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Bipartisan agreement on energy conservation has disappeared at the state capitol

St. Paul, Minn. – When Minnesota Senate Republicans ousted Ellen Anderson as chairman of the Public Utilities Commission this week, it was the latest sign that bipartisan support for renewable energy sources has largely disappeared at the state capitol.

Republicans claimed Anderson’s views on energy are extreme and out of the mainstream. But many of those same legislators joined her in supporting clean energy legislation not that long ago.

On Monday, Senate Energy Committee Chairman Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said she didn’t trust Anderson to set aside her passionate commitment to alternative sources of energy and adjust to making impartial decisions at the regulatory body.

“I look at a public career that has demonized traditional energy sources,” Rosen said. “I look at derogatory references to dirty, dangerous fossil fuels or energy cartels that do not reflect well on the nominee.”

That harsh criticism might been a surprise to some who were around five years ago, when Rosen joined Anderson, then a state senator, in championing legislation that steered Minnesota’s energy economy in a new direction.

That law, the Next Generation Energy Act was proposed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican. It required reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and prohibited new coal-fired power plants that do not offset their emissions elsewhere. The Senate passed it by 59-to-5 vote. The bill also passed the House on a 125-9 vote and became law.

Anderson’s bill requiring utilities to produce 25 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2025 also became law in 2007 – with only three no votes in the Senate.

But what a difference five years makes. In spite of strong bipartisan support for those ground-breaking measures, no one seems surprised that the Senate would reject one of their chief authors today.

Former state Rep. Ron Erhardt, R-Edina, a co-sponsor of the pioneering energy policies, was defeated by a more conservative Republican, Keith Downey. Erhardt said he is not surprised that an influx of new GOP legislators opposes renewable energy.

“I was a moderate Republican,” Erhardt said. “There are none left in the legislature any more. They’ve driven them out and the people haven’t risen up yet to correct their errors.”

Erhardt said for many of the new legislators, sticking to an agenda is more important than compromising to get things done.

For the most part, Minnesota utilities seem to have moved beyond the fight over big-picture energy policy.

Nancy Lange, energy program director for the Izaak Walton League, an environmental group, said utilities are diversifying not only to follow Minnesota law, but because it’s good business.

“I think the people that are charged with keeping lights on understand that you really have to have a sustainable mix of energy resources,” said Lange, who follows energy issues. “And some of those clean, ‘green’ if you want to call them that, energy resources, they recognize those are a very important part of our energy mix because they’re cost-effective.”

Rosen did not return calls for comment on this story.

Last year she authored a bill to eliminate the state’s restriction on new coal-fired plants. She said then that she wanted a balanced energy program, and was worried about a lawsuit threatened, and later filed, by North Dakota. Rosen’s bill passed, but Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, vetoed it.

Other high-profile energy bills left over from last year that could come up again would dump or water down key parts of the 2007 legislation.