Letter to John Marty, Chair of the Energy and Environment Committee of the Minnesota Senate (and one of MN’s most respected legislators)

March 22, 2013

Dear Sen. Marty:

Thanks for chatting with me last night (Thursday) after what must have been a long and tiring meeting.

I’ve been around energy policy debates long enough to have a sense of how hard it is to make substantial changes really happen.  You’ve taken on a big project, one we all have a stake in, and I would very much like to see it succeed with solid, change-making legislation.

To me the most needed positive step is to get something going on solar thermal and PV in Minnesota, preferably focused on distributed projects rather than utility-controlled central-station projects.  So far, NSP and others have rather artfully kept solar a matter of much yak-yak and little action.  I appeared to me from the testimony last night that their objectives haven’t changed very much.

The same could be said for conservation and efficiency investments.  More has been done on this, but it barely scratches the surface of the “technical potential” for energy savings.  As noted in last night’s testimony, conservation and efficiency is far more cost effective than even the most cost-effective supply side resources.  Typically, a “nega” kWh costs 2-3 cents.

Of course, this is rational behavior if one is in the business of selling electricity, but that doesn’t make it sound public policy.

On the other side of the coin, it’s been my experience that many “climate activists” feel their cause is of such overriding importance that they don’t have to pay attention to the details, or accept responsibility for the consequences of what they advocate.  I talked last night with several good people with these attitudes.  They don’t care to think about possible negative consequences.

But these attitudes are what can bring about nightmares like what’s happening around Benson, MN.  Granted, Benson’s combination of a turkey litter incinerator and an ethanol plant (burning corn cobs?) is an extreme example, but anywhere in the state with an ethanol plant, “biomass” burner, garbage incinerator … one can expect to find problems with air pollution, resource depletion, undesirable land use changes ….  For example, putting “biomass” burners in schools, health care facilities, and nursing homes is especially evil, as it exposes the most vulnerable segments of our population to health-threatening pollution.  But the “Bio Business Alliance” types aren’t concerned about this, of course, and with the MPCA and enviro NGOs basically out-of-action, who is minding the store?

I’m familiar with FibroWatt/FibroMinn–ownership and names have changed–the Benson burner people, and their MO, and had some role in keeping them out of Delaware and North Carolina.  They come into a legislature, hire effective lobbyists, make all sorts of claims, ask for preferences and subsidies–all before any objective analysis of what they really have to offer.  Once they have subsidies and political support lined up, regulators inevitably roll over.  People took note that Minnesota was the first state in the US to let in Fibrowatt, after several failed attempts elsewhere.

I suppose the supporters of these projects acted in good faith, with good intentions, but bad results.  Don’t we own some corrective action to the communities being harmed by these projects, and some course corrections–such as in the definitions of “renewables”–to make sure we don’t create more problems for more communities?

For example, the MPCA, knowing full well that Benson air is polluted, and that FibroMinn has repeatedly violated its air permits, avoids putting an air monitor in the area, with the attitude that what it doesn’t officially know, it doesn’t have to act on.  (Budgets for air monitoring have been cut.)  It would be very becoming of the Legislature to require and fund some air monitoring there, to at least begin the process of fixing a problem the Legislature created with the “biomass mandate,” etc.

I’m also hearing some disturbing reports of peat-mining and burning projects that could do a lot of harm.

In my city, Red Wing, valuable services to residents have been cut, such as library hours, the city newsletter, and spring and fall yard cleanup, while the city spends hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, with the encouragement of the PCA, to subsidize a garbage burner with a serious record of emissions violations.  Now, Red Wing is trying to tap into the “Renewable Development Fund” to facilitate more garbage burning.  (This would be Xcel giving RDF money to itself, as Xcel owns and operates the other garbage burners in Red Wing, where the burning would presumably be done.

The record shows that some energy policies adopted in Minnesota have proven beneficial, but others have not.  It seems important to pay attention to this record and make course corrections as needed.

I’m confident that legislation can be crafted that would do a lot of good and avoid causing further damage.

“First, do no harm.”

Yours very truly,

Alan Muller
Energy & Environmental Consulting
1110 West Avenue
Red Wing, MN, 55066
Box 69
One Stewart Street
Port Penn, DE, 19731

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