COMMUNITY VOICES | Grassroots pressure crucial to Xcel’s environmental credentials

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While sitting through the August 1, 2013 public hearing at city hall on authorization of a community owned utility, I noticed the sticker that the opponents of the resolution were wearing was “don’t mess with success”

The irony is that much of the success that Xcel takes credit for is actually a result of the success of people-powered grassroots efforts like Minneapolis Energy Options. Minneapolis Energy Options has already had a success of its own in reaching an unprecedented memorandum of understanding with our gas utility Centerpoint in preparation for franchise renegotiations next year.

I have a personal story to tell to make this point. Working for the Minneapolis Energy Options campaign is deja vu to my life because I have prior experience in Colorado working for a successful ballot initiative that Xcel was also campaigning against. After repeated unsuccessful attempts to get a renewable energy portfolio standard though the state legislature, clean energy advocates took advantage of the citizen’s petition process. I personally helped gather enough signatures to put the initiative onto the ballot as Amendment 37. Then on Election Day 2004, Colorado became the first state in the nation to pass a renewable energy standard by a statewide vote. It required Colorado’s top utility companies to sell 10% renewable energy by 2015.

I remember attending a jobs fair at the University of Denver and asking the representative at the table for Xcel Energy about Amendment 37. He said Xcel officially opposes amendment 37 because of the supposed intermittency of wind and solar energy. Facing the possibility that voters could force the utility to use a greater share of renewable energy, Xcel Energy mounted a full-scale resistance campaign in the weeks prior to Election Day spending about a million dollars to run ads against 37.

But once faced with the public authority of voters approving the measure, Xcel pooled their technical expertise together found a way to make wind power work. They ended up meeting the renewable standard 8 years ahead of schedule and even approved of Governor Bill Ritter increasing the Renewable requirement to 30% by 2020. In order to meet the requirements of Amendment 37 Xcel began subsidizing solar installations in 2006. The metro Denver area saw direct employment in the renewable energy sector in more than double to 13,940 in 2007 from only 5,760 in 2004 while the number of renewable energy companies increased 9 fold in the same time period. This fits the typical pattern of Xcel taking credit for progress accomplished due to the political success of a policy they initially opposed.

The takeaway lesson I learned is that we can’t let entities like Xcel win a political victory on that initial resistance to change. The company has shown great potential but they have to be challenged by the public or else it will be all status quo and no substantial progress.

In Minnesota, Xcel has rightfully taken a lot of credit for their recent investments in new wind energy capacity. That is the Xcel I want to see. But it is essential to point out that these investments are merely what are required by the State of Minnesota’s Renewable Energy Standard. Similarly Xcel had to be forced by the legislature to allow shared solar arrangements- an idea that is very popular with the public. Xcel also had to be forced to convert the Riverside plant to natural gas by a clean energy grassroots coalition which they now tout as one of their green credentials. And when political pressure got weak, Xcel proposed eliminating the popular Solar Rewards Program. As councilmember Cam Gordon pointed out in his submission, this year Xcel lobbyists have fought Minneapolis legislators’ attempts to ensure more efficient and renewable energy goals as well as improved air quality, equity and green jobs could be included in new municipal franchise agreements.

People- powered grassroots efforts like the clean energy jobs coalition this year and Amendment 37 play a key role in the successes Xcel has claimed credit for.

To act on my concerns I have personally knocked on over a thousand Midtown Minneapolis doors the past couple of years as part of MN our Power. We opened dialogues with residents about easy access programs and action steps to reduce their home gas and electricity consumption. The Regional Vice President of Xcel smiled and nodded when I briefly described this work to her last Friday. But this experience with MN Our Power helped me understand the need for systemic change in incentivizing energy efficiency such as feed-in-tariffs, community choice aggregation, optional real-time energy pricing, virtual net metering, and property assessed clean energy (PACE). I would like to have seen quicker transparency on why Xcel has been multiple months late in issuing rebates this year for a residential bulk solar purchase I helped organize interest for last fall.

Whether or not a catalyst initiative is on the ballot this year, the conversations we have built up must continue their momentum. It pains me to see legalized monopolies abuse their power by restricting the potential of entrepreneurs in deploying localized renewable energy resilience. Let’s keep up continual grassroots momentum to challenge the red tape so we can have a chance to win some genuine success. The success that truly matters in the end is success in mitigating the climate crisis and success in deploying enough local renewable energy resilience to prepare for the down slope of peak oil.

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