DFL lawmakers introduced bills in the Minnesota Senate and House last week that would require completely carbon-free electricity by 2040, a top goal for the party in fighting climate change and a key policy in Gov. Tim Walz's Climate Action Framework.
The bills were introduced just as the session opened, underscoring the urgency felt by DFLers to pass the legislation this year.
"We heard loud and clear from the Minnesota public during the last campaign that this is something they want us to act on and act quickly," DFL Majority Leader Rep. Jamie Long said.
Long said the House bill, which has 35 sponsors, would get a committee hearing as early as next week and could be on the floor shortly after.
The 2040 standard would push utilities in Minnesota to ditch coal, natural gas and any other energy sources that release planet-warming gases a decade earlier than the state's two largest retail utilities, Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power, have planned.
The legislation also offers what lawmakers call an off-ramp: Electric companies could appeal to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) if ratepayers find it too expensive to make the shift by 2040 or if carbon-free alternatives such as solar and wind aren't reliable enough to keep the lights on.
"We want all utilities to be at the table as this bill makes its way to final passage. It's going to pass," said Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, who chairs the Senate Energy, Utilities, Environment and Climate Committee and the lead author of the Senate bill.
Ensuring reliable energy will be a key challenge in meeting the 2040 goal, which lawmakers acknowledge. Right now, fossil-fuel peaker plants keep electricity flowing during high demand periods. Improvements in batteries to store power when the wind isn't blowing or the sun isn't shining will be needed to meet the new standard, Frentz said.
Xcel Energy spokesman Kevin Coss said in a statement that the utility is "committed to achieving a zero-carbon future as quickly as possible — potentially as early as 2040 — and, like policymakers, wants to ensure affordably and reliability as we do so."
Xcel Energy, which serves 1.3 million customers in Minnesota, was highlighted in a report this November by the utility watchdog, the Energy and Policy Institute. It found that Xcel last year tried to enlist Minnesota cities to work against Walz's emissions reduction goals and recruit them for its Carbon-Free Future MN coalition, which promotes carbon-free power by 2050 rather than 2040.
Coss said Xcel doesn't view the coalition "as a group we are asking to advocate for or against this legislation, but rather as a way to share information about the clean energy transition."
A spokeswoman for Duluth-based Minnesota Power, which serves 145,000 customers in northeastern Minnesota, wrote in an email that the utility looks forward to working with lawmakers to ensure "no customer is left behind during this clean-energy transition, and that reliability of our electric service and affordability remain at the forefront."
Great River Energy, a Maple Grove nonprofit that provides power to roughly 1.7 million customers in Minnesota and Wisconsin through 27 cooperatives, told the Star Tribune last week that its preferred target year was 2050. However, that line was missing in an updated statement this week, which did not have a position on when the state should have completely carbon-free power. Spokesman Daniel Becchetti did not explain the change.
In its statement, Great River said it favored exceptions in the law for peaker plants and to allow it to run coal plants that capture 80% of their carbon emissions. Neither bill as written would make those exceptions.
Allen Gleckner, lead director for policy and programs at St. Paul nonprofit Fresh Energy, said he hoped the bills won't spark a major tussle with power companies. When the state has previously set goals, like the 2007 renewable energy standard, electricity generators were able to meet that bar, he said.
"When the utilities are told, 'This is where we're going, you need to plan for it,' they've done that," Gleckner said.
But Isaac Orr, of the Twin Cities-based conservative think tank Center of the American Experiment, said he worried that political pressure could make PUC commissioners push power companies to change too quickly.
"The thing about the [bills'] language is there's not a specific metric for reliability," he said. "That's going to allow people to kind of believe whatever modeling they want to."
The bills also would add goals for a renewable energy mix — basically wind, solar and hydroelectric generation — and disqualify Hennepin County's trash incinerator as a renewable energy source.
The Hennepin Energy Recovery Facility, or HERC, has long been an issue for environmental justice advocates who say the site pollutes Minneapolis neighborhoods that already face racial disparities.
"I think there's some valid concerns about considering trash incineration in the same category that we're considering solar and wind," said Rep. Patty Acomb, DFL-Minnetonka, who chairs the House Climate and Energy Finance and Policy Committee.
Hennepin County Commissioner Jeffrey Lunde said the county is working to find ways to shut down HERC eventually, which now accepts 1,100 truckloads of trash every week to burn for power.
"We look forward to the conversation because we actually share the same goal," Lunde said. "It's just ... how do we get there?"