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Minnesota’s solar standard stands out in season of modest energy progress

A new survey of 2013 legislative sessions suggests that Minnesota lawmakers’ embrace of solar power puts the state once again in the forefront of action on progressive energy measures, and in a year that was expected to be unfavorable — even hostile — toward investment in renewables.

The survey was conducted by the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University, which summarized its findings this way:

At the beginning of 2013, there was a great deal of public discourse around efforts to roll back state renewable energy generation standards. Those efforts appear to have failed thus far in the 2013 legislative session. … While more than 30 states voted on or considered legislation this session to change their Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), only eight have enacted modifications or increases to existing policies and no state has rolled back an existing standard.

[Of] 121 bills introduced this session that would increase, modify or decrease RPS policies. …16 have been enacted to date, none of which would repeal or delay RPS statutory requirements or generation deadlines.

CNEE’s director, former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr , said that, “despite attempts to roll back state renewable energy policies this year, the net impact thus far in the 2013 session is that the U.S. renewable energy market is stronger, particularly in the three states that increased their RPS standards — Nevada, Colorado and Minnesota. States are clearly defending their RPS policies and in some cases, increasing them.”

Minnesota’s new measure puts it squarely in that latter category, with a requirement that the state’s four large investor-owned utilities — Xcel Energy, Minnesota Power, Otter Tail Power and Interstate Power & Light — generate 1.5 percent of their electricity with solar power by the year 2020.

That’s not just a “carve-out” for solar within the existing RPS standard, but rather an addition to the portfolio of requirements that will ensure 25 percent renewables by 2025 (30 percent for Xcel, because of special provisions related to its nuclear plants).

The law requires that 10 percent of the utilities’ solar installations be in the form of small, “distributed generation” projects that spread investments more widely and reduce transmission needs. It also created incentives for solar installations atop business and homes, including an option for homeowners to pool their investments in shared systems or “community solar gardens.”

Not all states have concluded their 2013 legislative sessions, but so far CNEE counts these developments as progressive victories or neutral adjustments of existing policy:

Colorado: The renewable standard for cooperatives was raised from 10 percent to 25 percent by 2020, and lawmakers decided to treat coal-mine methane and synthetic gas produced from municipal solid waste as eligible for treatment as renewable fuels, but only if the state regulators determine that their use would be neutral in terms of greenhouse-gas emission.

Nevada: Lawmakers phased out credits toward the renewable standard for efficiency measures and past investments, choosing to make it more difficult for utilities to meet the requirements by means other than bringing new energy supplies online.

Connecticut: The legislature increased the size limit on small, run-of-the-river hydroelectric projects that can qualify for eligibility under the renewable standard, and raised the overall requirement for certain renewable resources from 20 percent  in 2020 to 25 percent .

Maryland: The eligibility rules for solar-powered water heating systems were expanded to cover larger, concentrator-type units; a new category was established for offshore wind energy; and a task force was set up to explore the use of thermal energy sources. Meanwhile, a bill to encourage repowering of coal plants with natural gas was defeated.

Montana: Certain compressed-air systems were made eligible under the renewable standard, as were expanded hydroelectric projects. Small utilities, serving 50 customers or fewer, were exempted from the requirements. (Evidently the impact of that change was too slight for CNEE to count as a rollback.)

Virginia: RPS standards were broadened to include additional solar technologies, and requirements were tightened to ensure that utilities are actually generating renewable power within the state, rather than buying from out-of-state sources. In what would seem a negative step, utilities’ maximum rate of return on some projects was reduced.

Washington: Lawmakers decided to let utilities operating in both Washington and another state to count out-of-state renewables toward compliance with Washington’s standard. Also, the center reported, a controversial measure “allows utilities without load growth to purchase coal transition power while continuing to meet the reduced cost cap for renewable energy investments. The bill has been subject to different interpretations.” I bet.

If these steps sound rather modest to you, well, that’s because they are. For the most part they represent tweaks and slight upward adjustments in state-level renewable policies that made their long strides many years ago.

But in CNEE’s reasonable view, this year’s legislative sessions can be given good marks not just for the accomplishments above, but also for what lawmakers declined to do under heavy pressure for rollbacks.

A national campaign by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC  —  backed by the Koch brothers, the Heartland Institute and others lined up behind fossil fuels for business, political or ideological reasons  —  distributed model bills that could be used to undo a decade of progress on portfolio standards.

Minnesota lawmakers rejected these and so far, around the country, not one of them has passed, according to CNEE’s legislative tracking.

And that seems remarkable, really, given the ceaseless PR campaign against non-fossil, non-nuclear energy as job-killing boutique projects that can’t possibly contribute meaningfully to meeting this nation’s energy needs except at ruinous prices, or with massive and permanent taxpayer subsidies.

But the modest scale of this year’s victories, and the slowing of progress at the state level, also underscores the importance of President Barack Obama’s new strategy for federal investments that build upon the work that’s gone before.

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