The Potluck

Minnesota House passes bill mandating move to carbon-free electricity by 2040

By: - January 26, 2023 9:47 pm

DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman, left, and House Majority Leader Jamie Long at a press conference on Thursday, Jan. 26. Photo by Michelle Griffith/Minnesota Reformer.

The Minnesota House passed a bill late Thursday that would force Minnesota utilities to move to entirely carbon-free electricity by 2040, after hours of debate that sometimes strayed far off topic.

House Republicans sought to derail the bill and score points with over 30 amendments. The debate— which lasted late into the evening — touched on a range of topics unrelated to electricity: child slave labor, outdoor picnics and Grogu/Baby Yoda from “The Mandalorian.” Rep. Dan Wolgamott, DFL-St. Cloud, presided over the floor session, and he had to remind several Republicans to stay on topic.

The House passed the bill after nearly eight hours of debate 70-60.

Gov. Tim Walz will likely sign the bill if it passes the Legislature. The bill would require utilities to increase their electricity portfolio generated from carbon-free sources — like wind or solar* — to 55% by 2035. Lawmakers amended the bill so that utilities would need a 60% carbon-free portfolio by 2030 — the bill had originally required 80%. The mandate would increase to 100% by 2040.

The bill’s chief author, House Majority Leader Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, offered the amendment, citing municipal utilities and co-ops that are concerned about the ambitious goals. (The bill allows “off-ramps” for utility companies that demonstrate that reaching the standards would have significant impact on reliability or cost.)

The bill would be a boon for wind and solar power developers, but Republicans argued that solar panels made in China and the Democratic Republic of the Congo use slave labor and accused their colleagues across the aisle of supporting slavery.

“How many slaves are going to be needed in China and other places in the world so that you can achieve your green energy goals?” said Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria. “How many more children are going to be needed in order to achieve your blackout goals?”

Long said the federal government is stopping solar panels built with slave labor from entering the country in the first place.

Republicans — who deemed the legislation “the blackout bill” — said barring utilities from using carbon-based energy will cause electricity disruptions and cost Minnesotans thousands of extra dollars each year.

If the carbon-free methods of producing electricity cost the utilities more, they will indeed pass the cost on to ratepayers. But the cost trajectory of fossil fuels vs. solar, wind and other non-carbon sources in the next decade is unclear. A recent study found that states that rely on fossil fuels for electricity are likely to pay higher utility costs than those with more carbon-free sources.

Long said during the House debate that Minnesota is behind other states in transitioning to renewable energy. 

The House passed a similar 2040 clean energy bill in 2021. Republicans on Thursday sharply criticized Democrats for pushing the bill through only one committee, alleging the bill lacked thorough vetting.

House Republicans attempted to pass several amendments that would have bolstered non-fossil fuel energies — like nuclear, hydroelectric and carbon capture — but the Democrats voted them down. The Energy and Policy Institute reported last week that outside fossil fuel groups are pushing Republicans to amend the legislation to include carbon capture, which seeks to take fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions and store them for eventual productive uses before they enter the atmosphere and worsens climate change.

Republican lawmakers argued that their constituents on the Iron Range and in agriculture would suffer because the bill would inhibit economic growth by driving up electricity costs and taking away farm land for solar panels.

“We cannot shun rural Minnesota … and say that ‘We don’t care that you’re not going to have reliable energy,’ ” said Rep. Pam Altendorf, R-Red Wing. “Democrats, you cannot ignore greater Minnesota. You cannot shut them out of this debate.”

Earlier this week, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum sent a letter to Walz and other state officials warning that passage of the bill would violate legal precedent. Republicans attempted to amend the bill to prevent potential legal action from North Dakota, but Democrats rebuffed them. 

Earlier on Thursday, state Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, told reporters that the bill’s advocates were “very confident” the bill as written would hold up in court should North Dakota sue.

The bill must pass the narrowly divided Senate and win Walz’s signature. Still, it’s something of a capstone for Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, who is completing an arduous trek toward the carbon-free mandate. In 2015, when Democrats were in the minority, she offered an amendment to a Republican energy bill, simply stating that global warming is real and caused by humans. The amendment failed and mustered just one Republican vote.

*Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story mischaracterized the energy sources that would count toward the renewable mandate. They are wind and solar. 

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Michelle Griffith
Michelle Griffith

Michelle Griffith covers Minnesota politics and policy for the Reformer, with a focus on marginalized communities. Most recently she was a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead in North Dakota where she covered state and local government and Indigenous issues.