate Republicans' willingness to take up the plan generated support from lawmakers who'd worked on a similar bill and from clean energy advocates.

Rep. Zack Stephenson, D-Coon Rapids, carried a similar bill in 2019 along with Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, and said the move by Republicans to bring a bill was a "big step." While the earlier proposal was silent on nuclear energy, Stephenson said he didn't view the addition as a poison pill in the bill.

"Are there are people in my caucus who have trouble with nuclear? Absolutely. But there are others who do not, including myself," Stephenson said. "I think it's widely understood that we need to do something on this issue and there's been a lot of hard work on this on both sides of the aisle throughout the interim. There are still a lot of hoops to jump through, a lot of things that could go wrong, but I'm feeling optimistic."

Gov. Tim Walz and House Democrats have also pushed for more aggressive changes to address climate change, including moving Minnesota's electric sector to 100% renewable energy by 2050. The measure failed to pass the Legislature in 2019 and Osmek has said the plan is a non-starter and could leave Minnesotans vulnerable to gaps in coverage due to drastic changes in weather.

The Senate Committee is set to hold field hearings on the plan in Rochester on Jan. 15 and in Minnetrista on Jan. 22. The Minnesota Legislature is set to reconvene for the 2020 legislative session on Feb. 11.

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