Conservation Minnesota

An Innovative Spirit

tumafeature“Mr. Byllesby has for over a quarter century played a prominent role in the development of electric lighting and power systems.”

As America entered the 20th century Henry Marison Byllesby (1859-1924) was recognized as one of the most influential and prominent leaders in the design and building of large-scale electric delivery systems. A true pioneer and innovator in this emerging industry at the time, some of his greatest work took place in Minnesota. Byllesby was born to an Episcopal minister’s family in Pennsylvania. He had little formal education as a youth, but he was constantly tinkering, making small steam engines and other inventions. He did eventually attend Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA entering the class of 1878, but he would drop out when his family moved to New Jersey. He had various jobs, eventually landing a position with Thomas Edison’s fledgling power company.

From there he worked on various power projects across the continent, becoming a leading engineer in the area of using waterpower to generate electricity. He came to Minnesota at the turn-of-the-century where he started acquiring several small and local electric utilities, connecting them to a network of hydropower projects for energy supply. For example, he built the dam on the Cannon River just west of the city of Cannon Falls in 1910. The reservoir created by the 60-foot hydroelectric dam still bears his name – Lake Byllesby.

This innovator in electrical generation and transmission would consolidate several of the utilities he had acquired under the name of Northern States Power (NSP), the forerunner to what we now know today as Xcel Energy. That makes him the father some of the most innovative electrical generation and transmission in Minnesota history.

Innovation in electric generation and transmission is one of the major positive environmental focuses in the 2013 session. The Omnibus Energy bill (HF956/SF901) was rolled out in committee these last two weeks in the House and the Senate. The bill is authored by House Energy Policy Committee chair Rep. Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) and Senate Environment and Energy Committee chair Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville). Living up to Minnesota’s tradition as electric innovators, this legislation has some very creative renewable energy initiatives creating jobs and homegrown energy.

It may be hard to believe as winter drags on into spring that our state has one of the most reliable and potent solar energy potentials. The bills provide several initiatives to jumpstart solar energy development. It also provides initiatives for what is known as net metering to allow small-scale residential and business solar energy generation.  Net metering allows homeowners or a business to invest in solar panels on their property and any excess energy produced will be purchased by the electric utility for use on the electric grid.

The legislation also provides other initiatives for renewable energy development, including provisions that would increase the required level of electrical retail sales from renewable energy sources that our state’s largest utilities must produce. The new standard increases the renewable standard from 25 to 40 percent while extending the target date to meet that goal from 2025 to 2040. Both the House and Senate versions of the bill passed out of their respective committees, but they still face tough fights ahead. The votes were along party lines with still much reluctance from the electric industry that has lost its innovative spirit of a century ago.

The good news is that we still have some political and business leaders that have the same pioneering and innovating spirit of Byllesby in our state that recognize the economic advantage of renewable energy investments.  Reducing our reliance on imported energy, keeping our hard-earned money here in Minnesota, and giving homeowners and businesses the opportunity to be energy producers is the kind of innovation that would make Henry Marison Byllesby proud.

About John Tuma

John Tuma
John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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