A bill that would require Minnesota’s utilities to generate 100 percent clean energy by 2040 passed in the House last week and is expected to be signed into law in the coming weeks. The legislation garnered wide support from environmental advocacy groups, who succeeded in pushing some provisions in favor of communities disproportionately burdened by environmental hazards—but some argue that the bill still isn’t attentive enough to environmental justice concerns.
The bill outlines a route to fully decarbonize the electric grid over the next 17 years and establishes benchmarks until the goal is reached. Utilities can purchase renewable energy credits to offset carbon emissions if they generate more carbon than the standard allows. It would also streamline permitting for renewable energy projects, define what qualifies as renewable energy and require paying the state’s prevailing wage to workers who construct or repower large electric plants.
The bill has passed in the Democratic-led House twice before but never made it through the Republican-led Senate. Now, political power in the state has shifted, with new Democratic control of the Senate and a continued hold on the governor’s office.
While environmental advocacy groups have rallied behind House File 7 and Senate File 4, some say it falls short on environmental justice. They also argue that some energy sources listed in the bill, like biomass, shouldn’t count toward the 100 percent carbon-free goal.
Earlier this month, 10 organizations that do environmental justice-focused work in Minnesota sent a letter to lawmakers outlining their environmental equity and climate justice concerns. The goal was for lawmakers to address them during the rest of the session and future sessions, said John Farrell, who co-wrote the letter. Farrell is co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a national nonprofit that provides technical guidance to communities about local solutions for sustainable community development.
“It does feel disappointing that we’re focused on the more technocratic, utility-centric policy first, and then the [environmental justice] stuff is coming later—if it’s coming at all,” said Farrell. “It feels like equity and an energy democracy are an afterthought.”
Advocates said the original version of the bill could have prolonged the operation of existing polluting facilities that have disproportionately burdened disadvantaged communities. Initially, the bill included the energy produced by all the state’s incinerators toward the 100 percent target.
In the current version, incinerators in environmental justice communities would not count toward the 100 percent clean-energy goal. The distinction effectively disincentivizes companies from operating waste-to-energy facilities in disadvantaged communities.
“For them, it was really offensive to have a facility designated in state law as renewable energy, so we wanted to rectify that,” said Rep. Jamie Long, the author of the bill and House majority leader. “Throughout the course of my work on the bill, we have tried hard to center environmental justice concerns and be in touch with advocates and communities.”
The bill defines “environmental justice areas” in which most of its population is non-white, at least 40 percent below the federal poverty line, or located within Indian country.
Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (also known as HERC), a facility that burns garbage to generate energy in north Minneapolis, would fall under this exemption. Closing HERC and other trash incinerators across Minnesota is a key effort for local environmental organizers.
“Being in the heart of the city, you don’t just feel it and breathe it when you drive by the HERC incinerator; you see the smoke pollution,” North Minneapolis resident Makayla Freeman, a student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, told lawmakers during a Jan. 23 committee hearing.
Successfully negotiating the HERC exemption was a win for environmental justice advocates. Still, some worry that classifying all other waste-to-energy plants as renewable would prolong the state’s reliance on them. Minnesota ranks third in the nation for the most waste incinerators.
“In general, we think that incineration is often a false solution,” said Julia Nerbonne, executive director of Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light, a climate and environmental advocacy organization that signed on to the letter sent to bill sponsors.
Negotiations also resulted in exempting new large hydropower plants from qualifying as renewable, and a standard requiring that at least 55 percent of utilities’ retail electric sales be generated from renewable energy sources by 2035. These sources include solar, wind, hydroelectric, hydrogen and biomass, and not other sources like nuclear. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, renewables account for about 29 percent of total in-state electricity net generation in Minnesota. Long said the goal was added to address concerns about relying on expanded nuclear capacity to reach the 100 percent target. Minnesota has a ban on the construction of new nuclear power facilities.
Clean energy advocates say the state can’t afford to wait any longer to phase out fossil fuels, especially with the passage of climate legislation and funding by the federal government incentivizing clean energy investments. Supporters say the bill will kickstart the creation of thousands of new jobs in the state and help make Minnesota a leader in clean energy.
The state’s largest retail utilities, including Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power, backed the bill and committed to reaching the proposed clean energy goal and benchmarks, including 80 percent carbon-free energy generation by 2030. Several cooperative electric utilities expressed support for the bill during committee hearings, but added that it would be challenging to meet the goals listed in the legislation.
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Several Republican lawmakers pushed back on the bill on the House floor on Thursday, calling it a “blackout bill.” They urged lifting the state’s moratorium on new nuclear power plants and argued that Minnesota’s electric grid isn’t equipped for a fast transition to carbon-free energy.
“This is putting families and businesses and their reliance on energy at risk because I don’t believe that we can reach the goals in this bill,” said Rep. Chris Swedzinsk, whose more than one dozen proposed amendments to the bill failed to make it to the version the House passed.
Neighbor state North Dakota also pushed back since the bill would ban Minnesota from importing energy originating from carbon sources. North Dakota threatened to sue in a letter sent to Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum urged Walz and other state officials to amend the bill so that the policy only applies to generations within Minnesota, the Minnesota Reformer reported.
If passed, Minnesota would join at least 21 other states and Puerto Rico in committing to a 100 percent clean energy target, according to the Clean Energy States Alliance. It’s one of the most ambitious timelines in the country. In 2019, Washington, D.C. passed a law requiring that all of its electricity come from renewable sources by 2032, and a 2020 executive order in Rhode Island required the state to reach 100 percent renewable energy electricity by 2033.
The Senate version of the bill will be up for a vote on the Senate floor soon before it goes to Walz.
“We’re super excited to see that happen, and when that happens, the devil is in the details,” said Nerbonne.
Advocates say the next steps for environmental advocacy groups in this session include ensuring the clean energy transition is equitable and supporting other bills aimed at reducing the amount of waste that ends up in incinerators, which failed in the last session.