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A loan against the vortex: House panel approves price spike protection

If you’re currently enjoying pleasant spring breezes, you probably don’t want to be reminded about the cruel winds of a polar vortex. But the one that swept down the central states from the Arctic in mid-February may yet bring chills for many Minnesotans when they open their energy bills.

That’s because some of the state’s utilities purchased natural gas at the worst possible time. Spot prices soared as temperatures plummeted on President’s Day weekend. And cash-flow complications have made it so some of those utilities have already started passing the price surge on to their customers.

But it may not hit Minnesotans’ wallets quite so drastically if “the 2021 Polar Vortex Loan Account” is established. It would appropriate $15 million to the Commerce Department to administer zero-interest loans to utilities that purchased natural gas for immediate delivery during that fateful February freeze.

A bill establishing that loan fund, HF1135/SF1018* — sponsored by Rep. Robert Bierman (DFL-Apple Valley) and Sen. David Senjem (R-Rochester) — passed the Senate on March 25 by a 66-0 vote. It was approved on a unanimous voice vote by the House Climate and Energy Finance and Policy Committee Wednesday and is on its way to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Rep. Chris Swedzinski (R-Ghent) withdrew an amendment that would have made utilities that serve 5,000 customers or fewer also eligible for the loans, but wondered why such language wasn’t in the bill, since that issue had been discussed at a February joint hearing with the Senate Energy and Utilities Finance and Policy Committee.

The committee chair, Rep. Jamie Long (DFL-Mpls), replied the language wasn’t in the bill passed by the Senate, but he would be open to discussing that in the commerce and energy conference committee.

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