Minnesota Governor vetoes GOP solar fees legislation

Source: Daniel Cusick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, March 22, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS — Gov. Mark Dayton (D) vetoed the first in what are expected to be a series of legislative reforms of the state’s energy policies, giving a win to renewables advocates who said the Republican-backed measure would discourage solar adoption by rural Minnesotans.

The bill, which passed the Minnesota Legislature last week on a 39-26 Senate vote, would have stripped the state Public Utilities Commission from its role as an arbitrator of disputes brought by customers of electric cooperatives and municipal utilities over grid-connection fees imposed on solar users. Instead, such disputes would have gone to a third-party mediator for resolution.

But Dayton made clear in a letter released last night to House Speaker Kurt Daudt (R) that he would thwart any effort to weaken the authority of the five-member PUC.

“Eliminating the PUC’s role would remove critical consumer protection for customers,” Dayton wrote, adding that he believes that members of electric co-ops, which generate and distribute electricity to 1.7 million rural Minnesotans, “should be afforded the same consumer protection by the PUC as a customer in Minneapolis or Saint Paul.”

Dayton also said the bill would “create uncertainty for all municipal and cooperative electric utility customers seeking to produce their own renewable and efficient energy” and “could impact economic development in Greater Minnesota, and the thousands of jobs in renewable energy in our state.”

Reaction from the bill’s Republican backers was not immediately available. But GOP leaders have said they are not pursuing an anti-renewables agenda. Rather, they said, the bill was about vesting more authority in municipal utility and cooperative boards.

“This is local control. You may not like it, and solar providers may not like it, but co-ops are democratically elected. They represent the interests of the ratepayers that they represent,” state Sen. David Osmek (R), the chairman of the Senate Energy and Utilities Finance and Policy Committee, told Minnesota Public Radio last week.

The Minnesota Rural Electric Association, which represents 50 electric cooperatives in the state, has argued that such fees are necessary to meet the cost of maintaining electricity distribution and service lines for mostly rural customers. MREA further maintains that under legislation passed in 2015, cooperative boards have the right to impose such fees and that “net-metered customers have a responsibility to pay for the services they use.”

Since March 2016, roughly 20 Minnesota rural electric cooperatives had either imposed fixed charges on solar owners or planned to do so, according to an analysis by Midwest Energy News.

An aide to state Sen. Bill Weber (R), the bill’s chief sponsor in the Senate, said compromise language had been added to the bill to allow customers to appeal disputes over rates and fees to a third-party arbitrator.

But that did not satisfy solar advocates who viewed the bill as one in a series of state measures to beat back the nation’s fastest-growing renewable energy resource.

Sean Gallagher, vice president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said last week that the Minnesota bill would allow cooperatives to “target solar customers with unfair fees and limit their ability to fight back, making it more difficult for Minnesota residents to go solar.”