(Photo by Jimmy Emerson via Creative Commons)
Utility rate cases have become a major battleground over the future of distributed solar generation and the evolving structure of the nation’s electricity system.
In the Midwest, Wisconsin has been ground zero, with state regulators last year approving three rate cases that made solar much less viable through several mechanisms, including a drastic increase in the fixed monthly charges for all ratepayers, regardless of how much electricity they use.
The next major development on that front will be a case that Xcel Energy is expected to file in late spring or summer. The Wisconsin Public Service Commission has made it clear that it welcomes requests for increased fixed charges and related measures, as RENEW Wisconsin program and policy director Michael Vickerman and other energy experts see it.
But a March 26 decision by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) on an Xcel rate case in that state could mean Xcel is unlikely to request the type of fixed rate increase that other utilities in Wisconsin have been granted.
Opponents of Enbridge’s Sandpiper Pipeline are challenging the project through administrative and legal channels as well as through demonstrations and public displays along the pipeline’s route through rural Minnesota. (Photo by Daniel Cusick/EnergyWire)
©2015 E&E Publishing, LLC
Republished with permission
By Daniel Cusick
MINNEAPOLIS — A Canadian company proposes a multibillion-dollar oil pipeline through some of the Midwest’s prized lakes and wetlands, igniting a firestorm among environmentalists, tribes and anti-fossil fuel activists who say the proposal is built on hollow promises of economic development and dubious claims of environmental protection.
Sound familiar? It should. But the pipeline isn’t Keystone XL, and its developer is not TransCanada Corp., purveyor of the most polarizing energy project since the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository.
It is called Sandpiper, and its developer is Enbridge Corp., another Calgary, Alberta-based conglomerate whose extensive oil and gas pipeline network plunges deep into the U.S. interior.
People with respiratory problems who live and play along Minnesota’s North Shore may find breathing a little easier in the future.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has come to an agreement with Minnesota Power on a timeline to update a sulfur dioxide (SO2) air pollution permit for Taconite Harbor Energy Center in Schroeder.
The plant is a hard-to-miss landmark along scenic Highway 61, a popular route for summer tourists. It sprawls along Lake Superior near a town of barely 200 people and a popular resort.
The move is a result of a settlement with Fresh Energy, the Minnesota chapter of the Sierra Club and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (all members of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News) over emissions at the 225 megawatt coal-fired plant. The agency also received a letter in December from concerned citizens, physicians and faith and environmental groups.
The initial permit is more than a decade old and had not included a higher SO2 standard issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2010.
A Minnesota bill will require a certain percentage of advanced biofuels to be derived from cover crops like rye to be eligible for tax credits. (Photo by John S. Quarterman via Creative Commons)
Environmentalists and bioeconomy advocates reached an agreement last week to modify a bill moving through the Minnesota legislature that they hope will create a new clean energy and green chemical industry in Minnesota.
The BioEconomy Coalition of Minnesota amended the legislation, HF 536 and S 517, to include provisions to protect water quality and study incentives for farmers. The bill has been approved by several committees in the House and Senate with bipartisan support.
The legislation’s main goal is to establish a $5 million production tax credit that will be available to advanced cellulosic biofuel and green chemistry producers starting July 1.
The bill initially met with opposition from the Minnesota Environmental Partnership and Friends of the Mississippi River, who expressed concern that it would encourage greater corn production and harm the state’s water resources.
Workers for Mortenson Construction install solar panels at a work site in Arizona. (Photo courtesy Mortenson Construction)
Earlier this year, a major Minnesota construction company announced an agreement with the solar developer SunShare, LLC to collaborate on future projects in the budding community solar garden market.
It should come as no surprise that M.A. Mortenson Company would want a piece of the community solar action, as it has quietly become one of the nation’s leading builders of solar installations.
The company’s solar staff has increased from dozens to hundreds over the past three years, a clear reflection of the industry’s skyrocketing growth.
Solar adds to the company’s growing renewable energy workload, from wind turbines (9,000 turbines producing 15,000 megawatts of power) to transmission infrastructure (33 power line projects).
While Mortenson has agreed to build Sunshare projects in Minnesota the arrangement does not preclude it from working with other developers, said Trent Mostaert, general manager of the Renewable Energy Groups. “We want to help developers build as much solar as possible in Minnesota.”
A Minnesota faith group will announce today an effort to make community solar more accessible to people with lower incomes.
Julia Nerbonne, executive director of Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light, said that early discussions with solar garden developers in the Twin Cities revealed that they will be targeting potential customers with credit scores of 700 or above.
That would leave a substantial portion of the population without access to solar garden subscriptions due to modest to low incomes or past credit problems.
“That’s alarming and people are not talking about it,” she said. “It’s probably less than half the people in country who have a score that high.”
(Photo by John’s Photography via Creative Commons)
Legislation in Minnesota that would help propel greater development of advanced biofuels has met with opposition from clean-water advocates who fear it may result in more pollution of state watersheds.
The bills, HB 536 and SB 517 were crafted by the Bioeconomy Coalition of Minnesota and call for a two-year, $5 million allocation for a production incentive awarded to producers, as well as a capital loan equipment program.
“The beauty of a production incentive as opposed to providing money upfront is it really protects the taxpayer,” said Brendan Jordan, a vice president at the Great Plains Institute who oversees the Bioeconomy Coalition. “If you give money upfront there’s a risk you lose your money and don’t get a project. With a production incentive you already have the economic benefits before the state starts spending any money.”
But the Minnesota Environmental Partnership (MEP) and Friends of the Mississippi River (FMR) say the legislation offers a rare opportunity to build a new industry while significantly improving water quality through the planting of more perennial crops, which are less dependent on fertilizer than corn. Nitrogen from fertilizer is a major source of pollution in the Mississippi River and other watersheds.
Minnesota’s largest utility wants to prohibit large large-scale projects comprised of smaller community solar gardens from being built in the state.
Xcel Energy made the formal request in a letter to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission in a letter Wednesday after raising several concerns last month over the Solar Rewards Community program, which has drawn 431 megawatts (MW) in proposals so far.
A wind turbine near Northfield, Minnesota. (Photo by Robert Hest via Creative Commons)
In January, one of Minnesota’s largest utilities began receiving power from the final phase of a new wind farm — in North Dakota.
Rated at nearly 500 megawatts, Minnesota Power’s Bison wind farm is the largest in its neighboring state.
Meanwhile, Minnesota has dropped three places since 2011 in the America Wind Energy Association rankings as Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington have surged up the rankings and as the state has focused on solar energy production.
Which begs the question — has the solar boom taken the luster out of wind in Minnesota?
(Photo by Pieter Morlion via Creative Commons)
While Minnesota’s largest utility pushes back against the scale of proposals filed under the state’s new community solar program, energy developers and their proponents say those concerns are overblown and based on potentially inaccurate assumptions.
Although no projects have been publicly approved, Xcel Energy raised several issues about community solar gardens in a Feb. 10 letter to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and in an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Comments from solar developers are due Tuesday, with answers from Xcel slated for March 2.