State legislators want to make Minnesota the fourth state in the country to set a 100 percent clean energy plan, with the aim of having electricity providers generate all energy from renewable sources by 2050.
"Business as usual and relying on markets is not going to get the job done in time. The crisis is urgent," said the measure's sponsor, Rep. Jamie Long, D-Minneapolis.
Electric utility companies would need to meet a series of deadlines to reduce their use of fossil fuels over the next few decades under the proposal.
Dozens of people showed up at the State Capitol on Tuesday to champion or warn against the idea. Religious leaders, youth advocates and environmental organizations said it would benefit future generations and vulnerable populations who they say are disproportionately affected by climate change. They urged the state to push for change in the face of federal inaction.
But some electric companies and Republican legislators called the idea an unreliable way to power the state and said a mandate is the wrong approach. Some electric providers raised concerns about extreme weather and limits on how much energy renewable sources, like solar and wind power, can produce.
There are days when there is no wind in the Midwest or the temperature forces turbines to stop generating power, said Kenric Scheevel, with Dairyland Power Cooperative. He said companies still need to rely on fossil fuels in those circumstances.
"We still need a balanced, all-of-the-above generation portfolio," Scheevel said. "Before we take this idea for a drive onto the lake, let's make sure the ice is strong enough."
The idea was debated days after a deep cold spell strained utility companies and left some residents without heat.
Minnesota's electric companies are years ahead of schedule in meeting old clean energy requirements. In 2007, under Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the state announced it was aiming for 25 percent renewable energy by 2025. The state reached that level in 2018.
With the 25 percent requirement met, Long said it is time for more ambitious goals. The changes called for in the measure are projected to create 50,000 new jobs in the clean energy sector, Long said. He said the shift could save consumers money, as wind and solar are generally cheaper than natural gas or coal.
Xcel Energy, the state's largest energy provider, has already set its own goals. The company said last year that it will be 100 percent carbon-free by 2050.
The new proposal in the Legislature would compel the company to meet a 2045 deadline instead. Long said other utilities were given more time because they have fewer financial resources.
On the road to 2050, the proposal would require utilities to be 55 percent carbon-free by 2030 and 80 percent by 2035. Xcel Energy would need to meet more accelerated benchmarks.
Rick Evans, with Xcel Energy, said the company is going through a complicated process to meet the 2050 goal it set for itself, and the steps it is taking are not likely to hit the more aggressive targets in the bill.
"We share the goal. Let the experts choose the tools," Evans said.
Kent Sulem, with the Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association, asked for a study before legislation proceeds. More details are needed on how energy companies can meet the requirements, how to pay for the changes and what the secondary impacts might be, Sulem said.
In the Democratic-controlled House, Long's proposal has momentum - about three dozen fellow legislators have signed on as cosponsors. But the measure is likely to face more opposition in the Republican Senate without changes.
"Mandating 100 percent by 2050 is beyond where I think we should be," said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa. "We should work toward providing more incentive, more carrots, rather than more sticks to get people where we want to."
The Senate sponsor of the proposal, Sen. Nick Frentz, D-North Mankato, said if the utilities recommended a different approach, he would listen and be open to compromise.
If Minnesota does pass a 100 percent clean energy mandate it would join Hawaii, California and New York. Those states have set even more ambitious time frames, including 2040 and 2045.
Lia Harel, a Hopkins High School senior, was one of many students urging legislators to follow in the footsteps of the other states. Harel said the bill should be one piece of a broader solution to address climate change, which she said is threatening the future for young people like her.
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