Minnesota Energy bills not ready for prime time

Two “omnibus” energy bills, SF 901 and HF 956 are wending their way through the Minnesota Legislature.  These bills are being heavily promoted by a coalition of industrial and environmental groups calling itself the “Clean Energy & Jobs” campaign.  A description of the bills from the point of view of the Clean Energy and Jobs folks is here, on the site of the Minnesota Renewable Energy Society.  Lots of people are being urged to contact their legislators in support of these bills.  Sounds good, doesn’t it?   And it many ways it is, but there are enough problems in these bills as they presently stand to potentially do more harm than good.

“Renewable energy” is a stupid thing to promote, however, because it makes no distinction between wind and solar power, and garbage burner power, landfill gas power, or “biomass” in the sense of tree incineration power.  Many of these dirty-burner renewables are as bad or worse than coal in terms of both health-damaging air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions.  The House bill at present increases quotas for all of these.

“Environmental” interests have a sad record of supporting bad things such as corn ethanol, poultry poop incineration (Benson MN, now suffers from this), wood (“biomass”) burners, garbage incinerators, “for wind” transmission lines that are actually for coal, natural gas as a “bridge” fuel.  Mostly, they have made these mistakes because they have taken special interest money and failed to do their homework on the true implications or accepted simplistic claims such as, “wood burning is ‘carbon neutral’ because the trees just grow back….”  The climate, and human health and quality of life, have suffered from these misguided alliances and technical misunderstandings.  These “enviro” and energy wonk interests, to be credible, need to recognize their past mistakes and show greater knowledge and wisdom going forward.

Coal, oil, and gas interests took over the Republican party, driving out reasonable people.  Then, Republicans took over the Minnesota Legislature and worked hard at turning back the clock.  Now, the DFL controls the Legislature as well as the Governor’s office, and people see an opportunity to make progress towards better energy policies.   Rhetoric and ideology aside, the key questions are “what is really better?” and “how can we get there?”

“Omnibus” bills are mashups of various bills on various subjects, making it hard to grasp the full implications.  Lots of political horse trading goes into them, and the utilities, especially Xcel Energy, exact a heavy price for going along with anything that doesn’t benefit them directly.  These bills are stuffed with giveaways tending to increase gas and electric rates, promote building more transmission lines for coal power, and possibly reducing utility responsibility for conservation and efficiency measures.   Democracy would be better served by votes on individual bills, but…..

The “Clean Energy and Jobs” folk aren’t disclosing the negative provisions.  Partly, it seems to me, because they only care about their own agendas and don’t feel the need to level with their members about the bigger picture.  A nastier reason is a long standing political alliance between the wind and solar people, and the dirty burner people.  This unholy alliance is what the terms “renewable” and “clean energy” have come to really mean.  Rhetorically, it’s like using “pro life,” to mean “outlaw abortion,” or “family” as code for “anti-gay.”

Some point out that Minnesotans send 13 billion dollars per year out of the state to purchase fossil fuels.  This is true, as MN doesn’t have in-state oil, gas, or coal–though much coal is burned in   Minnesota and this needs to stop ASAP.  Minnesota also has excellent wind and solar resources, and great opportunities to reduce energy use through conservation and efficiency.  It is possible to greatly reduce spending on fossil fuels, reduce planet-cooking emissions, and also move towards a healthier state.  But win-win-win isn’t automatic.

As Carol Overland ( www.legalectric.org) points out, increasing wind and solar power doesn’t automatically reduce use of fossil fuels.  Approving transmission lines intended to ship large amounts of coal-generated electricity from the Dakotas eastward to Chicago and beyond is especially perverse, not to mention the harm done to thousands of Minnesota homes, farms, and businesses.

Some are foolishly arguing that Minnesota should use very dirty “local” energy sources such as garbage burning, wood burning, etc.  A report from the MPCA estimates that the “health impacts” of air pollution originating in Minnesota are over 15 billion dollars per year, more than the claimed cost of importing fossil fuels.  These include over 1600 deaths per year from particle pollution alone, plus 660,000 “Acute Respiratory Symptoms,” 110,000 “Work Loss Days,” 58,000 cases of “Asthma Exacerbation,” 330 “Respiratory Emergency Room Visits,” 1300 cases of “Acute Bronchitis,” and so on.   Minnesota can, and should, act to reduce this toll of death and disease.  Key steps include phasing out not only coal burning, but “biomass” and garbage burning.  (Thanks to Rep. Jean Wagenius for instigating this report.)

The Senate energy omnibus bill has fewer evil provisions than the House version, perhaps because Sen. John Marty, Chair, has a real track record of caring about health and the environment.  However, the long listing of “stakeholders” at the beginning of the bill does not even mention health advocates or experts.

My next email will offer some details on these bills and suggestions for improvement.  For now, we suggest contacting legislators, asking them NOT to pass these bills without these improvements:

(1)     Do NOT increase generic “renewables” quotas (“Renewable Energy Standard”)  We don’t want more incentives for dirty power;

(2)     DO require utilities to deliver a significant and increasing quota of solar power;

(3)     DO NOT allow the Xcel Energy “Renewable Development Fund” to be used for burner projects, ESPECIALLY not garbage burning projects (Xcel Energy is conniving with the City of Red Wing to divert money from this fund to grind up garbage for burning in an Xcel-owned burner with a long history of pollution.  Is this the kind if “renewable energy we want?);

(4)     DO strengthen, NOT weaken, utility obligations to deliver energy efficiency savings to ratepayers, present requirements are too low to have much impact;

(5)     DO NOT make it easier to automatically charge Minnesota ratepayers, without their consent, for new transmission lines, replacing old gas lines, cleaning up coal plants in the Dakotas and Wisconsin, and other measures not shown to be beneficial (Retail electric rates are increasing rapidly in Minnesota, while the wholesale price of electricity has decreased.  Minnesotans are receiving very little protection from the utility-influenced Public Utilities Commission).

We can do a lot better.

By the way, today is World Asthma Day (http://www.ginasthma.org/).

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