Minneapolis explores new energy options

City Council members are considering modifications to the city’s current contracts with two large utility companies in an effort to achieve cleaner and more sustainable energy in Minneapolis — changes some University of Minnesota students and community members have deemed necessary.

A new study recommended that the city work more directly with utility companies to minimize costs, while still working toward Minneapolis’ clean energy goals. These recommendations are timely, as the city’s decades-long contracts with Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy expire at the end of this year.

Mike Bull, director of policy and communications at the Center for Energy and Environment, told the city’s environment committee Monday that the new report should help city leaders reevaluate and improve Minneapolis’ energy options.

City Council members said at the committee meeting Monday that they generally support revamping the current contract, but they noted that Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy, which provide Minneapolis with electricity and natural gas, respectively, may be less receptive to the increased collaboration.

Bull said the Center for Energy and Environment, which conducted the $220,000 study, recommends that the city use its ability to municipalize as leverage in negotiations. Municipalizing utilities is an option where the city buys infrastructure from utility companies.

“We think this [partnership] would be the first of its kind in the country,” Bull said.

He said other city-utility relationships are generally less structured and more “ad hoc.”

The report also recommended having shorter contracts so parties can make changes more frequently.

The Energy Pathways Study came partly in response to a push from Minneapolis Energy Options last year. The coalition of organizations asked the city to consider cleaner energy options, like municipalizing utilities. The University chapter of the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group worked to gain student support for the initiative last spring.

Ward 8 City Councilwoman Elizabeth Glidden, who is a member of the committee, said the report is “groundbreaking,” adding that a city-utility partnership is likely attainable.

She said this type of arrangement would allow city leaders and utilities to identify common goals, but many of the specifics going forward will depend on more discussions.

“This [report] is a weighty document,” Glidden said. “Now we’re up to the real challenge.”

Ward 9 City Councilwoman and committee member Alondra Cano said the proposal is a step in the right direction because it sets aggressive goals. She said she would also like to see a greater focus on creating alternative energy models like community solar power farms.

Cano predicted it would take a lot of advocacy work to get Xcel Energy to comply with the city.

Ward 3 City Councilman Jacob Frey, who represents some neighborhoods around the University and is also a committee member, said Xcel already complies with state laws requiring carbon-emission reductions. He said an improved partnership could accomplish even more sustainable practices.

Municipalizing utilities would give the city the most control over its energy, but Bull said it would be expensive without a change in state law.

Glidden agreed and said municipalizing utilities doesn’t seem financially feasible right now, but her philosophy is to “never say never.”

The city needs to continue exploring ways to improve its sustainability and use cleaner energy, Cano said.

Whether it is municipalizing utilities or finding other effective solutions to give communities more control over their own energy, she said the city should work to “reshape our relationship to the earth.”