Earlier this month Bluestem looked at HF234, a bill that would remove the ability of electrical co-op members to ask the PUC for redress of grievances with their power utility in Are King Coal's foxes to guard the co-op? HF234 would leave rural utility customers on defense and MinnPost reports Minnesota GOP targets PUC.
Today in the Minnesota House, three power utility consumer protection gutting bills will be debated on the House floor, HF113,which allows Xcel to build a natural gas power plant without Public Utility Commission (PUC) review, HF234 and HF235. Readers can watch the floor action (and tweet their reactions using the hashtag #mnleg) on the House's streaming video or via The Uptake.
The House website currently lists these amendments (and amendments to amendments for HF234:
Hansen moves to amend. Amendment coded A17-0042 -
Bly moves to amend. Amendment coded H0234A8 -
Thissen moves to amend. Amendment coded H0234A9 -
Thissen moves to amend the H0234A9 amendment. Amendment coded H0234A10 -
Thissen moves to amend the H0234A9 amendment. Amendment coded H0234A11 -
Thissen moves to amend the H0234A9 amendment. Amendment coded H0234A12 -
Dakota County DFLer Rick Hansen's amendment is a transparency measure that defines members of the board of directors of a cooperative electric association and members of a public utility commission or other public body that governs activities of a municipal utility as a public official. This would allow ratepayers and other members of the public to see any potential conflicts of interest on the part of board members, as well as make them subject to the ban on gifts from lobbyists.
The David Bly, DFL-Northfield, amendment asks for a report on the local impact of wind and solar supplies, while the Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, amendments would mandate the Public Utilities Commission "complete the portion of its investigation in Docket No. 16-512 examining whether the methodology used by cooperative associations to establish a fee for members to hook solar and wind power complies with state law." The bill's voiding an active investigation by the PUC is one of the objections to this measure.
Thissen is a co-author of the bill.
Criticisms of the bill
Session Daily's Chris Steller reported in Solar panels in committee's crosshairs:
Earlier the committee approved HF234, sponsored by Rep. Dave Baker (R-Willmar), a bill that would make electrical cooperatives exempt from the Public Utilities Commission. In doing so, Baker said, his legislation would follow the model of how state statutes treat municipal electrical companies.
Several testifiers said it doesn’t make sense for the PUC to insert itself between ratepayers and investors, as it does with other utility companies, because in the case of coops, member-owners are both ratepayers and investors.
Solar industry advocates said the change would remove a venue for hearing complaints by co-op members, particularly those disputing the fairness of so-called net metering fees on individuals generating power with solar panels on their homes or businesses.
As we've noted before, the co-op power utilities are monopolies that members must join--and the "democracy" of their board elections has been subject to scrutiny, as Just How Democratic are Rural Electric Cooperatives? a recent report from the Institute for Local Self Reliance explored.
ILSR staffers John Farrell and Karlee Weinmann took a look at the bill in commentary published in Midwest Energy News, Removing co-op oversight jeopardizes rural solar:
A plan floated by Minnesota lawmakers to exempt rural electric cooperatives from virtually all regulatory oversight would allow these utilities to restrict development of local solar power, even where their member-owners support renewable energy.
Legislation introduced last month and working its way through the state’s House (HF234) and Senate (SF141) would put co-op boards themselves, rather than the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC), in charge of resolving customer disputes over rates and other policies. Disguised as “local control,” the measure undermines the objective role of the Commission as a mediator between cooperatives and their members.
Co-ops provide electricity across greater Minnesota, and have in recent years come under fire as sharp opponents of distributed solar generation. Customer have complained about outsize fees for having rooftop solar – sometimes masked as other charges, like for a new meter. In 2015, co-ops successfully pushed a state law allowing them to impose higher fees on distributed solar systems 40 kilowatts or smaller. The Public Utilities Commission already opened a probe into whether the fees were justified based on the actual costs to serve a customer who has solar panels, or a backhanded method to recover lost sales.
Why the solar animus?
To those who know the rich history of co-ops as engines of rural self-reliance, the notion of opposition to local solar power may seem antithetical. However, much has changed since farmer-organizers went door-to-door to collect $5 fees needed to electrify rural farmsteads.
Co-ops that serve everyday customers are often bound to long-term contracts with the generation and transmission co-ops that provide their electricity, largely from coal. Although on-site power generation from members is exempt from such contracts, co-ops remain on the hook for the debt used to finance large power plants. Furthermore, there is a cultural bias toward this arrangement, with co-op boards often showing deference to hired managers and to these coal-reliant generation and transmission co-ops.
The result is a hostility to local solar, seen as a threat to the business model of remote power generation and to reliable revenue from electricity sales. Serving areas with minimal population growth and long supply lines, co-ops (and other utilities) tend to reflexively shrink from any policy that decreases sales, even when e proven benefits outweigh the costs. Value of solar calculations by two other Minnesota utilities — Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power — show that grid and environmental benefits outstrip the cost in sales from each kilowatt-hour of solar generated from homes or businesses. . . .
Read the rest at Midwest Energy News, as the article goes far to explain why our banner for this post depicts King Coal as a fat fox perched on a co-op, or henhouse as it were, while pulling the strings of the grid.
Faith-based Minnesota Interfaith Light and Power objects in Defend Our Clean Energy Progress:
HF113: authorizes a Natural Gas plant in Becker, MN where the Sherco coal plant currently is, locking in a highest cost option instead of wind, or potentially solar, or another lower cost option. This is an unprecedented move to bypass the Public Utilities Commission.
HF235: will repeal the Made in Minnesota (MiM) solar incentive program that has created well paying Minnesota jobs, and eliminate the Renewable Development Fund, creating instead an energy fund with no commitment to renewables.
HF234: will preclude the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission from regulating Cooperative utilities regarding our state net-metering law, will end any current PUC complaints, and will preclude complaints against cooperative or municipal utilities. In short, the co-ops will be able to do whatever they want to net-metering, as long as they comply with the most basic elements, and it will ensure the co-op fees stand regardless of the outcome of the PUC investigation.
This is not the energy future we want for our state. Sign on to our letter to Governor Dayton to veto these bills.
It's likely the bills will pass in the House today, though their fate in the senate is less clear.
Community Power tweeted on February 4:
Sign the petition: Governor Dayton: Defend our Energy Progress https://t.co/gf5I9WTNNC— Community Power (@MplsEnergyOpts) February 6, 2017
The Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association's twitter account also objects to the legislation, which would likely discourage rural Minnesotans who are co-op members from installing solar for distributed energy.
Image: The fox guarding the co-op.
If you appreciate our posts and original analysis, you can mail contributions (payable to Sally Jo Sorensen, 33166 770th Ave, Ortonville, MN 56278) or use the paypal button in the upper right hand corner of this post. Those wishing to make a small ongoing monthly contribution should click on the paypal subscription button.
Or you can contribute via this link to paypal; use email firstname.lastname@example.org as recipient.