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Making 100 percent of the state’s energy carbon-free by 2040; protecting waterways to create more sustainable food production; investing in green infrastructure. These are just a few of the proposals from the DFL-led State House of Representatives that have environmental activists buzzing.
But a divided state Legislature–Democrats control the House and the governor’s office; Republicans run the Senate—means those bills have a slim shot at success.
Unidos MN, a social justice nonprofit that advocates for immigrant communities, wanted to ensure it was directing resources toward a major initiative with a direct climate impact on Minnesota. So the group began organizing around Xcel Energy’s Integrated Resources Plan.
“We were thinking, ‘How can we envision beyond the legislature?’” Jose Alvillar, a climate organizer with Unidos, told Sahan Journal.
The Xcel Energy Integrated Resource Plan is a dense, 367-page document that maps out how the state’s largest utility provider will produce and distribute electricity for the next 15 years. Xcel provides electricity to 1.3 million customers in Minnesota.
In 2019, Xcel submitted the plan, required by state law for investor-owned utilities, to the governor-appointed Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. The five-member board, which regulates the state’s electricity, natural gas, and telephone industries, is accepting public comments on the proposal through April 12.
Xcel’s plan calls for the utility to become carbon-free by 2050, meaning all power will come from sources that don’t emit greenhouse gases: for example, hydroelectric and nuclear plants, or naturally renewable sources like wind and solar. The company plans to do this by massively expanding its green energy portfolio, closing its remaining coal plants by 2030, and phasing out use of natural gas.
Xcel also has proposed major improvements in energy efficiency programs to help customers save money and reduce their energy footprints.
But environmental groups feel the plan doesn’t go far enough, and that communities of color will bear the burden of its shortcomings.
“A lot of what they’re doing is heading in a good direction,” said Annie Levenson-Falk, executive director of Citizens Utility Board, a Minnesota nonprofit and consumer advocate group. “It could be a lot better.”
Passing on gas
The major point of contention for environmental activists and consumer advocates is Xcel’s plan to construct a new natural gas plant in Becker at the site of the current Sherco coal plant. This facility is scheduled to close in 2030.
Adding a new fossil fuel energy source—natural gas—will have a negative impact on the state, according to Ben Passer, director of energy access and equity for Fresh Energy, a Minnesota nonprofit working to promote a carbon-neutral economy. The harms will be more pronounced in communities of color, which disproportionately suffer from air pollution, he added.
Minnesota communities of color are more likely to live near a major source of pollution like a power plant or factory. More than 90 percent of communities of color live in areas with elevated risks of air pollution compared to 32 percent of the overall population, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
Xcel believes the natural gas plant is needed to provide stable power to the region as it closes coal facilities, a spokesperson told Sahan Journal. The company says it has technology to reduce 80 percent of emissions by 2030, but it believes natural gas will be needed to supplement renewables until battery-storage technology improves.
Environmental groups and consumer advocates disagree. The Sierra Club, Fresh Energy, and Citizens Utility Board have all proposed alternative plans with more renewable energy and battery storage and without a new natural gas plant.
A new natural gas plant also runs the risk of becoming an unused asset, Passer said. The plant would cost about $1.5 billion to build and most such power plants remain operational for 30-40 years. Xcel plans to be carbon-free by 2050. Proposed changes to state law could mandate utilities be carbon-free a decade earlier, in 2040. The fear is the plant won’t be used for its full lifecycle, and that Xcel will pass along the costs to consumers.
Advocates say it’s a racial justice issue as well: People of color are more likely to pay a higher share of their income on energy bills, according to a 2020 study from University of California-Berkeley’s Energy Institute at Haas.
“We’re concerned about impacts to customers down the road,” Passer said.
When efficiency lacks inclusivity: diversity targets for a 93 percent white workforce
Advocates say Xcel’s plan takes positive steps to help low-income customers access energy efficiency programs by targeting multifamily housing. But they also believe a more targeted approach could make improvements for people in the most need.
“They don’t do a terrific job of serving renters and lower-income households,” Levenson-Falk said.
In Minnesota, 77 percent of white residents own their home, compared to just 38 percent of people of color, according to a report for the Minnesota Homeownership Center. Renters are more likely to be energy burdened, but they often get overlooked in efficiency programs marketed toward homeowners.
Passer worked with Xcel in 2018 to get feedback from renters of color on the company’s multifamily building-efficiency program. There was ample interest and pent-up demand for cost savings in those groups, he recalled, but many missed connections.
In lobbying for improvements to Xcel’s energy plan, Fresh Energy has partnered with groups that do rental advocacy work in diverse and immigrant communities, such as Inquilidxs Unidxs Por Justica and Community Stabilization Project.
When Unidos began its environmental organizing campaigns, the group quickly realized that many immigrants are unaware of efficiency programs like insulation rebates that could save them money and shrink their environmental footprint.
“A lot of our immigrant communities don’t always benefit from the resources out there, like help for energy efficiency,” Alvillar said.
Unidos has hosted virtual events on Xcel’s plan and encouraged people to submit comments to the Public Utilities Commission.
Xcel told Sahan Journal its plan calls for expanding energy efficiency programs and that it will work with community organizations that can help with outreach in multiple languages.
Another focus for advocates has been diversifying Xcel’s workforce. In recent years and in its Integrated Resource Plan, the company has made pledges to employ more people of color. But today, its workforce is overwhelming white. In Minnesota, 93 percent of Xcel’s employees are white, while 84 percent are white nationwide, the company confirmed. Unidos and others would like to see firm diversity targets to ensure the green energy jobs of the future include all residents.
Minnesota utilities would be required to submit annual diversity reports under a bill proposed February 25 by Representative Ruth Richardson (DFL-Inver Grove Heights).
Groups like Citizens Utility Board, Fresh Energy, and Sierra Club submitted alternative proposals to the Xcel plan this month, which the Public Utilities Commission can also review. All say their plans will lower emissions faster and save customers more.
The Citizens Utility Board’s “Consumers Plan” would save Xcel customers $1 billion annually and reduce greenhouse gas emissions further and faster, Levenson-Falk said. This could be accomplished, she says, by relying more heavily on renewable energy sources, whose falling costs make them cheaper than fossil fuels.
“The sooner you can close those coal plants, the more savings there are for customers,” Levenson-Falk said.
More savings could be accomplished by a wider embrace of customer-owned solar panels and community solar gardens–small, local solar farms that residents can subscribe to for electricity–she said. Xcel’s plan calls for an additional 863 megawatts of community solar power, enough to power about 165,000 homes. Alternative plans would add more than 2,000 megawatts of community solar. Because Xcel doesn’t own community solar gardens or rooftop panels, advocates say the company’s profit model disincentivizes those investments.
Xcel is prioritizing large-scale solar farms that it says are more cost effective for customers, a spokesperson said. The company added that the plan doesn’t prevent customers installing rooftop solar or registering for community solar gardens.
Fresh Energy and partner groups are pushing for the creation of an Environmental Justice Community Board to provide oversight on utility providers. Such a group of diverse customers and energy experts would try to ensure pollution reduction and cost-savings benefits are going toward communities of color and low-income residents—again, groups that have suffered the most harm from pollution.
Accept the Xcel plan, reject it, or edit it?
The long, tedious process of approving the Integrated Resource Plan is starting to heat up. The initial public comment period has already been extended to reach more people during the pandemic.
The Public Utilities Commission will review the alternative proposals submitted this month. Once the comment period closes on April 12, the Public Utilities Commission will schedule a hearing. The commission can then select from several options: Accept Xcel’s plan as proposed or with edits proposed in public comments; reject the plan outright and ask Xcel to resubmit a new proposal; or edit it directly as commissioners see fit.
The most likely outcome, Levenson-Falk believes, is that the commission will edit the plan based on public input and state energy goals. Her organization is hosting two informational sessions on March 3 and March 5, for those interested in getting involved.
For groups like Unidos, lobbying the governor-appointed commission directly is a strategy to influence climate policy outside of a gridlocked statehouse.
“At the end of the day, we will win something,” Alvillar said.