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Wind, other renewable power on fast track

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ST. PAUL - It's a win-win-wind situation for Minnesota, renewable energy supporters say about a new legislative push that appears to be on the fast track.

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Four versions of a legislative proposal to increase use of renewable energy sources, such as wind, feature relatively minor differences this year after a half-dozen years of controversy. The biggest change is Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, has offered a bill similar to those of two Northland senators and one pushed by one of the most liberal senators.

"The stars are aligned," Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, said this week after she has failed six years to increase the use of renewable fuels.

Starting today, utilities, environmentalists and others with a stake in the debate begin meeting with the staff of Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon's Energy, Utilities, Technology and Communications Committee. The chairwoman, a Duluth Democrat, said she hopes a compromise comes before her committee Tuesday and members can vote on a final bill Thursday.

Major differences come in three areas - how much renewable energy will be required, what year the goal must be met and whether the state's Public Utilities Commission must fine utilities not meeting their requirements. A summary of four major bills:

  • Anderson's proposal calls for 25 percent of a utility's energy to come from renewable sources by 2020 and requires the commission to fine those that don't meet the goal.
  • Prettner Solon's bill does not specify a percentage of renewable sources, but she said the state could require some utilities to use more than 25 percent renewables. Her measure allows, but does not require, the state to fine violators.
  • Pawlenty's plan sets 2025 as the year for utilities to meet the 25 percent renewable requirement and requires those who miss the target to pay.
  • Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, proposed 20 percent of electric energy to come from renewable sources by 2020 and, like the Prettner Solon bill, does not require a fine.

    Today's major renewable energy source is wind power, with wind generators popping up around the Midwest. In Minnesota, most wind turbines are in the southwest, but people in areas as far away as the Iron Range are considering building them.

    Burning poultry litter to produce electricity and other similar, but less common, energy production methods also would qualify under the bills.

    If only wind were used to meet the 25 percent target, about 3,000 windmills would sprout up around Minnesota. Fewer than 1,000 now produce electricity.

    One of those wind-power developers in the southwest, Ryan Wolf of Nobles County, said his family erected five wind turbines and helped get him out of the hog-producing business.

    "The 25 percent renewable energy standards is a policy that will benefit thousands of farmers across the state," Wolf said.

    Rep. Aaron Peterson, DFL-Madison, said more than 20 other states already have significant renewable energy requirements, but with a 25 percent target Minnesota could take the lead.

    Peterson said few people realize that Minnesota imports more electricity than any other state. "Almost none of the power we use to power our homes and buildings is produced here."

    Problems remain to be resolved.

    For instance, Tomassoni said coal needs to remain part of the electric production formula, although he called for use of cleaner burning coal. He told senators it is important "not to get in too big a hurry," saying it is more important to get energy policy right than to get it done quickly.

    Another speed bump for renewable fuels is a lack of electric transmission lines to move power from where it is produced, often in western Minnesota, to where it is needed, mostly the Twin Cities and other major cities.

    Prettner Solon's committee heard on Thursday that more than 600 miles of transmission lines are needed immediately, at a cost of $1.3 billion. In all, an estimated 2,400 miles of lines costing $3.2 billion would be needed when wind and other power generating facilities come on line.

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    Don Davis
    Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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