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Rick Evans, with Xcel Energy, on Tuesday, July 30, 2019 discussed with lawmakers the electric utility's 15-year plan and provided support for a proposal to require electric utilities to prioritize clean energy sources as they build new plants or replace old ones. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

'The change is happening': Electric utilities weigh in on clean energy requirements

ST. PAUL — A pitch to require the state's electric utilities to move away from fossil fuel sources saw bipartisan support as well as bipartisan opposition Tuesday, July 30, as it came up for consideration in a legislative panel.

Under the proposal, electrical companies would have to prioritize clean energy resources when building new power plants or replacing retired facilities. Exceptions would apply if the clean energy alternative can be proven to be unaffordable or can't meet the need of the facility.

The measure varies from existing law in that it would require the utility companies to show that a renewable energy source alone or in cooperation with other clean energy sources can't meet the expected need. Current law indicates that that standard is met if the renewable energy source alone can't meet the needs of a new or refurbished facility.

The proposal comes as the state weighs how it will transition 70% of its electric generation sources in the next 20 years, Department of Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley said. And as individual electric companies have announced goals for themselves to transition away from fossil fuel sources in the next three decades.

“The question of what we are going to replace it with is important,” Kelley said.

The Walz administration has said climate change poses an "existential threat" and brought a proposal earlier this year to move the state's electric utilities to 100% renewable energy sources by 2050. The bill fell by the wayside this spring in private meetings about state spending and policy bills.

Representatives from two of the state's largest electric utility companies, a labor union, and renewable energy and environmental groups on Tuesday told the Legislative Energy Commission that the state should pass the proposal aimed at facilitating the transition to renewable energy resources.

While companies have already begun prioritizing renewable energy sources like solar or wind, there should be laws that guide utilities' transition away from fossil fuels, they said. In particular, the state should prioritize keeping potential new energy jobs in communities affected by plant or refinery closures and require companies to move away from carbon-emitting sources.

“The change is happening, it’s sitting right here in front of you,” Rick Evans, with Xcel Energy, said pointing to his large binder outlining the company's expectations for services it will deliver in the next 15 years and how it hopes to meet them. The company has set a goal of becoming carbon-free by 2050.

"I think it would behoove the Legislature to want to put a framework in place, a current framework, with all the input from all the members from varying perspectives to guide the transition we're currently in," Mike Bull, with the Center for Energy and Environment, said. "I have friends at the Public Utilities Commission and I don't know that you want to leave this to them to do without your input."

But the proposal to adopt the so-called transition legislation appeared to face a bumpy road heading into 2020.

Two senators, one a Democrat and the other Republican, raised the same question: if the private sector is already moving in this direction, why do legislators need to step in?

"Why do we have to suddenly start legislating? What is it in clean energy first that is so critical that it has to be done?" Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, who co-chairs the commission said. "We're already going in that direction. We already have a thumb on the scale."

And in a later comment, echoing Osmek, Sen. Erik Simonson, D-Duluth, said it seems unnecessary.

"I think I'm really losing sight of why it is that we must do this," Simonson said. "We're trying to switch a few words around and recreate what's already in law."

The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Zack Stephenson, D-Coon Rapids, defended the bill, which Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, carried in the Senate.

The panel didn't take action on the bill Tuesday. It is set to continue to discuss the bill and could again take it up during the 2020 legislative session.