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Solar power, net zero goal part of omnibus energy package that passes House

The Prairie Island Indian Community’s plan to become a “net zero energy community” received a big boost Friday when the House voted 84-49 to pass an omnibus energy and climate bill that would fund that endeavor.

HF1842, sponsored by Rep. Jean Wagenius (DFL-Mpls), would allocate $16 million to begin funding that project as part of $25.8 million in allocations from the Renewable Development Account for fiscal year 2021.

The bill now moves to the Senate where Sen. David Osmek (R-Mound) is the sponsor.

It would also extend through 2022 an existing incentive program, administered by Xcel Energy, for owners of small solar systems at $10 million per year; allocate $2.8 million for a new turbine to expand Granite Falls’ hydroelectric generating facility; and set aside $2 million in grants for communities that will lose an electric generating facility.

The Renewable Development Account was set up in 1994 when investor-owned utility Xcel Energy was given permission to store nuclear waste at its Prairie Island facility, which is adjacent to land owned by the Prairie Island Indian Community. Paid into annually by Xcel at a rate of between $350,000 and $500,000 for each storage cask used at its Prairie Island and Monticello nuclear facilities, the fund is earmarked for grants for the development of renewable energy sources in Minnesota.

Plans for Prairie Island to become a “net zero energy community” involve allocations of $46.2 million from the Renewable Development Account (sometimes called the Renewable Development Fund) through fiscal year 2023. The community would become one in which the total amount of energy consumed is not greater than the amount of renewable energy created.

The plan would allow the Prairie Island Indian Community to execute a plan under which it would reduce energy consumption, generate energy through a combination of solar and geothermal sources, develop microgrids for storage and distribution of energy, and adopt sustainable building standards.

Nonpartisan House fiscal staff said the $25.8 million in appropriations would leave $55.2 million in the account at the end of fiscal year 2021, assuming no new investment income.

Rep. Chris Swedzinski (R-Ghent) introduced two amendments, but neither passed. They would have capped the amount that could be collected for dry cask storage, and refunded the remainder of the Renewable Development Account to Xcel customers. Wagenius said both would violate the contract that the state entered into creating the fund in 1994.

In the end, Swedzinski voted for the bill, as did Rep. Barb Haley (R-Red Wing), primarily because of the Prairie Island “net zero” project.

“The House first passed this in 2018,” Haley said. “I’m happy that efforts were renewed this year. Although these funds have been collected for nearly 30 years, never once has the Prairie Island community, which lives in the shadow of the nuclear plant, received any appropriation.”

Rep. Marion O'Neill (R-Maple Lake) objected to the solar reward provisions.

“We’re giving $20 million for an extraordinarily expensive solar rewards program,” she said. “It funds rooftop solar, which is the most expensive way you could possibly fund solar.”

But Rep. Jamie Long (DFL-Mpls) said, “Our solar industry is expanding, and this program reduces the cost of rooftop solar.”

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