Let’s not kick solar to the curb

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It has been a challenging start to the legislative session for supporters of renewable energy initiatives. Minnesota has made incredible progress in recent years in its efforts to shift towards a cleaner power production and consumption portfolio. As a member of the Senate Energy and Utilities Committee, I have had to vote against a bill that eliminated the 2013 Made in Minnesota Solar incentive program and another that allowed Excel to fully circumvent the Public Utility Commission with regard to a replacement natural gas plant in Becker. Perhaps the most egregious effort of all was a bill that completely changes the intent and purpose of the Renewable Development Fund (RDF).

Some of you may remember the history around the creation of this fund. Xcel Energy, the operator of the Prairie Island nuclear generating plant in Redwing, was required to deposit funds into the newly created RDF as a condition of storing spent nuclear fuel in dry casks at Prairie Island. The original amount was approximately $9 million per year and has grown now to nearly $26 million in 2016. To put that into perspective, that currently equates to about three-fourths of one cent per month per each residential Excel customer.

Within the RDF statute, there is clear direction as to what the funds may be appropriated for.

  • Increase the market penetration within Minnesota of renewable energy resources at reasonable costs.
  • Promote the startup and expansion of renewable energy projects and companies in Minnesota.
  • Stimulate research and development of renewable electric energy technologies.
  • Develop near-commercial and demonstration scale renewable electric projects.

Since its 1994 inception, the RDF has provided over $276 million for renewable energy initiatives statewide, including $120 million for the Made in Minnesota Solar Energy Production Incentive Account. I was part of the legislature in 2013 when we created this program, designed to provide production incentives for both residential and commercial installations that were manufactured in our state. Most solar companies here in Minnesota are telling us that the program has been instrumental in getting started here in Minnesota and is an effective tool in getting additional small solar applications up and running.

The proposed legislation moving rather quickly through the legislature would do away with the RDF as was originally agreed to — and put the annual funding from Xcel into a “Energy Account” — to be spent by the legislature on some “to be determined initiatives.” I oppose this effort for a number of reasons, not the least of which it is incredibly bad policy that conflicts with the original intent of the RDF.

Energy policy does not have to be partisan. But ill-conceived ideas that undo strategic initiatives are taken as just that. Legislators can do Minnesotans a favor by not trying to push poor policy simply because they can.