Legislative and Policy Goals Amidst COVID-19

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The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed all public agencies, as well as the Minnesota Legislature to make some big process changes on the fly. The transparent, easily accessed public environment we expect from the Legislature has transitioned to online platforms like Facebook Live, YouTube, and Zoom that advocates and lobbyists have been scrambling to navigate. Legislators and staff have simultaneously had to learn how to function in this new virtual setting and at the same time prioritize action on immediate emergency response activities.  

With the end of the 2020 regular session in sight, the Legislature has begun to hear some consensus business not directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, some clean energy initiatives are still on the table. This blog post provides a status update on key legislative and administrative work and how Fresh Energy has pivoted in response to COVID-19. 

In this article:

Status Check: The Governor’s One Minnesota Path to Clean Energy

The Governor’s One Minnesota Path to Clean Energy, announced in 2019, includes three key elements: 1) a 100 percent by 2050 carbon-free electricity standard; 2) updates to Minnesota’s energy conservation program (known as the ECO Act); 3) a modernized regulatory framework known as Clean Energy First. Fresh Energy considers the One Minnesota Path to Clean Energy to be a major piece of unfinished business on our agenda – especially since all three bills carried over from the last legislative session.  

As the end of the 2020 session nears, we’ve seen exciting bi-partisan movement on the bill that updates Minnesota’s energy conservation program authored by Representative Zach Stephenson (D-District 36A) and Senator Jason Rarick (R-District 11).  This bill has become even more timely in our current crisis given how hard the energy efficiency industry has been hit and that Minnesota will need serious workforce investment. Among the many highlights to this bill, one of the most significant is that it expands opportunities for under-resourced households to access energy efficiency programs and reap savings on energy bills. You can read our deep-dive into the bill here

We expect that parts of the One Minnesota Path to Clean Energy that are not passed into law this year will be revisited during the 2021 legislative session. 

Status Check: Minnesota Step Code, Energy Efficient Nursing Homes, Conservation Solar 

Fresh Energy started the legislative session with a strong package of policies designed to increase the efficiency of new buildings in the state, help nursing homes cut energy costs, and spur more pollinator-friendly solar developments. However, the focus and scope of the legislative session has changed dramatically. While we are proud of the package of strong policies Fresh Energy presented at the legislature this year, there are serious logistical challenges with moving them forward. Fresh Energy remains committed to fighting for all these policy goals, and we look forward to advancing these issues during the 2021 regular session.  

Status Check: Clean Cars Minnesota 

This year was – and still is – critical for Clean Cars Minnesota. Clean Cars Minnesota is the Walz administration’s effort to reduce transportation pollution and improve electric and cleaner vehicle buying options for Minnesotans.  

As a result of COVID-19, the next steps on rulemaking for Clean Cars Minnesota have been delayed for a bit. A more precise timeline has yet to be announced. A public comment and meeting period was scheduled to launch this spring, but we know now that it will not move forward on the initial schedule. The next step will be publication of a draft rule by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Once the draft rule is public, it will kickstart the public engagement process which we have heard will have safe and equitable ways for Minnesotans to weigh in. This issue is very much at the top of Fresh Energy’s list and we will be posting on our blog and on social media as soon as we know when this process will resume.

Outside Influences at Work 
Even though the rulemaking process is delayed and we’re experiencing a global pandemic, big outside dollars are still being spent on fighting against and spreading misinformation about Clean Cars Minnesota. The oil industry is the driving force behind attacks on Clean Cars Minnesota because its survival depends upon auto dealers selling gasoline dependent  vehicles – even though data shows that Minnesotans want more efficient, cleaner vehicle options, like electric cars and plug-in hybrids. Oil and auto industry money is being spent on anti-clean car efforts throughout the state, and some Republicans in the Minnesota Senate have proposed repealing the Walz Administration’s authority to move forward. 

“The Minnesota Senate Environment Committee has aided and abetted the car industry and the oil industry by trying to take away the Pollution Control Agency’s authority to enact the clean car standard,” said Michael Noble, executive director of Fresh Energy. “It’s absolutely explicit in state law that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Governor Walz have the complete authority to adopt the Minnesota clean cars standard.”  

Emissions and Public Health
In addition to these external attacks on advancing clean car standards in Minnesota, the federal government is pushing its own disruptive agenda. On March 31, the Trump Administration announced an unprecedented rollback of Federal Clean Air Act protections, which hampers the ability for states to adopt vehicle emission standard that protect public health – like clean car standards. While it is hard to imagine our government would loosen up on air pollution amidst a public health crisis centered on respiratory ailments, that is exactly what these rollbacks do. This announcement, coupled with the April 20 news that the federal government will also be loosening emissions regulations for oil and coal-fired power plants, are reckless moves that will make our air more polluted at a time when it’s clear that air pollution is an aggravating factor for COVID-19 (see the study from Harvard University). 

All Minnesotans will be affected by increased air pollution, but the negative impacts will be most strongly felt by communities of color and under-resourced communities who are already disproportionately affected by air pollution.  

“The media has been calling attention to the fact that African Americans and communities of color are dying at a higher rate of COVID-19, but they’re not talking about why,” said Ben Passer, director of energy access and equity at Fresh Energy. “Our existing social structures like inequitable access to health care, as well as disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards due to zoning and redlining, are making COVID-19, and all air pollution in general, more fatal for these communities.” 

Policies like Clean Cars Minnesota are a step toward dismantling policies and other systemic barriers that disproportionately harm our most vulnerable and marginalized communities.

Energy Access and Equity During (and After) COVID-19 

As a leader in Minnesota’s clean energy community, Fresh Energy can have the greatest impact in this crisis by focusing on energy systems, how they’re responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, and how we can protect our most under-resourced communities both during and after this crisis. Fresh Energy’s work in this area has been led by Ben Passer and the Energy Access and Equity team. 

In early March, it became clear that some utilities were responding faster than others to this crisis with voluntary actions to protect customers that included suspending disconnections, reconnecting disconnected customers, establishing payment plans, and more. With this early leadership, we saw a clear path for all utilities and along with consumer organizations like the Citizens Utility Board (CUB) we began crafting policy recommendations for utilities and state and local leaders to protect customers in a uniform way. While these temporary protections are pivotal to helping Minnesotans now, they have also laid bare the deeper inequities faced by those who were already facing hardship before the pandemic began.  

“What does equity really look like for the energy system, housing, and transportation? How can we ensure everyone has equal access to energy efficiency, renewable energy, clean reliable transportation, and family-supporting careers in the clean energy sector?” said Passer. “This is the time to start thinking about how we can rebuild a better clean energy system that benefits everyone.” 

Ensuring Rebuilding is Clean, Efficient, and Equitable 

The essential role of government intervention and assistance during and after this crisis has yet to be fully understood. However, we do know that the state treasury won’t be able to jumpstart the economy alone, which presents opportunity for bringing Minnesota’s many diverse constituencies into the fold for rebuilding. Fresh Energy has already begun exploring how we can pull together and collaborate with allies in the labor community, business community, and clean energy and clean tech fields to speak with one voice to Minnesota’s congressional delegation and show them how clean energy and efficiency can be part of how we rebuild our economy.

After the Great Recession in 2008, the American Recovery Act included an incredible amount of investments that kicked off many of the clean energy innovations we see as foundational now. Minnesotans can count on Fresh Energy to forge new partnerships and be in continued dialogue with the state’s congressional delegation around what should be part of a federal investment in America’s economy and get Americans back to work when it’s safe and appropriate. Additionally, Fresh Energy will be engaging with Minnesota legislators on state-specific opportunities including the bonding bill.  

“We just can’t afford to have clean energy left out of the equation. When we’re making investments in infrastructure in the state, it’s an opportunity for us to also make a dent in the state’s energy and emissions goals in a thoughtful and responsible way that respects this moment in history,” said Noble. 

No More “Business as Usual” 

The clean energy and climate issues we all cared deeply about before the pandemic are still important. As your clean energy champion, Fresh Energy is fighting these moves every step of the way and striving to keep Minnesota on the right track toward a clean energy future that benefits all. We will strive to balance the work we are known for around advancing energy efficiency, renewable energy, and a more carbon-free economy, but we’ll also be thinking deeply about what it looks like to truly transform our economy to one that’s carbon-free and equitable. 

“When there’s a crisis as deep and big as this, something new will be born and Fresh Energy will be there for you as your voice helping to shape a future that’s prosperous and equitable, working to reduce the carbon emissions that are compromising our children’s future,” said Noble.

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