(Photo by Dafne Cholet via Creative Commons)

By any measure, 2014 was a significant year in the energy world. the continued rise of fracking, impending EPA carbon regulations, and the ever-glacial pace of global climate negotiations are likely familiar stories to Midwest Energy News readers.

But our focus is more at the state and regional level, and over the past year we’ve helped surface and amplify stories that otherwise might have fallen under the radar.

Here are some of the biggest stories of the past year, based on readership metrics and other factors.

1) The solar boom ramps up

While solar power remains a small portion of U.S. electricity generation, dramatically falling prices are already starting to cause significant ripples in the utility sector.

Minnesota’s community solar law, passed in 2013, began to have an impact as the state’s largest utility started taking applications for projects. Because the law doesn’t establish a cap on projects, major solar players are taking an interest in the state.

Rural co-ops are also getting in on the action.

Minnesota also became the first state in the U.S. to establish a value of solar tariff — a methodology that calculates the full value solar customers provide to the grid — in an effort to defuse ongoing debates over whether these projects are “subsidized” by other ratepayers.

Utilities, concerned about the growth of distributed generation, have sought in some states to roll back incentives and other policies favorable to solar. Most notably in Wisconsin, state regulators approved dramatic increases in fixed charges for three utilities, despite a public outcry and lack of precedent in other states (legal challenges to those decisions are still pending).

During the run-up to the Wisconsin decision, as in other cases nationwide, political conservatives have emerged as solar advocates, shattering the conventional wisdom that clean energy is a hobby-horse for coastal liberals. Debbie Dooley, a prominent Tea Party leader; Matt Neumann, a Republican son a a former U.S. Congressman; and former U.S. Rep. Barry Goldwater were vocal opponents of the Wisconsin utilities’ proposals.

Advocates have warned utilities in other states may try to replicate the policies.

2) Utilities get their way in Ohio

While utilities, industry groups and political allies have largely failed to roll back clean-energy legislation around the U.S., Ohio was a notable exception this year. After years of effort, Republican legislators succeeded in passing SB 310 — a “freeze” that would pause the state’s renewable energy and efficiency benchmarks, while altering their impacts substantially.

Legislators also succeeded in passing net setback rules for wind turbines that industry reps say will effectively end new wind farms in the state.

Going forward, a study committee established by SB 310 will evaluate whether to further change state clean-energy rules, allow them to continue, or scrap them altogether. The committee is comprised primarily of lawmakers who voted for the freeze.

Three utilities in Ohio also sought policies that would effectively guarantee profits for several aging power plants. Utilities have sought to keep data under wraps that could help evaluate these plans, which critics have decried as “bailouts.”

3) In Michigan, big energy issues on a small scale

The impending closure of a coal-fired power plant in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is bringing the broader energy shift into a tightly focused reality. Deregulation, transmission, renewable energy, biomass and other hot-button issues are all in play as state and local officials seek to head off a major rate increase to keep the lights on.

4) Bakken oil trains a ‘ticking time bomb’

Late this year North Dakota officials announced plans to require treatment of Bakken crude oil to make it less explosive when shipped. Explosions of oil trains last year in Quebec and North Dakota continue to resonate as industry and government officials seek to prevent another disaster.

Meanwhile, North Dakota production is slowing down amid a slump in global oil prices.

5) Illinois fracking rules take effect

Once touted as a groundbreaking compromise between environmental advocates and the oil and gas industry, a package of regulations to govern fracking in Illinois became controversial again as state officials quietly approved the proposal without publicizing changes made to address industry concerns.

A look ahead

We’d be remiss if we didn’t note that 2014 also saw the publication of the first Midwest Energy News ebook, Closing the Cloud Factories, which tells the story of the grassroots effort to shut down Chicago’s coal plants (a Spanish version is now available, too).

In 2015, Midwest Energy News will be launching two new daily news services. We’ll tell you more about those in the coming months.

And what will the new year hold for energy policy? Keep reading and find out!

Ken is the director of the Energy News Network at Fresh Energy and is a founding editor of both Midwest Energy News and Southeast Energy News. Prior to joining Fresh Energy, he was the managing editor for online news at Minnesota Public Radio. He started his journalism career in 2002 as a copy editor for the Duluth News Tribune before spending five years at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a copy editor, online producer, features editor and night city editor. A Nebraska native, Ken has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree from the University of Oregon. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors.

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