The agency that regulates the state’s energy industry as well as a renewable energy incentive program are facing challenges from the GOP-controlled Legislature. Controversial legislation is being described by some as an assault on renewable energy progress, while supporters frame it as necessary steps to improve accountability for spending and a needed revamp of the regulatory system.

The Public Utilities Commission is the five-member commission appointed by the governor that regulates the energy industries. GOP lawmakers have introduced several bills to alter the makeup and power of the agency.

Republicans argue the PUC is too heavy with metro area representatives. Gaining more appointees from rural Minnesota would certainly be beneficial for the PUC.

But the GOP has also introduced bills that do an end run around the PUC’s responsibilities, including a bill that would allow Xcel Energy to build a new gas-fired power plant to replace a coal plant. The PUC has not refused allowing a gas plant but they have pushed Xcel to pursue cost-effective renewable energy instead of gas.

The Legislature shouldn’t be micromanaging issues that have been the purview of the regulatory group. Making such regulatory decisions based on political philosophies isn’t in Minnesotans best interest.

Lawmakers, including some key Democrats, are also hoping to kill a solar power subsidy program called Made in Minnesota, that is primarily funded by an Xcel-managed fund.

The program spends about $15 million annually and provides subsidies to homeowners and businesses who install solar as well as helping solar manufacturing facilities in the state. Bills have been introduced that would end the program and put the money into a general energy fund held by the state.

Critics say the move is an indication the GOP wants to kill renewable energy and the jobs it creates. But supporters, including a couple of key DFLers from northern Minnesota, say the program shouldn’t be run by a private company (Xcel) and say it is too costly for the amount of energy it’s produced and that the program lacks accountability. Indeed, a legislative auditor’s report said the program should have more accountability.

It’s a stretch to say Republicans want to kill renewable energy. They know that renewable energy jobs have grown rapidly in the state and that continued growth of renewables is good for the economy, particularly in rural Minnesota.

But those seeking to end the program need to tell how they will re-purpose the money to continue strengthening renewable energy development in the state while also providing more accountability and more bang for the buck. So far they haven’t done that.

Members of both parties and most Minnesotans know that renewable energy isn’t just good for the environment but is inevitably going to be a growing part of the state’s and country’s energy needs. Members of both parties should work to develop programs that continue to help wind and solar while ensuring money is spent wisely.

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