As Minnesota lawmakers return to a statehouse under full DFL control in the new session, members of the party in both chambers said they are eager to advance legislation to fight climate change.
Lawmakers already have a busy agenda — DFLers have committed to codifying abortion rights after the overturning of Roe v. Wade helped the party sweep control of the two chambers and statewide offices. Plenty of spending priorities have also been held up as the governor, GOP Senate and DFL House failed to agree on a plan for billions left in the state's surplus this year.
But one climate policy will be near the top of the list: setting a state goal of 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040.
Carbon-free power is a focus for Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, the newly elected House Majority Leader. Previously, Long chaired the House's climate and energy committee.
"I think that we have in leadership a group that cares deeply about climate action," Long said. "I am certain that climate will be a top priority."
Long is not the only member of House leadership with experience in the area — DFL Speaker Melissa Hortman authored laws setting standards for solar power generation by utilities and allowing community solar projects the last time her party had a trifecta in state government, in 2013 and 2014.
In the Senate, Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, pushed an attempt to set the carbon-free power standard in the last session in tandem with Long. It wasn't heard by Senate Republicans, so Frentz said he's eager to pass it in the new session.
Frentz, who will now chair the Senate's energy committee, said he wants to ensure there's an "off-ramp" in the state's energy standards to account for low costs and reliability, too.
Under the formerly GOP Senate, he said, "there simply hasn't been any substantive discussion about the cost of climate change on our children and grandchildren."
The 2040 clean energy standard is also a central part of Gov. Tim Walz's Climate Action Framework, which set out broad goals to reduce planet-warming emissions from the state's agricultural lands, buildings, transportation and energy systems.
"We need everyone engaged in the work in order to be successful," said Katrina Kessler, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the leader of Walz's Climate Change Subcabinet. "We are happy to work with elected officials on the elements of policy that touch the work we do."
Some bipartisan clean-energy measures have passed in recent years. The ECO Act, which reformed the state's energy conservation programs, and the Natural Gas Innovation Act, which lets gas utilities spend more on lower-carbon technologies, passed in 2021.
Other efforts to reduce carbon emissions encountered a partisan divide, like Walz's clean-cars rule, which attracted so much ire from Republican senators they briefly threatened to stall a major spending bill in 2021. The standards require automakers to ship more electric vehicles to the state starting in 2024, and car dealers have twice sued to stop the regulations. One case failed, and the other is pending in the Court of Appeals after arguments earlier this month.
Long said the House, which has been under DFL control for the past four years, is ready for action on several fronts.
He said the state must set aside money to match grants from the federal Inflation Reduction Act, which spends billions on new, lower-carbon technologies; and that Minnesota should spend more to weatherize homes, which was also a major component of Walz's framework.
"Weatherization, to me, is extremely important because it meets a lot of different needs all at once," Long said, making homes more efficient and reducing energy burdens for the poorest in the state. Minnesota's Weatherization Assistance Program, which targets low-income homeowners and renters, is mostly federally funded.
DFL Rep. Patty Acomb, chair of the Climate Action Caucus in the House, said "there are a lot of things that were started and not finished" last session. She mentioned expanding solar power on two fronts: extending the geography of who can buy into community solar projects, and putting more money into the "solar in schools" grant program implemented last year.
But she noted that the DFL will have slim majorities in both houses. "I think that we have an opportunity here and I want us to do good things with it, but I also want us to be mindful about the bottom line," Acomb said.
DFL Sen. Scott Dibble of Minneapolis, the incoming Senate transportation chair, said the state needs to work quickly to build out charging infrastructure for electric vehicles and to beef up transit options. Transportation, he noted, is the biggest single sector adding to the state's greenhouse gas emissions.
The Legislature has a "strong role to play in funding pedestrian and bicycle routes" by providing grants for local governments, and "an enormous role to play in funding transit in the Metro area and in greater Minnesota."
Lawmakers will face technological and practical challenges as they try to implement clean energy and decarbonization goals. In particular, wind and solar sites don't produce when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing. Natural gas also remains a preferred heating source for most in Minnesota, as all-electric wintertime home conditioning costs can be prohibitively expensive.
The 2040 goal is also ahead of what Minnesota's main utilities have proposed; while they're pledging to retire coal plants earlier, Xcel Energy has set a goal for net-zero carbon power by 2050, and Minnesota Power is aiming for carbon-free power by the same year.
Costs of the 2040 goal were a major concern for Isaac Orr of conservative think tank Center for the American Experiment.
A spokesperson for Senate Republicans said the group had not caucused yet on the issues and directed questions to Orr.
"With the DFL, I think that they're so concerned with reducing emissions, I think they're going to lose sight of reliability and affordability," Orr said.
Orr pointed to statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration showing that Minnesota's electric costs have already risen more than twice as much as the national average, since 2007.
Retiring GOP Sen. David Senjem of Rochester, the outgoing chair of the Senate's energy committee, said he hopes DFLers will consider nuclear power as a growing part of the state's future mix. Right now, there are two nuclear plants in the state, and construction of new ones is banned by state law.
"If you want to do some feel-good goals, I think [DFLers will] be able to do that," he said. The 2040 goal "is not going to be achieved without a lot of good technology," especially in battery storage.
Senjem said he was convinced that the state will continue moving to a cleaner energy mix. He suggested lawmakers on both sides should heed voters in implementing cleaner energy.
"[I]f the minority lags in their acceptance of a clean-energy future, they do so risking political acceptance by important groups like young adults and suburbia, both of which are important constituents going forward," he wrote in a follow-up message.