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Clean energy on the table: Advocates pushing for legislation this session

Local conservationists and clean energy advocates are pushing hard for state legislation that could greatly increase the renewable energy market in Minnesota.

Advocates from Fresh Energy, Riverland Community College, the Izaak Walton League and the Audubon Society discussed potential legislation Monday morning at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center with a huge focus on increased solar energy within the next two decades. Advocates want a 40 percent renewable energy standard by 2030 with a 10 percent solar energy standard.

The clean energy omnibus bill will be heard by the Minnesota House of Representatives today; however, local Rep. Jeanne Poppe (DFL-Austin) isn’t sure the bill is quite ready. While experts on the subject spoke about the economic and environmental benefits, including Steve Vietor, Riverland wind and solar programs instructor, Poppe would like to see better legislation.

“It’s not that I don’t support solar and wind,” Poppe said. “I really do think we need to come up with the right answer, not just an answer.”

“I’d really like to see a lot more fleshed out about the solar mandate piece,” she added.

Vietor is a huge proponent of the solar mandate, as he and others believe a 10 percent mandate by 2030 could add 2,000 jobs in Minnesota, bolster the electric car market and reduce dependence on oil and natural gas.

“It’s really investing in our future,” Vietor said.

Yet one concern with increased renewable energy is the effect on utilities companies. Poppe said current legislation overlooks the small utility companies and could actually force them to increase rates if they are too heavily mandated.

Vietor and others spoke about government incentives for utilities companies that encourage renewable energy use. On the other end, renewable energy offers one benefit to utilities companies: eased electrical demand during peak energy times.

“It’s helping us reduce our peak demand as well,” said Kelly Lady, energy services consultant at Austin Utilities.

When solar energy isn’t being used, it can actually put power back on the grid. Vietor mentioned the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center’s Ruby Rupner Auditorium, where Monday’s meeting was held, has actually done that during the winter months. As a result the nature center gets a check when that happens.

Furthermore, those who use solar panels at their homes and businesses in the area will receive a $1 per Watt rebate from Austin Utilities. Vietor said electricity is currently about $3.40 per Watt. He added solar modules (the large, black panels) are $230 to $260 per module with an extra $130 for an inverter, which makes the energy usable through home electrical hookups. The cost has significantly fallen in the past years. Vietor said the bulk of expenses now lie in the nuts, bolts, clamps and structures to house the solar units. New legislation would offer incentives to those manufacturers to make costs to consumers even cheaper. Right now, Vietor and others said homeowners can install a solar module and recoup the cost of buying it within three to five years. Other incentives and tax rebates apply, as well. With new legislation, Vietor believes the renewable energy market could turn the corner and create demand for contractors and builders.

In the meantime, for those considering solar energy, Lady suggests people look into making their homes as energy-efficient as possible through other means, such as proper insulation and energy efficient appliances.

In the Minnesota Senate, an energy bill has also been heard by a finance committee, but this year’s legislative session is nearly over. Clean energy advocates at Monday’s meeting encouraged people to contact their local legislators to try to get the bill passed this week.