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Minnesota lawmakers have promised an effort to significantly cut red tape for wind, solar and transmission-line permits won't result in meaningfully less oversight or public involvement.

"If we want to permit clean energy, we're going to have to speed it up in a way that doesn't harm the process, public input or environmental review," said Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, during a March hearing for the permitting bill he is sponsoring.

But on that measure, legislation advancing at the state Capitol has received mixed reviews.

Frentz's bill passed the DFL-majority Senate last week and has earned praise from regulators on the Public Utilities Commission (PUC). It also has the backing of one influential environmental nonprofit that advocates for strong permitting rules.

Supporters say Minnesota urgently needs to streamline its process to reach a target for a 100% carbon-free electric grid by 2040. But at least one environmental group — focused on rural areas where many clean power projects are built — and one frequent skeptic of transmission projects have criticisms of the legislation, even if some early concerns about the bill have softened after revisions.

"Saying that we need to maintain public input kind of implies that we're already doing a good enough job, which we maybe are or are not," said Sarah Mooradian, government relations and policy director for Montevideo-based CURE.

That assessment might not slow down the legislation, a version of which is also moving ahead in the DFL-controlled House. If lawmakers in the two chambers reconcile their differences — and if the recent arrest of a DFL lawmaker does not upend the balance of power in the narrowly divided Senate — the permitting policy would likely be the most significant change to Minnesota's energy system made at the state Capitol this year.

Quicker timelines

The Senate's version of the permitting bill is a complicated proposal to overhaul the convoluted process that typically involves not only the PUC but also the Department of Commerce and an administrative law judge. It repeals some existing law and replaces it with what supporters say is a similar but cleaner and more consistent process. Will Seuffert, executive secretary of the PUC, said the legislation retains the core attributes of public meetings and hearings for projects under current law.

At its most basic level, the legislation creates a two-tier structure of "standard" review for wind, solar, energy storage, most natural gas plants and smaller transmission line projects and "major" review for larger proposals such as a big transmission line. A project under standard review faces more limited environmental review. That structure is not a major departure from the status quo, but the current system is more sprawling. For example, state law includes different rules for permitting wind than for solar.

In its current form, the Senate bill could save three to six months under standard review and at least six months from major review, said Christy Brusven, a permitting attorney for Fredrikson & Byron who has helped steer large energy projects through the PUC. That could cut timelines up to half, she said.

Houses line one edge of property at the Connexus solar-plus-storage facility in Ramsey, Minn., on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. 

Connexus gave a tour inside property at its combined solar and battery storage facility. Connexus was an early...
Houses line one edge of property at the Connexus solar-plus-storage facility in Ramsey, Minn., on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. Connexus gave a tour inside property at its combined solar and battery storage facility. Connexus was an early...

Shari L. Gross

One of roughly a dozen ideas taken from a task force the PUC convened would move environmental review staff at the Department of Commerce to the commission, which many on the task force said would save time and reduce headaches from cross-agency work.

In a literal sense, the bills do shrink the regulatory process, effectively cutting some oversight and chance for public input on the winding permitting road. Whether those changes would meaningfully diminish public involvement and scrutiny or just chop duplicative or administrative fluff, however, is more a matter of interpretation.

The bill would allow project applicants to write an environmental assessment under standard review, which is the current process now for wind projects but is otherwise work the Department of Commerce does.

That would be the biggest time-saver in the bill, Brusven said. It is also one subject of concern from Mooradian, who worried the state would not have enough power to improve that assessment if inadequate. Mooradian also said it could create doubt among the public that a developer or utility is providing "the most truthful information possible."

Under the bill, wind and solar projects utilities propose would no longer need a certificate of need from the PUC, broadening an existing exemption that now applies to third-party developers meant to signal carbon-free power is necessary to meet emissions targets. Existing law would still have the PUC consider some cost and reliability criteria for utilities, Brusven said.

Changes still possible

When Frentz first introduced the Senate bill, Commerce Commissioner Grace Arnold told lawmakers she was open to changes but wary of eliminating certificate of need requirements that scrutinize issues like whether there are cheaper solutions. Commerce acts as a public interest watchdog at the PUC. By April, Arnold said in a statement the legislation had been improved, and both the House and Senate version would help ensure Minnesota meets the 100% carbon-free goal.

Mooradian, too, commended changes to the bill, saying it no longer has restrictive timelines and some other features CURE questioned. At one point the bill appeared as if it would inadvertently lift the state's moratorium on new nuclear power plants.

The Senate bill would ease regulatory burdens on short transmission lines that connect projects like a wind farm to the grid. And utilities would no longer have to propose two routes for a transmission line of any size, which can cause unnecessary angst for the public when only one option is truly under serious consideration.

Carol Overland, an attorney who often challenges new transmission lines at the PUC, had many objections, including eliminating a rarely used provision for citizen and scientific task forces to advise the commission. But she said in the past, those task forces were important in debates about transmission lines, nuclear waste projects and more.

"The purpose of them is to explore impacts," she said.

The House bill has a different format and is similar, though not identical, to the Senate legislation.

One prominent environmental group, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, urged the Senate to pass the permitting legislation though it is still pushing for a few changes. Trade unions have also supported the Senate bill along with many power developers, utilities and even Google and outdoor retailer REI.

Meanwhile, Republicans at the Legislature have angled for broader changes to Minnesota's permitting system that would go beyond energy projects and into other industries and additional state agencies.

"I'm confident the bill the Senate passed achieves the goal of greater efficiency without sacrificing public input on the process or on environmental impacts," Frentz said on Monday.