Clean energy wins and misses | 2020 Legislative Session recap

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The following webinar recap is based on the 2020 Legislative Session Recap Webinar hosted by CEEM on May 27, 2020 at 1pm CDT. The slides are available for review, but there are no recordings of the event. There were 60 attendees on the webinar to hear speakers Benjamin Stafford, CEEM’s Director of Policy and Public Affairs, Senator Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, and Steve Kelley, the Minnesota Department of Commerce’s Commissioner. CEEM’s Executive Director, Gregg Mast, also joined the group to provide a welcome and updates on CEEM’s next steps. 

Where clean energy left off in 2019

Before the 2020 session began, eyes were on last year’s work, including some big thinking across many decision makers. Some of these bigger action items included:

  • The House passing 100% Clean Energy by 2050
  • The formation of the DFL climate-related caucus in both the House and the Senate that focused on the clean energy transition
  • The Senate’s discussions over the Clean Energy First bill which is intended to look at clean energy options as the first option
  • “One Minnesota Path to Clean Energy” worked by the Walz/Flanagan administration including increasing the state’s clean energy efficiency standards

The year 2019 left us with a lot of thinking around clean energy at the capitol and a lot of commitments on action for clean energy.

Challenges facing the 2020 Legislative Session

The 2020 Legislative Session was one for the history books. With COVID-19 hitting in mid-March the session was largely disrupted and forced into virtual survival mode. Priorities at the capitol shifted heavily to pandemic response, state bonding and matters where agreement already existed. For clean energy, this meant being mostly set to the side while pandemic relief and support took precedence. Clean energy advocates, including CEEM, worked hard to ensure clean energy workers were classified as ‘essential workers’ given that workplace safety measures were in place. They also continued educating legislators on the benefits of the industry and working to advance clean energy policy to ensure that clean energy would be viable as a path to economic growth and recovery from the pandemic. 

CEEM and its member-businesses impact in the legislature

Before the stay-at-home order took effect, Clean Energy Economy MN held its 4th annual Clean Energy Business Day at the capitol on March 4, 2020. The event drew its largest crowd yet of over 200 supporters. The event was a huge success, filling the hallways of the capitol with clean energy supporters. Over 100 of these attendees met with their local legislators to discuss clean energy issues. These discussions are critical as they allow our legislators to see and hear from the real voices of clean energy businesses and advocates as they think through policy on clean energy.

During the session, clean energy business voices were highly influential. Policies around energy efficiency, our continued efforts to support Minnesota’s nation-leading solar and community solar programs, building and performance standards and energy in public buildings all included the business community’s voice. A letter submitted by CEEM on behalf of many member-businesses in support of the ECO Act demonstrated the support of the business community and was highly regarded in committee discussions around the bill. 

Solar companies like IPS Solar showed up in legislative discussions on several bills. During the House’s Clean Energy Business Day, several member-companies including Trane and Willdan were able to share their perspectives on how clean energy business is growing.

2020 clean energy outcomes

The 2020 Legislative Session ended on May 19 with few victories and many more missed opportunities for clean energy. 

Successes:

There was strong bipartisan support for spending out the Renewable Development Account. This bill did pass with $15 million included for Solar*Rewards. 

CEEM and its member-companies were active in defending against incoming legislation that posed a threat to advanced transportation markets and weakening the state’s sustainable building codes. 

Missed opportunities:

Among the many missed opportunities was the Energy Conservation and Optimization (ECO) Act which would improve our statewide energy efficiency program (CIP). This bill had strong support from utilities, energy cooperatives, businesses and others and energy waste reduction and job creation would have resulted if passed.

Second, there was no deal made on abonding bill. If passed, a bonding bill could have  created $350 million in energy projects at  Minnesota’s public colleges and universities. 

Third, Minnesota's nation-leading community solar garden program failed to be adjusted in several important ways which could have provided jobs, local tax revenue, improved rural grids and diversified farm income. Two other notable absences in bill passage are Clean Energy First and movement in the Bioincentive program. 

Guest Speaker: Senator Eric Pratt

Our first guest speaker, Senator Eric Pratt (R-Prior Lake) joined us from District 55. He is the  Assistant Majority Leader, Chair of the Jobs and Economic Growth Committee and a member of the Utilities and Energy Committee. Senator Pratt also received the 2019 CEEM Clean Energy Champion Award. 

Senator Pratt started his comments with his views of the accomplishments of this year’s session. He explained the amount of work that was done to combat COVID-19, including allocating over $568 million in three phases to attack the healthcare crisis. He then moved to a focus on the clean energy work done this year. 

“Despite the changes in focus we were able to pass two energy bills. First, we updated the CIP program to replace fluorescent with LED. I think that was an important update. Second, we passed an RDA bill that funded the solar energy incentive program through 2022, funded the host city transition programs where power plants that will be closing or have closed recently, and then an interesting project to help Prairie Island become a net-zero project. That will be a pilot and maybe a model for other communities in the state.”

Senator Pratt then voiced his thoughts on the opportunities missed in the legislature. On ECO, he said “I think we had the votes in the Senate to pass it, but we ran out of time.” He also described concerns from rural members and the propane industry about the bill. 

On Clean Energy First, Senator Pratt talked about his view that new energy sources should be clean if they are reliable and affordable. He mentions that the Senate did define “what is clean.” He discussed the role of the Public Utilities Commission in this process and how many people raised concerns about the rising costs of energy. 

Senator Pratt finished his comments with a preview of the upcoming special session. He believes that the bonding bill will be the major headline, but thinks ECO could pop back up.

Q&A with Senator Pratt

Question: Concerning ECO, this is a fuel-neutral bill, do you think it is possible that it will get a floor vote during the special session? If not, what do you think our sector could do to help? 

Answer: I think it could, but it could use a little push. For your members in the rural district, have them reach out to their legislators and let them know that this is important to you. I think there is a really good shot this could show up in a special session. 

Question: We have had a couple of years where we have tried to address community solar gardens and the issues that folks in the Senate have had with those programs. Is there any likelihood of community solar gardens coming up in special session?

Answer: As far as I know, we had a pretty good deal worked out, but I’m not sure that we’ve been able to come to an agreement in the House. I wouldn’t see that as being part of a special session, I think this will need to be put out until next year.

Question: Why did funding on solar on schools not move forward?

Answer: This is one of those issues where we couldn’t come to an agreement on it. It should’ve been in the RDA deal. I don't know the specifics of why it didn't happen and I'd like to see it in the RDA bill and I’ll continue to push for it.

Guest Speaker: Commissioner Steve Kelley

Our second guest speaker, Steve Kelley, joins us as Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Commerce. He was appointed by Gov. Walz in January 2019 after serving 10 years in the State Senate and 4 years in the House of Representatives. He is also a former Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs. 

Commissioner Kelley started his remarks by talking about the accomplishments of the RDA bill passage. He talked about the funding for the net-zero project with Prairie Island and said it will be an important demonstration of the potential of clean energy in a unique setting. He also talked through the need for a fair and just clean energy transition and the need for resources for host communities where plants are closing or have closed. 

He then shifted focus to opportunities moving forward. “ECO is a technology neutral bill. Our focus on that bill is things that are both cleaner and more efficient and whatever technology that can move in that direction is important.” He said the department is committed to giving a fair look at all technologies being considered eligible for fuel switching. He also mentioned that the Natural Gas Innovation Act may come up in special session which is an opportunity for clean energy to move forward in the gas space, not just the electricity space.

Q&A with Commissioner Kelley

Question: You’ve just hired a new deputy commissioner, what should we know about this new commissioner?

Answer: Aditya Ranade, is the new Deputy Commissioner for Energy Resources. He spent the last few years at 3M leading a team for renewable energy with sensors and other technology that supports renewable energy. He has also started several clean energy companies, including one that was looking at inventory of Renewable Natural Gas opportunities. He will provide a contribution with his private sector experience and entrepreneurial approach to opportunities available to us in the clean energy sector.

Question: Has there been any discussion about how Minnesota can support high-voltage transmission infrastructure development?

Answer: Yes, there has been more than discussion. Governor Walz and Governor Reynolds in Iowa, have worked together to communicate to MISO about increasing transmission needs in the Northern MISO network. I think this is an important role to keep providing guidance on to keep communicating the need for access to additional transmission. Also important to note, the private sector is also paying attention and working to develop planning for the transmission network that will be needed in the future.

Question: How is the administration viewing clean energy as a driver in economic recovery?

Answer: To begin with, the Great River Energy project is seen as an important forerunner given the timing. Their goal is to have those projects built over the next couple of years. We also think that a continued investment in solar energy is important. We’ve been working with Great Plains Institute and others on a solar pathways project, and there are other opportunities to add solar resources (distributed and utility scale). We see tremendous opportunity but it needs to be managed in both reliability and affordability for those resources.

Question: What kind of policy do you see on the horizon that could strengthen the clean energy industry.

Answer: We certainly would like to see as part of the federal stimulus package, support for production tax credits that would encourage investment using federal tax incentives. I am not sure if that is a strong enough tool at the state level to have the same effect as the federal incentives have. Regarding solar on schools, the RDA is one source of funding, but through community solar gardens, solar has demonstrated that it can be a good investment for private sector entities, like schools. 

Question: Do you have any thoughts from the department on electric vehicles and electrification of buildings?

Answer: We are supportive of the transition to electric vehicles because of efficiency and the co-benefits to the electric system. We have more of a role to play in working with the utilities that are going to put in the charging infrastructure. We need to manage how we install appropriately while expanding the availability of resources. I think we will be evaluating how all of this is different in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Next steps for Clean Energy Economy MN

The session concluded with the next steps for CEEM which include our upcoming release of the Clean Jobs Midwest report on June 11, the anticipated start of the special session, June 12, regulatory engagement in system planning dockets and continued COVID-19 support