Saturday, April 25, 2015

Low Income Workers and Climate Activists have found a Common Enemy

One of my friends posted on social media that someone told her “I don’t care about the environment I care about people?” while she was tabling for Earth Day. First of all, there is no need for any environment versus the people divisiveness because "The People" and "The Environment" have a common enemy in the corporate elite and their compliant political puppets!

This Earth Day, I was with a group of climate activists who were making our voices heard at the State Capitol vocalizing against an Energy Omnibus House bill primarily on behalf of environmental concerns. But then the headline about that same bill which came out of the Star Tribune the next day was on behalf of people Minnesota House passes lower minimum wage for tip workers.” 

So in honor of “caring about people more than environment”, the MN State House Celebrated Earth Day by passing a bill 73-56 that would lower the minimum wage for employees who receive tips of at least $4 per hour. This sends a “you are making too much money” message to workers who make $14 or $15 an hour with tips.  
The bills twin poison pill is prohibiting cities or the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport from enacting a higher minimum wage than the state minimum. It is basically big government telling local government there is no choice. Mark Dayton’s call for a $10 minimum wage for airport workers and the Minneapolis City Council looking into a $15 minimum wage plus Seattle winning $15 per hour must have struck a nerve with those waging war on what people make.
Rep. Ryan Winkler had an amendment to stop these poison pills, but it was voted down on the same 56-73 lines.
While I am not making any claims about the optimal level the minimum wage should be, I’d like to offer this logic that I heard a legislator make: 

1: If fundamental opposition to a higher minimum wage was their issue they had against the Winkler Amendment 


2: if they were actually genuine in their confidence that higher minimum wage would lead to disaster with restaurants and taverns being forced out of business…

…Then the anti-wage hike folks ought to be in favor of giving local control a chance here.
If a city does do a $12 or $15 per hour minimum wage and if it leads to disaster according to their fear-mongering script, then that would be good for their political agenda against minimum wage jumps. But so far, unemployment has only gone down since MN passed the $9.50 minimum wage last year. If there is an example of a city that gets $15 per hour minimum wage and it causes and upward spiral of attracting workers rather than a downward spiral of detracting employers, then it would be very dangerous to their agenda and would provide an inspirational example for more cities and towns to replicate.

The retort I heard from the anti-wage hike legislators was to trust local and private enterprise and contracts between private people is the purest level of local control there can be. Rep. Steve Drazkowski decried "efforts by government to socialize wages” as a move by those who think they can direct people’s lives better than their own personal contracts. But I heard pro-wage hike legislators make a case that the practical consequences of refusal to raise the wage on people who can’t make ends meet only creates demand for more government subsidies and the child care does not magically appear. Reducing everything down to personal contracts fails to recognize that it is not a level playing field for everyone. The American Dream is never achieved in isolation and the tables have tilted too far.
Many in the DFL caucus accused the GOP of double-talking so much about being for local control and against central government overreach but then not actually trusting local control in this one case of minimum wage. To these accusations, Rep. Pat Garofalo retorted “What if localities want to set their minimum wages below the state level” It was later clarified that state statute as it exists sets a floor for minimum wage while cities can legally go beneath.
Rep. Jim Davnie commented “The rousing condemnation of democracy by the GOP is stunning here.” Garofalo responded that both parties are for local control when its policy they agree with but against local control when its policy they disagree with. A certainly valid point, but in principle, local government is the level that is closest to the people.
Here is an interesting story from the April 22nd session: I heard Rep. Pat Garofalo used Betsy Hodges’ statement opposing a $15 hour minimum wage for Minneapolis to provide ammunition for making an argument against any local minimum wage increase altogether. Garofalo was then asked if he had spoken with Betsy Hodges about this issue to find out what she really meant on the issue. Garofalo said that he did write Betsy Hodges but did not hear back. Then an hour or so later, Rep. Phyllis Kahn announced she had in hand a letter that Mayor Hodges mailed to Garofalo dated March 26th. Garofalo then stated he did not know he even received the letter.
Representative Runbeck then shared some firm positions on the issue calling a $15 per hour minimum wage extreme, ridiculous, dangerous and that small restaurants will close or replace their staff with automation. She said the word “skills” was missing from the discussion among the left and that the market pays for what skills you have. So therefore she argued, low wages should not imply anything wrong about the employer. But does that rule out any possibility that bosses can pay good employees less than their value? Runbeck then added “And if what skill you have does not warrant a higher wage then go out and get a new skill.” That may be technically true, however I heard another legislator say the Republicans are not willing to put enough into higher education programs to make that even possible for people who can’t afford the up-front costs in the first place. Runbeck then said greater productivity is the key to earning higher wages. But it is fairly common knowledge that productivity has been going up, people are working harder, and wages are stagnant because the bulk of the money is being funneled away to the super-rich. So overall this is a binocular trick of only thinking of the costs of raising wages and nothing of the benefits.
Representative Thissen brought up a deep challenge to the bill. He suspected it was a cut and paste ALEC bill which GOP house members did not actually read before automatically deciding to march in favor of it. He said,” This will be a lawyers dream bill” because it has unacceptably broad and overreaching and would require localities to retrofit ordinances retroactively. The language defines the term benefit as so broadly constrained that it can make anti-discrimination ordinances or a whole range of benefits to no longer apply. I am not exactly sure how to explain it clearer, but I hope I at least gave enough info for anyone to ask Thissen about it. What gets to the heart of the issue is the ability of the local community to express its values by its ordinances such as minimum wage among other benefits. 

A DFL legislator summing up this move of “holding workers down” as “just a giveaway for campaign contributors.”

Unpacking the State House's Willingness to Inject Uncertainty into the Solar Market

Why would a State House Committee which includes the term “job growth” in its title declare an all-out sabotage of a newly booming solar industry that now employs twice as many jobs as coal? 

If the committee's Omnibus Energy bill that passed the full State House on Earth Day were to become actual law it would halt new applications for the Made-In-Minnesota Solar and Solar Rewards incentive programs, would repeal the value of solar tariff for community solar gardens, would gut the 2013 solar standards and would change net metering programs in a way that so that people making huge private investments in solar energy can be denied adequate compensation for the electricity they provide to the grid which benefits all customers.  

Lynn Hinkle, policy director for the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association, stated at the April 8th, 2015 public hearing that if even one of these solar-related policies passes, “every segment of Minnesota solar market would be damaged.” 

David Streier, company director of Silicon Energy a solar panel manufacturing plant in Mountain Iron, Minn warned at a public hearing for the Committee’s Omnibus bill., that his company would be shut down if the bill becomes law because it repeals the Minnesota-made solar subsidy. That is what protects domestic manufacturers from being undercut by Chinese solar manufacturers.  

For a political party that continually evokes a good point that "uncertainty" is “bad for business”, this omnibus bill injects a poison pill of uncertainty into tens of thousands of small-business clean energy jobs.
I heard a legislator say these proposals send a “we don’t care about, we don’t need you, or you are not welcome anymore” message from the perspective of anyone making an honest effort forming a successful businesses building and installing solar systems in MN,  But perhaps the committee chair and Bill's Sponsor Pat Garofalo has a more tactful explanation for subjecting solar to a steeper climb.  

In a Star Tribune interview last January, Garofalo stated concern about the “excessive” subsidies for solar energy that passed in the previous legislative session because “there are more cost-effective ways to reduce pollution than to incentivize solar, especially rooftop solar.”  But speaking of cost-effectiveness, he called nuclear power “one of the most cost-effective ways to achieve” carbon emissions goals. I’d be interested to hear how the nuclear industry could survive if put to the same rigorous standard of little to no government subsidy. If the solar subsidies are excessive, then how about ending subsidies currently given to the coal, gas and nuclear industries and using the money to advance the technologies of power storage that will actually make solar power more cost effective? How about we work together on a plan to convert dirty diesel school bus fleets to electric powered by solar (rather than natural gas) since that would provide energy storage capacity to the grid?

Toward the end of the April 22nd session on the House Energy Omnibus bill, Garofalo admitted wind energy is the cheapest form of new generation and that therefore smart actors in the energy market don’t need government mandates get them to deploy wind. So the idea he stated is “not to put a gun to utilities heads” but to invest in energy storage and so many awesome things in technology. Then he then gave the fracking revolution as an examples of that optimism in technology. 

At the CEE Energy Policy Forum on Jan 27th, 2015 the chair of the MN State House “Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance” committee Pat Garofalo spoke these words in good-humored and optimism about innovative technology being part of the solution for energy: I don’t understand how anyone can be pessimistic about energy policy right now…I can’t be anything but happy about where our energy is going now.” Yes there is a grain of truth that technological breakthroughs providing high hope. But the issue is which set of decision makers has the power to decide which technologies get deployed and which technologies gather dust sitting on the shelf?

The typical reasoning of “letting the market decide does not apply to the energy world as it stands. First of all, there is no market price for electricity since energy utilities are monopolies within their service territories, particularly in regulated states like Minnesota. Second of all, so many utilities (including the rural co-ops) are locked into decades-long contacts for coal. Most utilities have already sunk a huge amount of capital into coal plants. The typical rule for market competition is businesses deploying the technology that is most competitive from a consumers’ standpoint. But why does that not apply in this case of energy? Unless they are required to do otherwise by the state, the energy monopolies are still going to opt to feed us dirty energy even though wind power is at a competitive price with coal, and even though solar energy is cost-competitive with nuclear. They are primarily motivated to protect these sunken costs into coal and nuclear from turning into stranded assets. That is the real source of utilities anxiety over net metering for example.

Where the market does apply is in reaction to policy. Policies that actually help the solar market grow will only serve to drive down the prices of solar energy even more. That in turn upends the “solar is less cost-effective” justification for injecting uncertainty into the solar jobs market.

Weaselly Language in House Energy Omnibus Bill Undermines Clean Energy Goals

     The Energy omnibus bill that passed the MN State House on Earth Day is quite clear and up front about repealing the hard-won 10% by 2030 solar standard. But one of the portions the House Energy Omnibus bill’s language is far from forthright and honest about is language to allow the 1.5% by 2020 solar standard to "be met through the use of solar energy or any other more affordable eligible energy technology."  If it is possible for the solar standard to be met with wind, then it is not a solar standard anymore. The bill uses disingenuous weasel words instead of being forthright and honest about repealing the solar standard. I also heard accusations that the bill turns an Xcel renewable development fund into a multimillion dollar tax for Xcel ratepayers to potentially fund non-renewable purposes that goes against the intent of the fund when established.

If the bill nips the solar industry in the bud before it has a chance to prove itself, were Garofalo and his Omnibus bill a bit gentler on wind energy since it has gotten a chance to prove itself wide-scale?
If the bill becomes law, close to 9% less wind energy will be required, but not because of the overt repealing of Renewable Energy Standards or incentives. It is because the bill would allow utilities to include large established hydro, such as the infamous Manitoba Hydro in Canada, to count as percentage to the state’s overall  25 percent by 2025 Renewable Energy Standard. Imported large hydro accounts for approximately 9% of our electricity generation today. 

Other Trojan horse revisionist language includes renaming Next Generation Energy act’s Renewable Energy Standard into the “Advanced Energy Standard” to be filled with “eligible energy technology.” Furthermore could the term "affordable eligible energy technology" could be reclassified to include "clean coal" (which does not actually exist)? Of course the bill author wants to leave room for him to deny he is repealing the 1.5% solar standard. But what would happen if both the 1.5% and 10% solar standards are repealed? On hot summer days when the load on the electric grid is peaking we will continue dependence on more natural gas peaking power plants if there is not enough solar capacity deployed.

State Representatives wore buttons that read “cleaner and cheaper” to express support for this energy omnibus bill. But being held hostage to natural gas that has great unpredictability in price and is increasingly extracted from toxic fracking puts a big question mark on “cleaner and cheaper”.

New Nuclear Projects: “Affordable” for whom?

What do we see coming from the State House committee that has the name “Affordability” in its title and from its omnibus energy bill that is marketed by its supporters as “Cleaner and cheaper?” Apparently “Cleaner”, “Cheaper” and “Affordability” includes leaving utility customers on the hook to pay the stranded costs of non-operational nuclear plants!

The overall omnibus bill that passed the State House on Earth Day and is headed to conference committee repeals the moratorium on new nuclear power plant construction in Minnesota even though the per-KWH cost of nuclear energy is more expensive than energy efficiency, wind and utility solar! 

At the end of the April 22nd session shortly before the Energy Omnibus bill was voted on, I heard majority leader Joyce Peppin state “Nuclear energy is a clean, affordable energy source” in favor of the nuclear moratorium repeal. 

My first question I thought of was, "Do the hundreds of millions of dollars cost overruns which more than doubled the budget for Xcel’s Monticello nuclear plant upgrade somehow qualify as 'affordable' just because the money will be paid by utility customers rather than taken away from corporate profits?"

Earlier on the same evening I heard Representative Frank Hornstein say “Nuclear is bar none the most effective way to generate energy.” So according to logic, one of them has to be wrong.

The big story here is Representative Phyllis Kahn brought up an amendment that addressed a big issue related to the repeal of the state new nuclear moratorium. She pointed out some southern states that are actually constructing new nuclear Power Plants. Kahn mentioned that Duke Energy in Georgia has a non-operational nuclear plant that has added 9% to each utility bill and maybe 15% soon. Her amendment was to shift the costs of nuclear plants before they are operational onto the power utilities instead of the utility customers. She also remarked “Of course those who profit from it don’t care as long as they have access to the people’s pocket.”

First of all it is unclear of anyone who has plans for a new nuclear plant in MN. I have read into Xcel Energy’s 15 year business plan and found no plans for then building any new nuclear. However Kahn’s amendment would at least force the utilities to stop and think if they did chose to launch a nuclear renaissance.

I did not hear the bill’s author Pat Garofalo make any make any comprehensive argument whatsoever against this Kahn Amendment except for a tense-sounding and cursory remark about encouraging new technologies. 

Melissa Hortman brought up how Xcel’s “mismanagement” led to their Monticello Nuclear Plant cost overruns which in turn provoked back-to-back rate hikes from Xcel. Maybe the cost-overruns were slightly different than the Kahn Amendment at hand, but Hortman presented it as a case in point to how nuclear is actually expensive and hard on affordability and rather than cheap and easy. There were staffers who passed out printed out articles about the Monticello Cost overruns at Hortman’s request, but to no avail. Rep Anzelc from Itasca also brought up how the cost of storing the waste was not accounted for, that there is no such thing as the company paying the costs, the ratepayer pays everything and there is no place to store the nuclear waste.

From what I saw, the GOP caucus was very silent in voicing any critique of this Amendment but nevertheless voted it down 52-77.  So those who use the term “affordable energy” as a club to marginalize the young solar industry were apparently not moved by over $400 million in cost overruns at Monticello Nuclear, probably because the expense is not taken out of corporate profits but from ratepayers. 

Injecting vagueness and political gridlock into MN climate goals

The MN House Energy Omnibus Bill passed on Earth Day and will force climate-conscious legislators to play defense as it goes into conference committee with the companion senate bill detracting energy from pro-active efforts at solving the crisis.

The MN House Energy Omnibus bill replaces all quantitative language on Minnesota’s clear, science-based, 
30 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050 greenhouse gas reduction goals with the impulsive and vague phrase “in an affordable manner”. This creates confusion on what metrics we are trying to achieve as a state. The term “affordable manner” is a respectable principle but not when it is interpreted by people who are opportunist with a restrictive, tunnel-vision view of economics. People who seek to use a shortsighted definition of “affordable” will take advantage of this revision to justify further delay in coordinated action to mitigate climate disruption. And further delay will only serve to raise the eventual costs to the United States (and global) economy because paying the costs of climate disasters after the fact is anything but an “affordable manner.” 

A related part of the House Omnibus Energy bill injects political gridlock by requiring state legislative approval of Minnesota’s version of the Clean Power Plan in order for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to implement it. Minnesota’s contribution for our one moonshot chance for mitigating a coming climate disaster will be held at the tender mercy of 71 members of the Republican majority in the Minnesota House who voted against a Melissa Hortman’s amendment stating that climate change is real and that human activity is a significant contributor to it.

During the April 22nd session, the bill author Pat Garofalo commented that it is dangerous to have only one person (Governor Mark Dayton) setting energy policy unilaterally. More specifically, he stated fear Dayton will have the ability to impose a regional cap and trade plan. To his credit Pat Garofalo was one Republican who actually voted yes affirming anthropogenic climate change to be real and initially suggested his colleagues do so as well during the session. During a Star Tribune interview on January 11th, Garofalo answered “So Yes” to a question on whether carbon dioxide emissions cause climate change. 
So how could Garofalo reconcile diluting the state’s resolve to address an issue that he admits is a problem?  
In that same Star Tribune interview Garofalo state he has “high hopes for technology and innovation, such as capturing carbon dioxide from smokestacks, to address climate change.” Is carbon capture and storage more feasible and attainable than say a nuclear fusion power plant or is that a justification to keep coal plants chugging along?)

Here are some highlights of the lengthy discussion on Melissa Hortman’s “admit climate is real” amendment.

First Melissa Hortman attributed the recent drought and flood historical weather extremes to climate change which has had a $400 million price tag for the State.

Paul Thissen asked a couple of GOP State Reps direct questions on whether they will admit humans are responsible for climate change and if they do why they would vote to weaken Minnesota’s climate goals. Both found ways to dodge the question and the most meaningful answer was one from Gruenhagen that “I believe there are eminently qualified scientists who would disagree with that comment and I tend to agree with those scientists.” In his statement answering basically the same question Rep. Jim Newberger, referred to these 2% or 3% of "scientists" who refute the consensus on climate change, saying: “I’m going to trust they are a lot smarter than I. These are men and women who accomplished many things.”

Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, clearly uncomfortable with the discussing the topic, remarked that climate should be “debate for another time.”

Rep. Joyce Peppin then retorted by asking a number of DFL legislators whether they were qualified scientists implying that their standing to have opinions on global warming was suspect. That would be like saying “You have no standing to be for preventing higher minimum wage unless you have a PHD in economics.” The DFL legislators had an opportunity here to make a powerful morality based argument and could have said it is much more likely that the 3% of scientists are paid off by the big carbon (as shown by the movie Merchants of Doubt) than it is for the 97% of scientists to be involved in some grand conspiracy. The clearest message I heard repeated from the DFL legislators was that 97% of scientists do in fact adhere to the consensus. 

Peppin then asked a question whether any legislator present was in fact a qualified scientist.

 Barb Yarusso, one Representative who did have a scientific background a Ph. D. in chemical engineering, went on a lengthy, patient and well-laid out lecture on the basics of climate disruption. So on one hand the Republicans demanded rigorous criteria of scientific facts and analysis. But then I observed with my own eyes the legislators moving about and talking, clearly not paying attention to what she had to say. I got the impression that Representatives on both sides of the isle already had their minds made up on the issue, displaying no interest in learning more about the issue that so many demanded more qualified facts about.

Representative Lucero asked a series of questions about how the Ice Age could have possibly ended if human activity was not responsible for it. Again, this was a missed opportunity at a real knock-out punch argument. Someone could have simply stated that warming today is much more abrupt, and the CO2 levels far higher than at the warming that ended the ice age. Even according to that much more gradual natural cycle (which Lucero implied debunked anthropogenic global warming) we technically should be cooling now. Just because the our earth’s climate has had longer and more gradual warming and cooling epochs in the distant past does not rule out CO2 emissions as the cause of the current warming.

Representative Newberger, hot off the heels of making a controversial comment the previous day, warned that voting no would make oneself subject to being insulted as a denier. He then said “I am not here to insult anyone for their beliefs on this issue so please don’t insult mine.”

He was among the 71 who voted no.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Conspiracy to upend Net Metering comes to MN House Energy Omnibus Bill

The National Conspiracy against net metering, as uncovered by the Washington post in their March 7th article "Utilities Wage Campaign against Rooftop Solar", has become a key point of controversy in the Minnesota State House of Representatives Energy Omnibus Bill.

For Solar Homeowners, net metering is the ability to sell surplus solar power back to the utility through the grid possibly resulting in a check from the utility companies rather than a bill. 

     The usual divide and conquer technique fossil fuel industry and utility company trade groups like the Edison Electric Institute use is to try to pit low-income communities of color against advocates for certain solar power options like net metering. They invoke an inverted reality where the individual solar energy customer is the greedy villain.

They say households that net-meter their own solar-based electricity do not pay into the fixed costs of the grid and thereby  unfairly and inaccurately accuse  them of forcing a raise in electricity costs for non-solar households, and chiefly those struggling to pay their energy bills. The author of the MN State House Energy Omnibus Bill, Pat Garofalo, told the Star Tribune about net metering “we are defunding maintenance of the electric grid to pay for (distributed generation) incentives.” In the April 22nd session on the energy omnibus bill, Pat Garofalo clearly stated that someone who uses the grid should pay for it rather than there being any freeloaders.

If a solar homeowner or a subscriber is not being reimbursed for excess power they generate, then how is that not theft plain and simple as seen in bill’s language like “Any Kilowatt Hour Credits carried forward by the customer cancel at the end of the calendar year with no additional compensation?” 
It is like imposing a punitive fee on Pat Garofalo for buying a new $70,000 a jet black Tesla Model S for not contributing to the gas tax revenue that goes to pay for the road and bridge infrastructure.

What information could opponents of net metering feast upon? There was a Louisiana Study that concluded solar roofs result a cost shift of $2 Million for energy users who do not own solar panels, but is has been debunked as paid off by the fossil fuel interests. Meanwhile recent reports commissioned by regulators in MississippiNevada, and Maine, as well as the state consumer advocate in Vermont, have confirmed whatever costs distributed solar causes are outweighed by the benefits such as reducing the load on the utility during the hot sunny summer months when air conditioners are running on high.

When the House Energy Omnibus bill was being heard, Representative Melissa Hortman brought up an amendment that she said would actually bring in some analysis, transparency and accounting onto the supposed cost shifting and instability net metering imposes. But the State House still voted it down and the retort from the other side was to “check in with the ratepayers and the electric co-ops.”

The net metering language in the bill was described by its supporters as that the fees for what people would be charged for net metering would be made by the co-op utilities and Muni’s themselves rather than being set from a top down-imposed fixed rate. They framed net metering issue as forcing Muni utilities and co-ops to buy the distributed generation even if they don’t want it for whatever reason. I heard a representative say that the gives the co-ops and the munis the ability to set a rate that “encourages renewables” but does not put it on the backs of those who do not want it. So overall they and take a weakening net metering as an exhibit for being pro-local control.

  Supporters of protecting the current net metering standards spoke toward the principle of becoming energy independent by diversifying our energy supply. Representative Melissa Hortman explained how net metering has been around since the 1980’s and was created in response to natural gas spikes in the 1970’s that closed schools because there was not enough energy to keep them warm. For whatever great burden distributed generation plus net metering supposedly imposes onto the system, it’s a much bigger problem when we are over-dependent on just one monoculture of energy. Hooking small systems of other energy sources into the larger grid makes it more secure if centralized power gets shut down. In addition localizing more power generation means less energy line losses.

During the hearing, Representative Raymond Dehn said there is nothing in this bill that makes the grid less susceptible to terrorist strikes mainly because the bill is so inconsiderate of our space to create decentralized energy freedom. Distributed generation creates a more secure grid and therefore those against net metering are against a diversified grid and therefore its security.

Garofalo Stated that he had set $45 million for distributed generation in the bill. That alone would redeem the omnibus bill somewhat. But earlier toward in the hearing I recall it was Garofalo who stated “There is nothing environmentally beneficial about distributed generation, but it is more expensive.”
Weakening of net metering means undermining our freedom to generate our own energy and to sell and to choose diversified sources of energy.

Giving energy monopolies the leverage to stifle small producer’s ability to go renewable is not what Minnesota voters and constituents across the political spectrum want. 76% of voters polled in Minnesota Power’s service territory supported the 10% solar by 2030 goal in 2013. It is what legislators who wined and dined him at ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) conferences are bribed into to bringing up.
The American Legislative Exchange Council, (ALEC) is a closed-door, secretive membership group for conservative corporatist state lawmakers, that has drafted cookie-cutter model legislation for dozens of state legislatures attacking net metering and clean energy mandates.
The ALEC chair for the Minnesota State House is none other than the author of the omnibus energy bill himself!