Clean Energy Forum

Sen. Dave Senjem R-Rochester presents the clean energy bill during a pre-session clean energy forum on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020, in the Heintz Center Commons at Rochester Community and Technical College in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

How clean does clean energy need to be?

Critics of proposed changes to Minnesota's Clean Energy First bill say the legislation contains some dirty tricks.

Members of the Minnesota Senate Committee on Utilities Finance and Policy hosted a public forum to discuss the bill Wednesday night at the Heintz Center at Rochester Community and Technical College.

Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, author of the bill, presented an overview of the legislation.

"This bill can move Minnesota forward to a clean energy future," he said.

One major change focuses on defining clean energy as coming from carbon-free energy sources, which includes nuclear power and municipal waste-fueled plants and repeals a decades-old moratorium on nuclear power plants.

Clean Energy Forum

Senator David Osmek, R-Mound. Chairman of senate energy committee speaks during a pre-session clean energy forum on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020, in the Heintz Center Commons at Rochester Community and Technical College in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Senjem noted that under state definition, waste-fired plants are considered renewable energy.

Representatives of utility companies applauded the provision, saying it gives them flexibility as they transition away from coal and gas-fired power plants.

Critics said Wednesday this doesn't provide for transitioning to clean energy.

Rick Morris, of the North Star chapter of the Sierra Club, said the provisions in the Senate bill take clean energy efforts backwards with those carbon-free definitions and a loophole that would allow utilities to build gas or coal plants outside the state and sell the electricity in Minnesota.

"This is clean energy first in name only," Morris said. "It is a coal and gas forever bill."

Clean Energy Forum

Rick Morris, Rochester clean energy organizer for Sierra Club’s North Star Chapter, speaks during a pre-session clean energy forum on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020, in the Heintz Center Commons at Rochester Community and Technical College in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Morris said waste-fueled plants add to carbon emissions. Other comments echoed the sentiment.

"To call garbage-burning clean energy is absurd," said Alan Muller, a Red Wing resident.

Tony Hill, Olmsted County environmental resources director, defended the county's waste-fuel plant. The facility provides electricity to county and city facilities and helps the county manage solid waste, Hill said. The plant allows the county to divert 99 percent of municipal waste from landfills, he added.

Olmsted County produces about 1 million pounds of waste per day, Hill and Olmsted County Commissioner Ken Brown told the panel.

"I would ask detractors, would you rather we put it in the ground?" Brown asked.

Rob Dunnett, a waste energy consultant, said methane from unprocessed waste would have a more detrimental effect on the environment than the carbon produced by waste-fuel facilities.

Morris asked the senators to look at a version of the bill passed by the Minnesota House last year.

Also included in the bill are provisions for assistance for communities that would experience closure of coal, gas or nuclear plants.

Sean Dowse, mayor of Red Wing, said the Prairie Island nuclear plant, the largest in the state, provides about half of the city's tax base and said retirement of the plant would affect every aspect of the city.

Clean Energy Forum

Testimonies are heard during a pre-session clean energy forum on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020, in the Heintz Center Commons at Rochester Community and Technical College in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

"We recognize we may have a little more time than some other communities," he said.

Dowse also urged them to fund the state's energy transition grant program that provides relief to communities with closing plants.

Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, Chairman of the energy committee, called the bill "reasonable" and pragmatic," adding that the energy sector has already been moving toward renewable energy generation.

Sen. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, ranking minority member of the committee, noted Minnesota’s three largest investor-owned utilities have already surpassed state renewable energy goals.

Osmek said at the conclusion of the hearing that he hopes to have an energy bill on the Senate floor for vote by the end of February.

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