Energy Law

Controversial Community Solar Garden Program is a Target of Minnesota’s 2019 Legislative Session

Hannah Payne, MJLST Staffer 

In 2013, Minnesota’s legislature opened the way for certain solar projects with the passage of the Community Solar Garden Program. The program requires Xcel Energy to purchase the energy created by Community Solar Gardens (“CSGs”) that are under a certain generation capacity. CSGs represent a middle ground between residential rooftop solar and large-scale, utility-owned solar. The idea is that medium-sized solar arrays are built in or near communities by developers, local residents buy subscriptions, and then the utility buys the energy from the array and credits the resident subscribers’ accounts. Solar developers sell subscriptions by highlighting the chance to save money and help the environment.

CSGs have been controversial since the inception of the program. Along with the significant growth of CSGs in Minnesota have come concerns about the sales practices of developers, who have been accused of misrepresenting the certainty of profit or stage of project development. The Attorney General warns consumers to “make sure they fully understand a subscription agreement and carefully consider whether they are willing to commit to its terms.” Opponents also decry that the majority of the capacity – 90% – of CSGs is purchased by commercial and other non-residential customers, undercutting the idealistic image of CSGs bringing renewable energy tangibly closer to communities. However, CSG advocates point out that the vast number of subscribers – 92% – are actually residential; they just use less energy than commercial customers.

At the heart of the controversy is the price issue. Opponents of the CSG program, including Xcel, say that it is far cheaper to produce solar energy in a large-scale setting. Xcel recently committed to going 100% carbon-free by 2050, and is likely focused on building renewable capacity efficiently. On the other side, proponents claim that Xcel’s lack of tolerance for competition has resulted in the undervaluation of CSGs because the social benefits and avoided costs have been ignored.

In any case, the CSG program looks poised to undergo change this year; several CSG bills have been introduced in the legislature. Senator Mike Goggin, a nuclear plant manager at Xcel, has proposed total repeal of the CSG program. Another bill would require Public Utilities Commission approval of CSG projects and cap the amount of capacity that may be built within the program annually at 25 Megawatts (there is currently no limit). Other proposals aim to improve developer sales practices, one listing detailed disclosures to be required in promotional materials, another calling for the state’s Clean Energy Resource Team partnership to develop a “disclosure checklist” for developers. Yet another bill would fund a study of “economic benefits to farmers” to investigate if the CSG program may be tweaked to be more farmer-friendly.

Minnesota is a national leader when it comes to CSGs; many will be watching to see how the legislation develops. As Xcel and others get more serious about renewable energy, conversations and controversies around renewables can only be expected to increase. Watching a debate like this unfold is a great way to keep a finger on the pulse of the energy world in this exciting time.


Renewable Energy vs. National Parks

By: Bethany Anderson

That’s what happened in Animal Welfare Institute v. Beech Ridge Energy LLC, where a wind energy facility was curtailed because it stood in the migration pathway of an endangered species—Indiana bats. The court allowed the facility to operate, but with significant constraints. For instance, though construction on those turbines already under construction could continue, Beech Ridge could operate only after it applied for and obtained an Incidental Take Permit (“ITP”), which would immunize Beech Ridge from certain ESA penalties for killing and injuring bats. Moreover, construction of additional turbines was conditioned on obtaining an ITP. Additionally, the Court ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) to determine when Beech Ridge could actually operate after Beech Ridge obtained an ITP, taking into account the migration and hibernation patterns of the bats (see this report for a brief discussion on the aftermath of the Beech Ridge case).

In a similar energy against nature context, significant outcry (see this article) over oil and gas drilling in and around national parks arose in the last year. The Trump Administration opened up more public lands for mineral leasing, and directed agencies to revise or rescind rules that burden domestic energy development. Environmental groups lamented the endangerment of pristine public lands, darkness of wilderness night skies, quiet of natural soundscapes, and tech- and industry-free experiences many visitors crave. These are all legitimate concerns because the experiences, sounds, and sights preserved in our national parklands are preserved relatively unspoiled only in these limited corners of the country. The groups’ sentiment seems to be “let’s just drill somewhere else, okay? It’s a big country. Preservation uses claim few acres in the scheme of things.”

The recent outcry misses, however, concern over greener energy projects that also threaten wilderness and nature values. Like in Beech Ridge, there are two sometimes competing goals here. Renewables serve climate change goals, displacing carbon-emitting energy sources like coal, natural gas, and oil. National parklands preserve land and culture in their natural and historical state. What happens when green energy development requires a huge expanse of flat land exposed to sun year round? A solar facility one mile from Mojave National Preserve presents an example. Is such a land use plan any less invasive than drilling? Maybe it’s quieter and lower to the ground, and maybe it serves a goal that those in the nature fight can get behind better than oil and gas drilling. In this instance, the solar facility still a mile away and does not in any way reach into the park through something comparable to directional drilling. But the facility uses land that was previously untouched and is still potentially visible from parks. As another example, what happens when the only way to get offshore wind online is to construct a high-voltage transmission line across a historic park? Developers say alternative energy sources that replace closing coal plants require a transmission line crossing a historic trail. Opponents say the line undermines the historic atmosphere of the trail and surrounding park area, and may open the floodgates to more industrialization in historic and pristine areas. In the same way as oil and gas drilling, these developments undermine some of the wilderness and historic values park advocates fight for.

So how do we balance these seemingly competing values? National parks are to be preserved unimpaired for the enjoyment of present and future generations. That mandate may conflict with climate change-combatting green energy tech seeking the most effective locations for new facilities.

The 9B regulations (“regulations”) that govern nonfederal oil and gas rights in and around national parks are a framework from which to balance renewables with the preservation mandate. The regulations require a plan of operations, plans in case of spills or other emergencies, a security bond in case of harm to park resources, and eventual restoration of the land, returning it as close to its original status as possible after operations conclude. Renewables are likely more permanent than an oil or gas well, so space and distance restrictions will need to be stricter. But a similar plan of operations, with mitigation strategies and emergency contingencies, is a good start, especially since the regulations are already in place in one piece of the energy sector. As energy technology develops, it constantly brings novel challenges into the existing legal context. The 9B regulations provide a starting point for the ever-growing green energy versus preservation debate.


Big Houses with Big Energy Demands

Bethany Anderson, MJLST Staffer 

A recent Aspen Times article says Pitkin County, home of the popular Aspen ski resort and numerous mountain mansions, will target larger homes as it heightens energy efficiency requirements and raises energy prices. The proposed change would increase a per-square-foot energy consumption fee from $1 to $45 for homes over 5,750 square feet and to $60 for homes over 8,250 square feet. While some argue changing these requirements is the best way to reduce energy demand on strained resources, others say the consumption fees don’t address key aspects of large home construction: the resources used in construction, the waste of resources in demolition, and the energy demand from pools, hot tubs, and snow-melting driveways

The U.S. isn’t alone in balancing growing (in various senses) housing demands and energy consumption constraints. Similar home size concerns arise in Australia, where housing units have increased in size while the number of residents per unit has decreased. That means energy usage per unit increases.

On the other hand, in an era of innovation and new technologies, smaller doesn’t necessarily mean more efficient. One Virginia man doubled the size of the house on his lot but cut energy bills. He says it’s not about being “eco-friendly” or about building a smaller home; rather, it’s about taking the time and effort – and shouldering the cost – needed to construct a sound, well-insulated home.

All of this poses legal and technological challenges. Technologically, how can (some) people get what they want – a big, “American-dream” house – without overconsuming energy? More investigation into construction techniques and materials – as professed by that Virginia man – could prove fruitful. Legally, can residences be regulated in the manner Pitkin County wants to regulate? Homes have not historically been regulated as products under the EPCA, a 1975 statute concerned primarily with energy supply, demand, and efficiency. Perhaps more comprehensive regulation, or including homes under the EPCA, would solve the energy demand and efficiency problems Pitkin County faces in a more equitable way than slapping on fees for large homes. New Jersey offers a rebate for homes that meet energy efficiency standards – maybe rewards are better than penalties. Australia proposes adding embodied energy, or the energy used in each step of production of a certain thing, to the cost calculus. And, though Pitkin County is considering increased fees, it has thus far not supported square footage limits for snow-melt driveways, pools, hot tubs, or patios. These might be good starting points for striking a balance between big demand for big things against limited energy resources.

 


Bottom-Up Approach to Climate Change

Allison Kvien, MJLST Managing Editor

Most often, climate change is discussed on the global, top-down level: what changes may happen all around the world as a result of increasing global temperatures and greater fluctuations in weather events. There are very interesting maps that can show you just how much coastline will be underwater depending on different levels of sea level rise. To see just how much sea level rise it would take to put any city in the world underwater, you can use this mapping tool. There are also plenty of articles discussing hundreds of other effects of global climate change, such as food production, human health, endangered species, and the global economy.

We talk about climate change from a bottom-up perspective far less often, but it is a perspective that really does deserve our attention. Myanna Dellinger, in a recent article published in 2013 by the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science, and Technology, discusses and analyzes “bottom-up, polycentric developments within national and international environmental and human rights law in general.” This approach to viewing the large issue of climate change could be very beneficial because, as Dellinger points out, “waiting for national- and supranational-level actors to reach a broadly based and substantively effective agreement on climate change mitigation is like waiting for Godot—unlikely to happen, at least at a substantively early enough point in time.” Dellinger’s article argues that bottom-up approaches could be very viable alternatives to waiting for the unlikely global, top-down action to occur. Read her interesting and novel article here.


Renewable Energy Accounts for Majority of New Energy Technology Installed in 2015 but Remains a Minority Producer Overall

John Biglow, MJLST Staffer

According to a United Nations Environment Programme report titled “Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2016,” 2015 was a record setting year for global investment in renewable energy. A record $286 Billion dollars was invested in renewable energy technology in 2015. Furthermore, for the first time in history, renewable energy technologies made up more than half of the total gigawatt capacity of all newly installed energy technologies. Significantly, it was developing countries that led the way, with China, South Africa, Mexico, India, and Chile all showing an increase in investment. China itself accounted for over 1/3 of the total global investment with $102.9 billion invested.

According to a UNEP publication concerning this report, these developments are indicative of a structural change happening in the global energy system in the article Complexity in Global Energy-Environment Governance, Andrew Long discusses and describes the global energy system and the ways it reacts to change. Long argues that viewing the global energy system in the same manner that we study other complex systems will allow for a better understanding of how the system works and how it could be changed.

In his article, Long argues that the current global energy system shows both resilience and adaptation. By adaptation, he is referring to the system’s ability to incorporate new aspects into itself without experiencing an entire overhaul and shift in trajectory. The UNEP’s report which indicates the increasing role of renewable energy in the global energy system is demonstrative of this adaptation. By resilience, Long is referring to the entrenched nature and dominance of fossil fuels in the global energy system. Despite the major, and indeed record setting, strides made in 2015 in regards to renewable energy investment, it still only accounts for around 10% of total global energy production, as stated in UNEP’s recent report.

It is unclear what to make of the UNEP report at this juncture; on the one hand, if our goal is to increase the use of environmentally friendly energy sources, as it undoubtedly should be, then it appears we are on track. However, questions remain as to whether we are moving fast enough down that track. In his article, Long stated that in complex systems, occasionally small scale changes to the system can cause a system-wide shift and alteration, though he stressed that the occurrence of this is rare. Whether or not the increase of renewable energy use is indicative of a trend which will eventually de-trench the entrenched fossil fuel energy production is unclear at this point. Overall, the UNEP report seems to indicate a promising trend towards increased renewable energy usage, but if the global energy system is to undergo any drastic shifts, it seems that more countries will have to follow China’s example and invest heavily in new eco-friendly energy technologies.


Five-Year Extension May “Put the Falls Back in River Falls”

Katie Cumming, MJLST Lead Note & Comment Editor

A March 17, 2016 decision by the Federal Energy Reserve Commission (FERC) may “put the falls back in River Falls.” This is good news for community groups and environmental stewards, as this decision overturns FERC’s December 9, 2015 decision originally denying a five-year extension for the continued operation of the River Falls two hydroelectric dams (the River Falls Project). After the initial denial, the City released a letter stating that it would “pursue the extension through whatever means” available. FERC heard and ultimately granted the City’s extension because it “found that the unique circumstances in this case, such as the unanimous stakeholder support for the extension, the river corridor plan, and the size of the project, all demonstrate that a five-year extension of the license is in the public interest.” As a result of the recent decision the City effectively ended its relicensing efforts and is refocusing its resources on planning for the Kinnickinnic River Corridor. The five-year extension gives the City and stakeholders “breathing room to decide about the fate of the two dams.” City Management Analyst, Ray French, said “The benefit is that the five-year (license) extension pushes back the regulatory filing and process deadline in order to give the community time to engage in a river corridor planning process that will provide a vision for this central area and beyond. . . .” Re-evaluating the use of rivers as a resource is not unique to the Kinnickinnic River. As many dams age and become obsolete, communities are re-evaluating the economic and environmental costs of these dams. Kinnickinnic stakeholders have created a movement to “put the falls back in River Falls.” On April 5, 2016, River Falls will hold an election for City Council and Mayor. With the river’s fate to be determined, the result of this election will undoubtedly have an effect on whether the falls are put back in River Falls.


UN Countries Strive to Develop Legal Framework for Climate Deal

Vinita Banthia, MJLST Articles Editor

In December 2009, over a 100 world leaders gathered in Copenhagen, Denmark for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which included the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the 5th Conference of the Parties for the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (COP/MOP 5). The international gathering culminated in the “Copenhagen Accord,” which member countries of the UNFCCC agreed generally to “take note of,” but failed to promise more substantial action.

While the Accord endorsed the Kyoto Protocol and included specific omission reduction targets for some countries, it did not set out any legal framework or structure for the enforcement of these guidelines. Developed countries agreed to provide $100 billion per year by 2020 to developing countries for climate improvement. Again, however, no strategy was developed for the implementation of this funding, and countries continue to disagree on the amount and sourcing of the funds.

Fast forward six years later to the meeting in Bonn, Germany last week, where delegations convened once again to negotiate an international climate agreement. In December, the delegations will reconvene in Paris for the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC to further discuss the terms of an international climate deal, and ideally, all 195 attending countries will adopt it. However, many of the issues that prevented a deal from being developed in Copenhagen continue to haunt current discussions.

Frist, developing countries are concerned about the amount of funding developed countries are willing to provide for their transition to clean and sustainable energy sources. In addition, most countries are hesitant to agree to a predetermined emissions reduction target and prefer a self-guided, non-legally-binding requirement that is informally tracked. The members in attendance at the climate conference in Bonn took this strategy and allowed countries to determine their own emissions goals. These compromises allowed the nations to conclude the Bonn meeting with a draft agreement that is predicted to be more successful than the Copenhagen Accord, during the final round of negotiations in Paris. However, it will be important for nations to avoid the temptations of diluting the provisions too much to gain approval of a large number of nations. Instead, nations should take a more heavy-handed approach to ensure important actions are taken, while implementing a legal structure to enforce the provisions of any final agreement.


H.R.8 and the Hydropower Improvement Act of 2015—Another Missed Opportunity

Catherine Cumming, MJLST Lead Note & Comment Editor

While many people see the hydropower industry as a clean and sustainable energy source, most hydropower facilities are decades old and have severe environmental, economic, and social externalities. Relicensing provides an opportunity to bring aging dams up to modern environmental standards and compliance requirements. Over the past thirty years, American Rivers and the Hydropower Reform Coalition used the licensing process to improve hydropower dams and restore rivers. With over 6,000 megawatts of hydropower due for relicensing within the next five years, there are hundreds of dams and thousands of miles of river with an opportunity for improvement. Recent legislation, however, has failed to address the amount of hydropower due for relicensing and the opportunities it presents for increased energy production and environmental compliance. When Congress passed the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act of 2013, it failed favored efficiency over oversight and failed to the amount of hydropower due for relicensing and the opportunity it provided for efficiency upgrades.

This fall, Congress missed yet another opportunity to modernize hydropower and decrease its negative externalities. Rather than “modernize” hydropower, the Energy & Commerce Committee’s approval of a hydropower amendment to H.R.8, the “North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act of 2015” and Senator Lisa Murkowski’s “Hydropower Improvement Act” ignore the opportunity for increased efficiency and sustainability by creating compliance loopholes for the hydropower industry. If enacted, these bills would allow energy companies to opt out of Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and state water quality and wildlife protections; allow dam owners to pass the costs and burdens of obeying water quality standards, wildlife laws, and cleaning up pollution caused by dams to taxpayers; and transfer state and federal agency authority to protect natural resources to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. While 2011 was the “Year of the River,” 2015 is becoming the “Year of Hydropower.” Community interest groups and environmental organizations are concerned that H.R.8 and the “Hydropower Improvement Act” will “turn back the clock and take the hydropower industry back to a time when they could destroy rivers with impunity.”