Commentary: Midwest cities pushing for control of their energy future

Bentham Paulos is a consultant and journalist covering energy policy in America and Europe.

Excerpted from Empowered: A Tale of Three Cities Taking Charge of their Energy Future, a new book from Midwest Energy News.

In the world of clean energy, these are the best of times and these are the worst of times.

Renewable energy technologies, long the domain of off-the-grid cabins, early adopters, and tinkerers, have become cost-effective and potent, and their use is growing rapidly worldwide.

Energy demand is leveling off in the United States and Europe, as more efficient vehicles, appliances, and buildings allow for a high standard of living with less energy waste.

The computer revolution has brought us new energy technologies with embedded intelligence that can be controlled with software programs to respond to changing prices. Solid state electronics have made lighting wildly more efficient, long-lasting, and affordable.

These changes hold out the hope of real progress on global warming, the fundamental illness of our modern industrial civilization.

Yet these are also the worst of times.

As changes sweep through the energy sector, the incumbent energy industries, including some of the largest companies in the world, are pushing back. Pouring billions of dollars into campaign contributions, lobbying, propaganda, and litigation, they are seeking to prevent action on global warming, and to protect their profits.

Their efforts are bearing fruit, as partisan splits on energy and the environment become wider, bringing action in Congress to a halt and threatening progress in the states.

For citizens concerned about the fate of the planet, the options for effecting change through government action seem to be narrowing. If Congress is closed, and the states are too passive, what can be done?

In cities such as Boulder, Minneapolis, and Madison, a major part of the solution has been local action. While these cities—and many others—had established important-sounding sustainability goals, their ability to influence the energy use of their citizens was limited. State and federal governments are typically responsible for energy policy, not cities. And if you can’t clean up your energy supply, it’s far more difficult to address climate change.

But where there is a will, there is a way.

Inspired by the Kyoto Protocol, Boulder committed to reduce carbon emissions, and was making good progress on parts of their sustainability plan.

But Jonathan Koehn, the city sustainability director, said that electricity, provided by coal-heavy Xcel Energy, was a major problem.

“We concluded that we had to clean up the power supply,” he said. “Unfortunately, Xcel wasn’t willing to go very far.”

When negotiations with Xcel proved unfruitful, Boulder embarked on a “hostile takeover” of the power system, exercising their public authority to provide utility services. Years of litigation and wrangling have resulted, but it looks like they will succeed.

In Minneapolis, the goals are the same, but the dynamic has been different so far.

Xcel also serves the city of Minneapolis, where it has its headquarters. While Xcel’s relations were better in Minneapolis than in Boulder, citizen activists were frustrated that the utility was doing little to help the city reach its climate goals. With Xcel’s franchise agreement coming up for renewal, citizens launched a grassroots campaign to see whether the contract could be leveraged to reduce carbon emissions. Although full-on municipalization was considered, the campaign focused on a range of options to allow a more open-ended discussion.

Inspired no doubt by their contentious experience in Boulder, Xcel quickly reached an agreement with Minneapolis officials (and so did Centerpoint, the natural gas utility). The parties have launched a partnership to pursue local energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, bringing a cleaner environment and local jobs to the community.

The process has just started and it is too soon to say whether it will succeed. It could become a national model for how cities can work with utilities to address their electric and gas carbon emissions. Or it could be the first step in the long and frustrating path that Boulder has walked.

Perhaps the greatest frustration has been felt in Madison. A political revolution led by Governor Scott Walker is transforming what had been a traditionally moderate state into a bastion of conservatism and, many critics would argue, corporate influence. While fights with labor unions have attracted national press coverage, the agenda also includes energy.

Wisconsin has become a major battleground in a national push by utilities and their trade groups against broader adoption of efficiency and clean energy. As customers become more energy efficient and generate their own power with solar panels, electricity sales are stagnating, crimping the profits of power companies.

Utilities are pushing regulators to let them change the way customers pay for service, increasing the fixed portion of their bills. This would guarantee that the money keeps flowing, even if less power is sold. It would also discourage customers from being more efficient or using solar power. It’s a win-win for utilities, and a lose-lose for consumers – especially low-income and elderly consumers who use the least energy.

While regulators in most states have rejected such proposals as punitive, in Wisconsin they were welcomed, even encouraged. Madison Gas & Electric (MGE) proposed hiking mandatory charges from $10 to $69 a month, igniting a firestorm of protest. Milwaukee-based We Energies imposed new fees and penalties on customers with solar panels, taking away almost half the value of existing investments.

Political leaders were outspoken in their opposition.

MGE has “spent a lot of money on their image, as a ‘leading green corporation’,” said Madison city councilman David Ahrens. “The greenwash is endless. But MGE is not a green corporation.”

Milwaukee leaders had a similar reaction. “Clearly we do not have a utility that is regulated in the public interest anymore,” Alderman Robert Bauman said. “Something has to give in this relationship with the utility and the city of Milwaukee.”

The experience of local leaders and citizen activists in Boulder and Minneapolis is providing inspiration and ideas for next steps in Wisconsin.

“That stuff in Minneapolis and Boulder is exciting,” Ahrens said. “It’s clear that the state won’t help us. The only matter is to what degree they will cripple all efforts at the local level.”

“Today in Wisconsin the responsibility for promoting clean energy has become the domain of cities,” pointed out Madison Mayor Paul Soglin.

To Mitch Brey, organizer for the citizen group Repower Madison, the bottom line is simple.

“The future shouldn’t be left up to utility executives, since it really affects everyone’s lives.”

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