Minnesota utility regulators on Thursday agreed to take a fresh look at whether the price of pollution is accurately reflected in the cost of electrical generating plants.

The 4-1 vote by the state Public Utilities Commission sets in motion a lengthy and technical process to better calculate the social cost of smokestack emissions linked to climate change and human illnesses.

The outcome could have significant consequences for the power generating industry, improving the economics of cleaner energy sources like wind and solar vs. coal-fired power plants.

Commissioner Betsy Wergin opposed the study, saying it could drive up utility prices. "We are completely ignoring the ratepayer," she said.

Minnesota has required regulators to consider pollution's hidden costs for two decades, but environmental and clean-energy groups say the prices are outdated and unrealistically low. The emissions to be studied include carbon dioxide, which is linked to climate change, and those that affect health — sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and small airborne particles.

"These are real dangers," said J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director at the St. Paul-based nonprofit Fresh Energy, one of the six advocacy groups to petition for the review.

The commission ordered the state Pollution Control Agency and state Commerce Department to develop a study plan. Later, the study will require hiring a technical consultant and presentation of technical data to an administrative judge in a trial-like proceeding. Ultimately, the PUC would vote on any updated pollution values.

David Shaffer • 612-673-7090