Minnesota: Renewable fuel to be part of lawmaker energy discussions

Source: By Trey Mewes, The Mankato Free Press • Posted: Monday, December 17, 2018

Renewable fuels will likely play a role in environmental legislation DFL lawmakers bring to the Capitol when the 2019 legislative session begins next month.

Lobbyists and advocates alike expect Democrats to expand upon renewable energy legislation introduced over the past few years, but energy watchdogs hope the state includes expanding renewable fuel standards after Minnesota implented increased biodiesel standards last summer.

Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration announced last year Minnesota would raise biodiesel standards up to a 20 percent blend, but only during warmer months. That could change based on a package of energy-related bills DFLers are working on for the upcoming session.

Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, said this week he was working with other lawmakers on a potential package of renewable-related bills, from fuel and energy standards to carbon reduction goals. While Minnesota has largely met previous renewable energy goals set in 2007, other states been more aggressive in reducing fossil fuel needs and investing in renewable energy.

“We’re no longer quite the leader that we were nationally,” Frentz said. “I would think Minnesotans would like to see us resume that mantle.”

Eight states have higher renewable energy goals than Minnesota, which mandates 25 percent of Minnesota’s energy come from renewable sources such as wind and solar by 2025. Frentz was chief author of a bill introduced by Dayton’s administration in 2017 that would have increased those standards to 50 percent by 2030, which would match similar goals set by other states.

Agricultural experts hope any such energy package would include potential biodiesel and ethanol expansions. Farmers also would like to see more agreements between the state, agricultural landowners and renewable energy companies to potentially set up solar arrays or wind turbines on less arable lands.

“When they’re looking at developing these projects, we want to seem them aimed at more highly erodible soils,” said Joe Smentek, executive director of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association.

By using land that might not qualify for federal conservation programs, Smentek and other agricultural advocates see opportunities for farmers, state officials and energy companies to profit.

Smentek said soybean growers also hope to expand Minnesota’s biodiesel rule year-round — after October, gas stations go back to selling a 5 percent biodiesel blend until May. Fuel production companies expressed concern about the B20 rule when it was first announced in 2017 as it would take time to change their infrastructure to meet the new standard, but a Department of Commerce review found economic conditions were right for the increase.

The ongoing discussion over renewable fuels and energy comes as national and international environmental reports warn of dire consequences if carbon emissions and pollution aren’t addressed across the globe.

A United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in October warned Earth could face irreversible global warming consequences by as soon as 2040, such as mass food production issues, rising sea levels and increasingly severe weather. Scientists warn countries had by 2030 to significantly cut carbon emissions in an effort to reverse global warming. A federal climate report released by the White House last month had similar warnings and predicted climate change effects could hamper the U.S. economy enough to cut about 10 percent from the country’s gross domestic product by 2100.

While little action has been taken at the federal level — President Donald Trump’s administration has rolled back environmental regulations over the past two years to promote economic development — politicians and companies in Minnesota are showing more interest in renewable energy.

Xcel Energy announced last week it would cut carbon emissions down to zero and move to renewable energy production by 2050, though company officials publicly said they may rely in part on nuclear energy plants to achieve that goal.

Republican officials have supported renewable energy issues in the past — former Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed off on Minnesota’s renewable energy standards in 2007 — but many would like to see less government regulation and more free market solutions when it comes to renewables production.

Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, isn’t sure how much of a priority renewable energy will be in the GOP-controlled Senate, given lawmakers also hope to tackle tax conformity and health care costs among other issues. Yet Draheim said he believes Republicans will continue to support an energy policy that also includes nuclear, hydroelectric and natural gas production.

“I think the important thing is where are you getting that energy from,” he said. “You need a diverse energy plan.”

Draheim and other Republicans would like to see more free market solutions where companies are able to buy energy they need whenever they need it rather than settle for a handful of energy options that adhere to government mandates.

Incoming Gov. Tim Walz’s administration also could come forward with its own energy package once Walz names commissioners for various state agencies over the next few weeks. Frentz said he hopes he and other lawmakers will be able to hash out energy policy details with Walz officials and Senate GOP leadership once the Legislature convenes Jan. 8.