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Minnesota House passes bill that would require 4% solar power

Minnesota could become the 17th state to mandate that major power companies generate more electricity from the sun.

The state House passed a bill Tuesday to require investor-owned utilities to get 4 percent of their power from solar by 2025. It would be one of the nation’s more aggressive solar mandates, the equivalent of 2,000 solar arrays like the one Ikea installed atop its Bloomington store last year.

“It is a move toward the future,” said House Majority Leader Erin Murphy of St. Paul.

The bill’s chief sponsor, Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said the solar bill is modeled after the state’s renewable energy policies that helped make Minnesota a leading wind power state. The state now gets 14 percent of its electricity from wind farms.

Solar energy supporters contend the bill promotes cleaner energy and employment. Hortman said that a solar energy mandate in New Jersey has brought that state 5,000 solar industry jobs.

But critics said solar power is unreliable and can’t compete without subsidies. Electric utilities fought the solar mandate, warning that it would increase utility rates.

A companion Senate bill sets a more modest 1 percent solar goal by 2025. The Senate could take up that bill Friday. If it passes, both bills would go to a legislative conference committee to address the significant differences.

Power cooperatives and municipal utilities successfully lobbied legislators for an exemption. That’s why the measure applies only to four investor-owned power companies, including Xcel Energy, the state’s largest with 1.2 million customers.

Rick Evans, Xcel’s director of regional government affairs, said that the House bill’s 4 percent solar mandate would require the Minneapolis-based utility to add nearly 1,000 megawatts of solar capacity — the equivalent of a major power plant — at a cost of $1 billion.

“We think [it] represents an extraordinary waste of money for our customers in the current economy,” Evans said in an interview.

The bill passed 70-63, largely along party lines. To win over Iron Range legislators, Democratic supporters of the measure agreed to protect mining companies and paper mills from any rate hikes caused by the solar mandates. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said the deal was an “admission that this bill is bad for business.”

Republican legislators also said the bill’s customer-funded subsidies will shift the costs of solar to customers who can’t afford to install rooftop solar arrays. “You are taking money from poor people and giving it to rich people,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington.

Other investor-owned utilities affected by the solar bill are Minnesota Power, based in Duluth, and Otter Tail Power Co., based in Fergus Falls, and Interstate Power & Light, a unit of Madison, Wis.-based Alliant Energy that serves southern Minnesota.

The bill would create new utility incentives for installing solar panels at homes and businesses. It also extends a subsidy for solar panels made in Minnesota, which benefits manufacturers Silicon Energy in Mountain Iron and TenKsolar in Bloomington.

Solar energy developers would be encouraged to build larger arrays under the measure. Customers would be allowed to invest in community solar projects, and get credit for a share of power sales on their utility bills.

The legislation establishes new regulatory policies for how utilities pay for solar power, including some that Xcel and other utilities supported.

Minnesota’s existing energy standard requires all utilities except Xcel to get 25 percent of their power from wind and other renewable sources by 2025. Xcel’s mandate is 30 percent by 2020. The House bill also boosts those overall renewable requirements to 40 percent by 2030. The Senate bill makes no change in those percentages.

Tarryl Clark, a leader in the Blue Green Alliance, a coalition of union and environmental groups that supported the measure, said solar standards have been passed in 16 other states. They include New Jersey, with a 4.1 percent solar mandate, and Arizona at 4.5 percent solar mandate.

“Our goal is to get 10 percent,” Clark said of the alliance’s long-range goal, “and we believe that is attainable.”