Fast-moving carbon-free bill as small utilities companies concerned

Published 6:44 pm Tuesday, January 31, 2023

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A pair of bills going through the Minnesota House and Senate that aims to ensure all utilities get their electricity from carbon-free sources by 2040 is raising concern among smaller companies, not only about the feasibility of the goal, but the associated cost that’s expected to accompany the fast-tracked bills.

The Minnesota House passed the bill on Thursday and has received its first reading in the Senate. Meanwhile a companion bill is also moving through the Senate.

“We know that this is going to be a good news for Minnesotans,” said DFL Majority Leader Jamie Long of Minneapolis after the bill was passed. “It’s going to save Minnesotans money, because right now wind is the cheapest energy you can buy, and solar will be cheaper than wind within a few years.”

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However, opponents of the bills as they are written question that as well as whether or not the technology will even be available by the 2040 deadline.

At the same time, they are also looking for clarity within the bills, which they say doesn’t explain a lot of the processes expected with the new goals.

“It’s gone so fast that even the (Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association) is struggling to understand all the reasons,” said Austin Utilities Executive Director Mark Nibuar.

The bill requires companies to move away from common carbon-based sources of energy, such as coal and meet benchmarks along the way to the 100% goal, cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

The move is intended to make use of alternative sources of energy including solar, wind, hydropower and biomass. The bill states a goal of 55% by 2035.

Xcel Energy had already established a deadline of 100% by 2050, however, others stress that what might work for larger companies doesn’t necessarily fit those smaller companies and utilities.

“Hometown utility leaders are right to be concerned about these well-intentioned bill as currently written,” said MMUA CEO Karleen Kos in a press release issued Monday. “I have never met a municipal utility customer or employee who wasn’t supportive of clean energy, but this law is not realistic for small town utility operations. What makes sense for Xcel is simply not feasible for Ely or Elbow Lake.”

The bill does allow for exclusions for utilities if they can demonstrate that the benchmarks can’t be met and be affordable, however, Nibaur questions what that actually means.

“You can do it, but you’ll be fined? What does that mean?” Nibaur said. “There’s a lack of clarification in this bill.”

A Minnesota Public Radio report indicated Republicans tried to amend the bill that would allow a voluntary involvement by cooperatives with deadline concerns and the lifting of a moratorium on nuclear plants — both of which failed.

Nibaur said he is aware of three technologies that would be important to attain the 2040 goal, including battery storage that would allow for extra storage when there is more wind energy being produced than what can be used.

There is also carbon sequestration that captures emissions from carbon sources and then is reused, however, Nibaur said both of those technologies are only in the testing stages right now.

“In some regions they are saying large battery storage that would assist the grid is 15 years away,” he said. “The carbon recapture, maybe five to 10 years at a really low level.”

Not to mention that parts for solar farms are hard to attain because the raw materials are hard to get at this point. There is also a need for improved transmission lines that moves the gathered energy around the state, especially regarding wind energy.

“There’s a lot of moving parts to this,” said Nibaur, who like many others worry that the cost for all these questions would then be transferred to customers. “I would love to have 100% carbon free to provide electricity to our customers. I just want a reasonable timetable.”

“We’re just concerned the path they are going is way too fast,” he added.