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Minneapolis Fifth Ward candidates talk municipal energy, environmental concerns
What if Minneapolis just didn’t renew the 20-year contracts with Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy that are coming up at the end 2014? Boulder, Colorado is on its way to do just that as they look toward terminating their contract with Xcel, joining cities across the country that have municipal energy utilities, such as Los Angeles, San Antonio and Austin, Texas and Moorhead and Rochester in Minnesota. Minneapolis Energy Options (MEO), a coalition seeking to expand the energy options in Minneapolis, believes Minneapolis needs to look at all our options. They held a forum with City Council 5th Ward candidates on April 9 at the Minneapolis Urban League, to talk about the possibility of municipal energy as well as other environmental concerns.
MEO currently has a campaign to get a resolution endorsed through the Minneapolis caucus process that would put a ballot question up for voters next fall about authorizing Minneapolis to “research, explore and pursue the option of converting our energy utilities to city ownership, if such a transition would create a more reliable affordable and clean local energy system,” according to the resolution.
Meanwhile, the city council is looking at pursuing $250,000 study that would measure the costs and challenges of municipal takeover of gas and electric. The measure was approved in committee on April 4th, according to MEO.
According to a staff report from the City council, state law limits the city’s authority over utility in franchise agreements, but Minneapolis is seeking legislative changes to “allow negotiations with Xcel and CenterPoint to explore how Minneapolis could make progress towards its goals for sustainable energy, improved air quality, equity, and green jobs,” according to the report. The city also wants to pursue pursuing options “outside the existing franchise agreement structure, including, but not limited to changes to state legislative or PUC rule changes, unique utility partnerships, changes to the way the City uses franchise fees, and municipalization of one or both energy utilities,” the report states.
The forum on Aril 9th, which attracted an audience of about 25 people, began with a presentation by Timothy Den Herder-Thomas, from Minneapolis Energy Options about their campaign. He talked about how Xcel Energy wants to increase their rates, because energy sales have gone down due to people using less energy.
The problem, he said is that Xcel and CenterPoint have monopolies, and that particularly impacts low income neighborhoods. The $450 million we spend on electricity and gas each year leaves the community, he said, as we only have wind in other parts of the state and get less than one percent of our energy from solar.
Current state law dictates that in order to go forward with municipal energy, Minneapolis would need to pass a ballot measure that citizens would vote on, so MEO is currently enlisting volunteers to introduce a resolution at the April 16 caucuses that would support City Council members to create a ballot measure to initiate a study about the municipal option. The ballot option, Herder-Thomas said, “would give us some leverage.”
The Municipal Option
Kale Severson (no website found), a North Minneapolis High School graduate and coach who was a vocal opponent of the school’s closing, strongly supports the ballot measure that would ask for a study to be done. His main concern, he said, is if the measure gets passed, who the research firm will be in conducting the study, and warned how much money the energy companies will pour in to defeat it.
“City Council needs to be taking a lead on this to put the study forward,” Severson said. “City residents need to have the best options. We need to get the study started so we can figure out what is best for our residents.”
Ian Alexander, an attorney, said that at first he was hesitant about municipalization. “I’m not a huge fan of monopolies,” he said. “Most of my friends live in New York and Long Island. When the monopoly became municipal, it didn’t work very well.” Still, he thinks the referendum is a good idea, as it adds leverage, and believes in having more than one energy option.
“I don’t think we should sign a 20-year lease agreement,” Alexander said. “Maybe a 2-4 agreement at the most. We need to evaluate all the energy options.” He said he finds the fact that the city uses less than one percent of our energy from solar “especially troubling.”
Brett Buckner said he supports the MEO campaign, and said it’s important to educate our community about municipality conversation, so they’re not “dealing with people coming from the outside.” Like the “vote no” campaign, it involves getting people together and saying “we have work to do.”
“We need to measure 1,000 times, and cut once,” he said. Still, he knows it may cost us. “We may have to pay a lot of money to get out of an agreement.”
Blong Yang also said he supports the measure. “Hopefully the city follows the measure if it passes,’ he said.
As a politician, he said calling for a study was a “no-brainer.” MEO is “pushing the city to do a study,” he said. “It’s very simple for me. It’s a politician’s dream.”
Racial Disparity and our Energy Options
When asked about the glaring racial disparities in unemployment and its relation to energy options, Severson said that public ownership would encourage more jobs for people of color and women. “How many times have you seen a woman fix a furnace?” he asked. “I have never.” On the other hand, the City of Minneapolis Public Works Department hires people from the North side for their water department, he said. “Public ownership can help women and people of color to get jobs.”
Alexander talked about the importance of economic development in North Minneapolis to address disparities. He wants to bring an “entrepreneurial energy” to the area. “I’d like to see solar energy options and wind energy options,” he said.
Buckner said that even before we talk about energy options, we have to prepare for the new opportunities that will come from new infrastructure development that is coming due. That means making sure our training is up to date, with programs such as Summit Academy, and working with people at the state level to “prepare people for environmental change,” he said.
Yang said that racial inequity is a separate issue from how we pursue energy options. Inequity, he said, is the “result of racism and discrimination of hiring.” He said that candidates with energy and environmental backgrounds are white, and that unless we adopt hiring goals and enforce them, “we won’t make a dent in employment.” He was skeptical about job creation through municipalization. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.
When he was a park director, Severson said that sometimes kids would come to the park building early “just so they could be warm,” and the same thing happened at North High School. “They go to school early just to be warm. And then they go to school in the summer just to be cool. “ Severson said that landlords need to be held accountable for installing energy efficient windows and appliances. “We don’t need refrigerators from the 1970s,” he said.
In addition, weatherization creates jobs, according to Severson. “That’s how our community is going to be better,” he said. “Some people have windows original to their homes. We have to own the utilities in order to make change.”
For Alexander, having competition is key. “If there ever is a power outage, we need more than one resource,” he said.
Buckner believes that improving infrastructure is going to bring the costs down, and that is going to put people back to work as well. As technology improves for solar and wind, they will “transform our society into a high tech energy community,” he said.
Yang said that whether or not we municipalize, we have to at the minimum keep enforcing the cold weather rule, but the municipal option may allows us to go further. “People are still going to need subsidies for public utilities,” he said. “If municipalization happens, that offers flexibility. We can subsidize for lower income families, or keep prices low.”
Other environmental issues for the candidates include the incinerator, which Severson called “environmental racism.” At the mayoral debate, “candidates were saying it was a wonderful thing,” he said. “People on the other side of the city may be happy for it, but we’re not happy about it landing on us,” he said.
Alexander said he’s troubled by the companies that break down metals and destroy concrete, causing asthma to increase in North Minneapolis.
Buckner is also concerned about the rates of asthma in North Minneapolis. Like Severson, he’s concerned about the incinerator, and also the concentration of gas emissions in certain areas.
For Blong, North Minneapolis has historically had a “laundry list” of problems, from lead paint in old homes, asbestos, radon, northern metals and the contamination of the Mississippi River. “As a person who likes fishing, I can’t go to the Mississippi and fish. If I do, they’ll be contamination. These are the daily things we face in North Minneapolis.” Blong is also concerned about the proposed waste facility in Northeast Minneapolis. “That’s right next door to us.”