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Keeping the lights on


Wed, Sep 20th, 2000
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Monday, September 18, 2000

The Minnesota Commerce Department has released a report entitled, "Keeping the Lights On", which predicts, that without prompt action, the state could risk an energy shortage by 2006. The report also rejected the idea of deregulating the state’s electric industry.

Electric utilities currently operate without retail competition and have exclusive, state-granted franchises to provide service to their specific areas. A group called "Minnesota Energy Consumers", which is made up of the largest corporations in the state and several multi-national corporations, have been actively lobbying for deregulation of the state’s electric system. A dozen states, (including California, which this summer suffered widespread power outages), have already gone the deregulation route.

But, Representative Greg Davids (R-Preston), who sits as Chairman of the Minnesota House Commerce Committee, has refused to allow the debate to reach his committee for the past two years. "If you take Preston as an example," Davids told the Journal, "you would have NSP coming down to take on the big users as customers, the ethanol plant, the creamery, the school, and the courthouse, but what’s going to happen to the small farmer fifteen miles out of town? That person gets left behind on this issue."

Last Monday evening at a public hearing in Preston, Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Jim Bernstein said that the goal of the Ventura administration is to maintain affordable and reliable electricity for everyone. "There is no will from the governor’s office to go to full retail competition," Bernstein said.

Among the Commerce Department’s recommendations to meet the challenges of providing adequate energy in the future are:

• Establishing a statewide energy resource plan rather than leaving it to individual utilities to make their own plans to meet their own needs.

• Streamlining the approval process for generation and transmission projects

• Promoting energy conservation and developing modern energy technologies.

Bernstein said that there doesn’t seem to be the will to build a nuclear or coal generating plant in the state, but added that wind and solar projects could be likely sources for expanding the state’s electric generating capacity.

• Encouraging and enforcing wholesale competition. The department recommends that the state require competitive bidding for new generation projects as well as eliminating the personal property tax on new generation facilities.

Bernstein said that currently Minnesota has the 16th lowest energy rates in the nation and the 9th lowest natural gas rates. "It would be sad to go the way of California, which has seen numerous power shortages and rate increases," he said.

Lola Schoenrich, who came to the meeting from St. Paul, representing the Minnesota Project, said that she believed that the state’s conservation effort has to be a top priority. "No citizen’s group has ever protested against conservation," she said. "We need to double or triple the conservation effort that we have."

The public hearing in Preston was the first of 14 similar meetings to be held around the state in the next few weeks. Bernstein said that getting the public’s ideas involved will aid his department in writing a final plan to be submitted to the Governor by November. "We hope to have drafted legislation for the legislators to look at before Christmas," he said. "I think our proposals are moderate and well thought out."

After the meeting Bernstein was upbeat when he talked briefly to the Journal. "As consumers we’ve become complacent because the lights or the computer or the TV are always there with the flick of a switch," he said. "Right now we are the only state doing a statewide energy plan, instead of leaving it to the utilities to make their own plans. This is great to hear what the public has to say. Getting the discussion going is half the battle."

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