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Dan Nemes: Will legislators backtrack on energy?

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The Minnesota Legislature is poised to deliver a one-two punch to clean, renewable energy in our state. Two pieces of proposed legislation — Senate File 141 and Senate File 214 — represent a considerable step backward for Minnesota's renewable energy future.

The first measure, which passed last week in the Senate Energy Committee, will curtail solar and wind power generation in the state, especially power generated in small-town Minnesota, by stripping away the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission's authority to review fees imposed by municipal and cooperative utilities on customers who invest in solar or wind systems.

Instead of acting transparently and publicly airing how solar and wind customers affect the grid, utilities have convinced a handful of our legislators to change the law so they are no longer subject to the consumer-protection functions of the commission. This may be because when solar or wind customers have challenged oblique and capricious fees the Public Utilities Commission has found in favor of the customer and ordered the utility to cease their illegal activity.

If the bill becomes law, utilities will have gutted a consumer watchdog. What do the utilities want to hide, and why are our lawmakers in St. Paul abetting them in their obfuscation? Why not let the sun shine on their fee calculations?

The fees matter to customers of utilities such as People's Energy Cooperative, Steele-Waseca Co-op Electric, Goodhue County Co-op Electric, and MidEnergy Cooperative. According to Curt Shellum, CEO of Rochester-based Solar Connection, since the utilities began leveling their fees in 2016, which range from $30 to $80 a month, he has been hearing about it from customers.

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"People are discouraged because they thought they were doing something good [by installing a solar system], but now they are hit with this fee," Shellum

Many of the people Shellum is hearing from in southern Minnesota are farmers.

"Farms are great sites for a solar system because there's usually a lot of space for arrays and little or no tree cover," he said. "And people see solar as a good investment because (the farm) is usually going to stay in the family and they'll have free power as long as they have the system.

Since Shellum began Solar Connection in 2010, his company grew by 20 percent to 30 percent a year, and his small business now boasts 10 employees. However, the fees utilities are seeking to cement contributed to a relatively lackluster 2016 where Solar Connection's growth remained flat.

Still, Shellum, a chemist by training, remains undeterred.

"I believe in the technology," he said. "I was persuaded and compelled a long time ago by the potential of solar energy."

I wish our state legislators were as clear sighted, especially when it comes to the other renewable energy bill on the table, which is slated for a Senate Energy Committee hearing today. It proposes eliminating the Made-in-Minnesota solar program.

According to the Minnesota Department of Commerce, since the program's inception in 2013, Made-in-Minnesota has created an estimated 495 new jobs. The Department of Commerce estimates that an additional 1,458 new jobs are anticipated by 2023 with continued investment in the program. In that time period, our state will see approximately 4,200 new solar installation projects, which will provide more than 45 Megawatts of new energy capacity.

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Shellum says that about 25 percent of his customers receive grants through the Made-in-Minnesota program, and while his company will remain viable without the program, he concedes that killing the program will make potential customers less enthusiastic about buying solar panels made in Minnesota.

Last year, the Commerce Department received three times as many applications for solar projects as it could fund. Minnesotans are clearly clamoring for a more diversified energy portfolio. The authors of the proposed legislation argue that shifting funding away from Minnesota-made solar to non-renewable energy projects will create more jobs, but they have yet to offer any concrete plans reallocating the funds.

Minnesota can continue to emerge as a national and global leader in renewable energy, a state where common-sense energy policy works in tandem with passionate and savvy business leaders.

I hope Minnesotans who care about energy independence, our state's continued ability to compete domestically and globally in high-tech renewable energy manufacturing, as well as the need to address the effects of climate change will join me in speaking against this legislation.

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