One senator's legacy lives on in practice and in policy


With few Chisago County landowners dabbling in wind energy as an alternative electrical generation source the last few years, and the County Planning Commission now developing an ordinance to address wind towers, it's good to know a Chisago County legislator was a key figure in passing the first legislation that encouraged wind research and development bringing Minnesota to the forefront of this renewable energy source.

Janet Johnson, from North Branch, represented East Central Minnesota as a Democratic State Senator from 1991 to 1999. Those who voted for her and those who worked with her knew that she brought a passion to preserve the environment. It was in evidence by the committees she chose to serve on which included Environment and Natural Resources, Jobs, Energy and Community Development, Agriculture, and Transportation. Johnson as a seasoned legislator when a major energy and environmental issue hit the state legislature in 1994, was ready for action. She used the nuclear waste disposal controversy to help pioneer legislation that provided the economic incentive to spur research and development of renewable energy sources, particularly harvesting wind energy.

The story of Johnson's work in this field was told to this reporter through emails and telephone interviews with Senator Ellen Anderson, currently in her fifth term representing District 66 (St. Paul) in the state senate.

"I was a rookie in 1994 when we had the Prairie Island nuclear waste debate and that's when we really started working together, saying 'no' to the proposed waste dump and also advocating strongly for renewable clean energy alternatives," said Anderson.

Since the 1970's NSP (now Xcel Energy) had operated two nuclear powered electrical generating plants in Minnesota. One of the facilities, Prairie Island, located on the Mississippi flood plain, stored high-level spent nuclear waste in stainless steel-lined concrete vaults, surrounded by cooling water.

Under Federal provisions, the United States Government was to develop a site to accept radioactive waste from the country's nuclear power plants by 1998, but by the 1980's, with at least eight years until the federal acceptance program would begin, NSP was running out of on-site storage capacity. NSP asked state agencies for permission to store additional waste in dry casks at Prairie Island.

There was significant public opposition to NSP's request to build 48 dry cask storage units on its Prairie Island site. At evidentiary and public hearings, including testimony that the Department of Energy was having great difficulty procuring and developing nuclear waste sites, Administrative Law Judge Allan Klein ruled in 1992 that, "The likelihood that the dry cask storage would become permanent is so great that it is appropriate to require legislative authorization if the project must go forward immediately."

This was Senator Johnson's cue to advocate for "doing something different," as Sen. Anderson puts it.

Ellen Anderson wrote in an e-mail interview; "Janet and I were two women on the ten-member Senate Environment Committee. The committee became known as 'The Gang of Ten' because it unanimously voted down the original Prairie Island nuclear waste storage bill which called for unlimited storage."

Anderson explained that the leader of the senate and NSP's CEO "twisted arms" and the committee chair sent "The Gang" back into another hearing. Anderson and Johnson were shocked that eight of the 10 votes then switched to "yes." Anderson felt that she and Janet were "standing up and standing alone" against the utilities and the committee chairs. The bill went to the full senate.

"After that, we fought the bill on the senate floor, but it passed. Then it went to a conference committee with the House. The compromise that came out of that house-senate conference limited the number of casks to 17. It included a requirement that NSP makes a payment of $500,000 annually for each cask of spent fuel that would be stored after 1999. This money was to go toward the development of renewable energy sources.

"Another requirement was that NSP must be generating 825 megawatts of electrical energy annually from wind power incrementally and within a specified time period. NSP was required to promote electrical conservation and encourage its customers to reduce electrical consumption."

Senators Johnson and Ellen Anderson worked together to influence their colleagues to add the renewable energy portions to the final legislation. These proposals were made before renewable energy was a popular political stance and power suppliers were still encouraging customers to consume more power so the power companies could sell more electricity, Anderson elaborated.

Senator Anderson concluded, "The 1994 legislation, known as the 'Prairie Island Nuclear Cask Storage Legislation,' was exemplary of Janet Johnson's political style. Her passion to pursue renewable energy as an avenue to preserve the environment, and her ability to compromise and work beyond party lines to accomplish a goal. We felt we had failed at the time, not believing that limiting the storage to 17 casks was a success. Time, however, has shown that the renewable energy portion of the bill was immensely successful."

Xcel has met all the renewable requirements and exceeded some of them.

Minnesota, although it ranks ninth in the nation in its wind resource potential, has risen to third for harvesting this renewable energy to generate electricity, according to the American Wind Energy Association, a respected national trade association representing wind energy advocates.

"In the past 20 years more than 60 wind farms have sprouted up across Minnesota with a total wind energy capacity of over 1366 MW" the AWEA website reports. The website goes on to explain that Minnesota legislation proves that it supports wind energy projects and local ownership models. Since the initial 1994 legislation Minnesota has instituted renewable energy goals and energy purchasing incentives for utilities that allow wind generator investors to maintain a positive cash flow in the developing industry. Community-based legislation encourages locally owned wind energy developments. Wind energy electrical conversion components and the systems are exempt from Minnesota sales and property tax.

The goal of Minnesota's current legislation is to have 25 percent of electrical generating energy come from wind resources by 2025.

There is no doubt that the problem of nuclear waste storage looms large among the state's environmental challenges. The US Department of Energy has not established a federal nuclear waste depository and states are still responsible for storing nuclear waste. Xcel Energy has been permitted to increase its storage of nuclear waste and continues to seek permission for additional nuclear generation and waste storage at its Monticello and Prairie Island plants to meet customers' increasing demands for electrical power.

Janet Johnson passed away from a brain tumor while in office in 1999. She was 59.

But reminders of Johnson and her public policy work are apparent as we travel in East Central Minnesota. There are park benches in Wild River State Park, Chisago and Isanti county parks and private gardens dedicated in her memory. The Johnson Virtual Reality Center at Pine Technical College, the Janet B. Johnson Exhibit Hall at the North West Company Fur Post and the Janet Johnson Wildlife Management Area in North Branch are just a few examples.

Janet's husband, Dennis Odin Johnson, said that he is touched by the many environmental awards of appreciation she has received. Dennis shared Janet's vision and continues as an entrepreneur in the field of environmentally friendly housing. Janet’s many plaques and awards on the walls in his dome office complex are a daily reminder to him of her commitment to the environment and the importance of his work. 

Janet's husband maintains a web page in her memory,
but even this website does not mention one of the most impressive dedications to Janet, the one that inspired this story.

When traveling on Hwy 169 near Elk River, look to the east side of the highway. A 213-foot wind tower, dedicated to Janet for her efforts toward research and development of renewable energy, rotates in stately simplicity and quietly provides electricity to 100 homes.


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