Inside Minnesota’s bill requiring carbon-free electricity by 2040

It was part of Gov. Tim Walz’s (D) climate action plan released before the midterm elections.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz speaks to the media Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022, in St. Paul, Minn. Minnesota Democrats completed a trifecta Wednesday by winning both houses of the legislature to take full control of state government for the first time in eight years. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

The Minnesota Senate sent Gov. Tim Walz (D) legislation to require the state to move to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040, making good on one of the party’s top climate priorities.

The measure also streamlines the siting process for certain solar projects, clarifies what qualifies as a renewable energy source, and specifies the circumstances under which the public utilities commission can allow the modification or delay of new renewable, carbon-free or solar standards.

Passage of the measure reflects the significance of the Democrats winning a one-seat majority in the Senate following the midterm elections. It is their third attempt to pass a clean-energy bill. Similar measures were pursued by the Democratic-controlled House in 2019 and 2021 but were ignored by the GOP Senate majority.

The bill was part of the climate action plan Walz released in the fall before the election. Passage of the bill came on the heels of Walz signing a bill that codifies the right to an abortion.

During debate on the clean-energy measure, Senate Republicans offered a series of amendments to the bill, which they argued would raise energy costs and make electricity less reliable in the state.

“The blackout bill passed by Democrats tonight will lead to higher costs, less reliable energy, and could very well put people’s lives at risk,” Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson (R) said.

One GOP amendment sought to add language requested by North Dakota, which has threatened to sue Minnesota over concern that the bill violates the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause. North Dakota argues that the legislation is trying to regulate electricity providers in neighboring states and that the measure would hurt North Dakota’s ability to sell power to Minnesota.

But Democrats, led by Sen. Nick Frentz (D), chairman of the chamber’s energy panel, rejected the idea and cited an analysis from Harvard Law School that found no such violation. He added that the bill is designed to address inaction on climate change, the cost of which the state and nation is already shouldering.

“The things that they told us are going to happen 30 years ago are happening right now,” Frentz said. “And the cost to be discussed here is the cost we are already paying.”

After passing the House last week, the measure passed the Senate late Thursday night on a 34–33 party-line vote.

Minnesota joins more than 20 states across the country that have a 100% clean energy law, according to a list maintained by the Clean Energy States Alliance. The group categorizes clean-energy states as those that have at a minimum a requirement to eventually generate all electricity from clean energy.

Warren Leon, the group’s director, said Minnesota’s move sends a signal to other states in the Midwest and positions the state to take advantage of green energy, weatherization and other policies included in the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act.

“This will be a very positive signal to other states in the region,” Leon said.

Below are some highlights from the bill:

  • Establishes a carbon-free resource standard for all covered electric utilities that starts at 80% in 2030 and increases by steps to 100 percent by 2040.
  • Modifies the definition of “solar energy generating system” by adding certain small transmission lines that interconnect a solar generating system with a high-voltage transmission line. This would bring these small transmission lines under the public utility commission’s permitting authority. Currently, these small transmission lines are generally subject to county or local permitting authority.
  • States that when the state commissioner of commerce conducts an environmental review for solar energy generating systems, the commissioner shall not consider any alternate site that was not proposed by an applicant.
  • Specifies that the public utility commission can delay or modify the deadlines laid out in the legislation. Factors the commission must consider include environmental costs, the impacts on environmental justice areas, and the impact of beneficial electrification. It also adds more specific factors the commission must consider in evaluating whether transmission capacity constraints require a delay or modification.
  • Nuclear power is included as a carbon-free energy source, but not a renewable energy source. Renewable energy includes power derived by solar, wind, some hydroelectric, and hydrogen, provided that after 2010 the hydrogen is generated from a renewable source.