In Minnesota Solar Scores Big Win over Gas: In Colorado New Law would Regulate Oil, Gas, Mining
January 7, 2014
Dexter Mullins & Amel Ahmed / Al Jazeera America
In an unprecedented decision, a Minnesota judge this week held that utility supplier Xcel Energy should invest in the solar energy developer Geronimo Energy rather than in natural gas generators because that choice is the better economical and environmental deal for the state. Meanwhile, Colorado has proposed a new law that would require industries to obtain local approval before undertaking oil drilling, fracking, or mining.
Major Solar Energy Plan for Minnesota
Wins Support over Gas
Experts say decision marks turning point and believe 2014 will be 'exciting year' for solar power
Amel Ahmed / Al Jazeera America
(January 2, 2014) -- In an unprecedented decision, a Minnesota judge this week held that utility supplier Xcel Energy should invest in the solar energy developer Geronimo Energy rather than in natural gas generators because that choice is the better economical and environmental deal for the state.
Judge Eric Lipman's ruling must be approved by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which initially ordered the proceeding to force energy companies to compete on price. The commission is expected to issue its final ruling in March.
Lipman said in the 50-page ruling, issued Tuesday, that the Geronimo project "will have numerous socioeconomic benefits, minimal impacts on the environment and best supports Minnesota's efforts to reduce greenhouse gases."
The decision, if approved, would help Xcel fulfill its requirement to attain 1.5 percent of its power from the sun by 2020 under a new state energy law.
Geronimo Vice President Betsy Engelking said the decision marks a turning point for the solar industry because it is the first time that unsubsidized solar energy has gone head-to-head with natural gas resources and been selected as the best option.
"The judge decided that it was the best option for economic and environment reasons," Engelking told Al Jazeera. "Economically, the judge found that it was the lowest cost option offered."
If the decision stands, Geronimo plans to build roughly 20 solar arrays at a cost of $250 million.
Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, approved an economic development bill last spring that included a solar energy standard mandating that by 2020, 1.5 percent of the state's electricity must be solar-generated. Additionally, Minnesota's Renewable Energy Standard requires utilities to provide 25 percent of their total electrical generation from renewable sources by 2025.
The combustion of fossil fuels to generate electricity is the largest single source of carbon dioxide emissions in the US, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Greenhouse emissions such as carbon dioxide are major contributors to global warming.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that up to 30 percent of plant and animal species face extinction by midcentury if global warming is left unchecked.
Greenpeace spokesman David Pomerantz told Al Jazeera that solar energy "has always been better for our environment" than burning fossil fuels like coal and gas. "Rulings like this one in Minnesota are proving that it's better for our pocketbooks too.
Electric utilities around the country should embrace the solar revolution that their customers are increasingly demanding, or they risk becoming fossils themselves."
Engelking told Al Jazeera that she expects similar measures to be passed across the country, given that the price of solar energy has come down to the point where it's comparable to that of natural gas.
She attributes the reduction in solar energy costs to improved technology and fierce competition, particularly from China, which has caused the price to come down "about five years faster than anyone expected it to."
A majority of states have what is known as Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), policies designed to increase generation of electricity from renewable resources, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). These policies require or encourage electricity producers to supply a certain minimum share of their electricity from designated renewable resources.
There is currently no RPS program in place at the national level. However, 30 states and the District of Columbia have enforceable renewable capacity policies as of January 2012, according to the EIA's website.
Amendment Would Let Local Colorado
Governments Regulate Big Industry
Dexter Mullins / Al Jazeera America
(January 2, 2014) -- A proposed amendment to the Colorado state constitution would give local governments around the state the authority to restrict or ban oil and gas drilling and other industrial activities -- even those permitted by state law -- if they pose a threat to the health and safety of residents.
The "right to local self-government" act is being proposed by the Colorado Community Rights Network (CCRN), a new organization that is gaining considerable traction, and will be submitted to the state in its final form within the next week. The act will need 86,105 signatures to qualify for the November ballot.
The act states that it would give local governments the authority to remove the "rights, powers, and duties of for-profit business entities, operating or seeking to operate in the community, to prevent such rights and powers from usurping or otherwise conflicting with the fundamental rights of people, their communities and the natural environment."
Ben Price, project director at the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which is providing legal counsel to the CCRN, says the measure is less about regulation and more about the protection of individual rights for the citizens of Colorado.
"The oil and gas industry have said they are going to use the state legislature and courts to get what they want, and they've been catered to pretty well. The people are pushing back," Price said, noting that people are taking the matter into their own hands because legislatures are not putting their needs first.
"The idea of consent of the governed says the people directly affected should make that decision," he said. “We're not saying people should have a voice -- we're saying people should have the authority to decide."
The measure would have wide-reaching implications. It would allow communities to regulate not just oil and gas drilling or fracking -- a move already made in some Colorado counties -- but other industrial practices such as the genetic modification of crops, the construction of dams and the use of cyanide in gold mining.
There measure is likely to face stiff opposition from many sides.
Two counties in the state, Lafayette and Fort Collins, are already being sued by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) over restrictions on their activities, something the association says is not within their rights as the industries are regulated by the state.
In an email to Al Jazeera, a COGA spokesman called the local regulations "very far reaching," and said they were "broadly opposed by those who regard economic growth and business stability a priority."
"These radical measures will have implications beyond oil and gas development and energize Coloradans who support responsible and affordable energy development against such actions. We anticipate community and civic leaders will continue to communicate with citizens about the loss of economic vitality, tax revenues, and the other negative impacts that communities will face if industries are banned in Colorado," the email read.
COGA also sued Longmont County over a similar regulation in 2012. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state's regulatory agency, has also joined a lawsuit against Longmont for overstepping their boundaries on regulations.
Should the act pass, it would be the first of its kind on a statewide level.
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