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Tax overhaul breeds uncertainty for clean energy business

Lawyers and accountants in the renewable energy industry are poring over the details of the tax overhaul President Trump signed into law last week, trying to figure out what companies will lose or gain.

While key tax credits for clean energy were preserved under the new law, it's unknown how the industry will fare under the changes.

The initial good news that wind and solar tax credits are preserved in the law isn't the whole story, said Michael Noble, executive director of Fresh Energy, who has been following developments for the renewable energy sector.

"It's yet to be seen whether renewable energy tax credits are still going to be valuable and help projects get done," he said.

Minnesota utilities have been taking advantage of tax credits to expand wind and solar in the state. That growth is expected to continue in 2018 regardless of the tax bill because companies have been planning them for years. Read more

10 ways America's energy & climate world changed in 10 years

We've gone from an energy-scarce to an energy-abundant nation, and our climate debate has waxed and waned. Let's drill down on a decade's worth of changes.

What’s changed

1. The oil boom

America's oil production has nearly doubled over the last decade, and we became the world's biggest oil producer a few years ago, thanks to drilling technologies like fracking and horizontal drilling. This dynamic has complicated policies predicated on limited oil supplies, including a federal ethanol mandate and fuel-efficiency standards for cars.

On the geopolitical front, the U.S. is now becoming a swing producer alongside OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

2. The natural gas boom

America is now also the world's biggest natural-gas producer, with an increase of more than 30% in production since 2008. Former President Barack Obama's aggressive environmental agenda was made politically easier because plentiful supplies of cleaner burning gas enabled an affordable shift away from coal in the electric sector.

With exports of liquefied natural gas, the U.S. is also leading the way in stitching together a global natural gas market similar to the world's liquid oil market. Environmental concerns, including about fracking, an extraction technology that enables companies to reach new sources of oil and gas, have risen alongside economic gains of the oil and gas boom. Read more

Twin Ports power crews head to Puerto Rico

Crews from Minnesota Power and Superior Water, Light and Power will head to Puerto Rico in early January to help restore power to thousands of people on the island.

Nearly 20 Twin Ports lineworkers and support staff will be part of “the first major wave of mainland industry assistance” since Puerto Rico was hit by hurricanes Irma and Maria in September, according to Minnesota Power.

Nine Minnesota Power employees left Duluth and Little Falls on Monday to drive vehicles, tools and equipment to the port of Chickasaw near Mobile, Ala., where it will all be shipped to Puerto Rico.

Bill Peterson, line crew supervisor with Minnesota Power, said he volunteered to drive a vehicle to Alabama because he remembered how difficult it was for Duluth residents to go without power for several days following the wind storm in July 2016.

“They’ve been without power since September and, to me … trying to imagine being without power for that long has to be a great burden on the family. A little bit of sacrifice I can do to help restore their power, it goes a long way,” Peterson said in a Minnesota Power video. Read more

Tax reform could affect Minnesota Power rates

Federal tax reform benefits big corporations. Allete, the parent company of Minnesota Power, is among Duluth's biggest corporations.

So will those tax reform benefits be passed on to Minnesota Power customers?

It looks like it.

"The new lower tax rate will be built into our rates, and the savings will be passed through to our customers based on methodology determined by the (Minnesota Public Utilities Commission)," Minnesota Power spokeswoman Amy Rutledge wrote in an email Wednesday.

In the wake of the Republican tax bill passing both the House and Senate this week, the PUC will be digging into how tax reform affects the state's utilities "once the specific relevant provisions of the new tax law are analyzed," PUC Executive Secretary Dan Wolf wrote in a statement to the News Tribune. "As a result of this analysis, the commission may undertake specific proceedings to address these tax law changes in order to ensure that utilities recover only the costs of providing service." Read more

Regional wind farm on way — without local hiring requirements

REGIONAL — EDF Renewable Energy is on track to begin construction on the Stoneray Wind Project, a 105-megawatt wind farm that runs through rural Pipestone County and Murray County, in early 2018.

The 50-turbine wind farm should start operation in December 2018. It will deliver energy to Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency (SMMPA)

The project will create 10 full-time jobs and more than 150 construction jobs — many of which local unions fear will come from out-of-state.

On Tuesday, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission denied an amendment request that would require EDF to prioritize the hire of local workers. The commission did, however, require that EDF file a report to the commission detailing its efforts to hire Minnesota workers. Read more

Minneapolis is using electric bills to fight climate change

Minneapolis residents will find a hike in their gas and electric bills next year, and it’s all about fighting climate change.

The City Council raised its franchise fees — payments that Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy collect from customers and pass to the city — when it adopted its 2018 budget. The increase will cost a typical homeowner about an extra $7 per year, and the city plans to spend the $2 million in new revenue on climate and energy programs.

A growing group of residents and advocates alarmed by climate change consider the higher fee a small victory in the larger struggle to make local government a leader in combating climate change. Cutting greenhouse gas emissions further and encouraging residents to do the same are long-term goals at City Hall.

“It’s important to residents that we’re doing our part, that we are responsible for our contributions to this global problem and its solutions,” Council Member Andrew Johnson said. “We can always do more. I think there’s an appetite to do more.” Read more

Minnesota's solar garden program takes off in 2017

Minnesota’s Community Solar Garden program, once mired in delays, has grown sixfold in 2017, adding enough electricity to power about 32,000 homes.
The state-mandated solar garden program, which covers Xcel Energy’s Minnesota territory, has 58 projects online, up from about 10 a year ago.
Those solar gardens together can produce up to 211 megawatts of electricity, according to Xcel, up from just 35 megawatts at the end of 2016. (A megawatt is 1 million watts.)
“This has been a really successful year,” said David Shaffer, an attorney for the Minnesota Solar Energy Industry Association, a trade group. “The design and construction team for Xcel has been working nonstop.” Read more

MERC: Home heating costs expected to be less than $600 this winter

With the winter heating season underway, an average Minnesota Energy Resources residential customer will likely heat their home for less than $600 for the third year in a row, according to the natural gas utility's most recent forecast.

If the heating forecast holds true, Minnesota Energy Resources expects an average residential customer to pay $557 in home heating costs from November through next April. The projected costs would be the fourth-lowest in 10 years. By comparison, this year's expected costs would be $326 less than what a typical residential customer paid 10 years ago, and $307 less than customers paid during the 2013-14 winter heating season.

Customers who are looking to manage heating costs have several options, including some that do not require significant investment. These tips include:
•A professional inspection and tuneup of a home's heating system.
• Using ceiling fans to disperse heat throughout a room.
•Lowering the thermostat's temperature when asleep or away. Smart thermostats can do this automatically.
•Sealing air leaks by adding weather-stripping to doors and windows.
•Sealing and insulating heating and cooling ducts. Read more

Xcel narrows down Huntley Wilmarth power line routes

MANKATO — Xcel Energy is close to submitting potential routes for an upcoming large-scale regional power line project.

The company has narrowed its list of places a new 345-kilowatt power line could run to four possible routes — two of which would run either east or west of the Mankato area and have garnered protest from local officials.

Those routes will be part of Xcel's application to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which has final say on how this project moves forward. Xcel officials will submit documentation, including a route permit application, to the state next month.

"This is really just the start of the process," said Tim Carlsgaard, communications manager for Xcel.

The project involves connecting the the Wilmarth substation northeast of Mankato to the ITC Midwest-owned Huntley Substation near Blue Earth, which would move power from wind energy projects in the region. The line would run 40 to 50 miles. Read more

The high cost of our failing wind policies

Like many states, Minnesota is on the bandwagon for renewable energy, especially wind power. Despite all of the hype about falling wind power costs, Minnesota's energy policy is starting to exert upward pressure on electricity prices, and it is notably failing at its chief objectives.

America's fixation on renewable energy dates to the energy crisis of the 1970s, when it was thought that oil and natural gas were quickly running out and that we needed brand-new energy sources. Today, we are told that we need to develop renewable energy because oil, gas and coal are not running out, but they threaten to choke the planet with global warming gases. In other words, while our energy outlook has shifted from shortages to abundance, the policy prescription remains unchanged.

Minnesota has met its political mandate of supplying 15 percent of electricity from renewable sources, but the effects of this target are disappointing and worrisome for the future.

First, Minnesota's notable electricity cost advantage has disappeared. For most of the last 25 years, Minnesota's electricity prices were about 20 percent below the national average. But over the last five years — when renewable capacity was expanded at a fast pace — Minnesota's cost advantage has rapidly disappeared, and in March for the very first time Minnesota's electricity prices rose above the national average. Read more