Monday, March 27, 2017

THE MINNEAPOLIS ENERGY OPTIONS CAMPAIGN'S BIG DAY: THE AUGUST 1ST, 2013 PUBLIC HEARING



THE AUGUST 1ST, 2013 PUBLIC HEARING

While the August 1st 2013 public hearing did not go as Minneapolis Energy Options had initially hoped, it did have a silver lining in that both utilities agreed to be collaborative cooperative partners with the city.
At the public hearing on Aug 1st there was a whole section of the City Council Chambers and overflow room that was reserved for Xcel, Center Point and their employees. But there was no such special area reserved section for supporters of the referendum. Before the public hearing began, the executive top brass of Xcel and Center Point were given 10 minutes each to present their case how the referendum was unnecessary at best, how everything’s fine with their operations and that there is nothing to worry about. However, no one in favor of the referendum was given an equivalent 10 minute time window to set the tone for the public hearing; allegedly the campaign (or anyone willing to speak on behalf of the campaign) was not qualified as a legitimate stakeholder. There was a silver lining of victory for the Minneapolis Energy Options campaign during these 10 minute periods. It was when


Both utilities promised to be good collaborative partners in meeting Minneapolis’ energy goals in order to strengthen their case that having the referendum was unnecessary at best. In the short term, these promises made the putting the resolution on the ballot all the more unnecessary in City Council’s eyes but in the long term were a win for the Minneapolis Energy Options. 
After Xcel and Centerpoint got the privilege for setting the tone for the public hearing, the rest of the 60 plus public speakers were given 3 minutes each.
 The Minneapolis City Council saw quite a wide segment of constituents come together to speak in opposition to putting proposed referendum on the ballot. Unions, individuals who said they “barely got by,” and the head of a nonprofit agency that serves the poor all came together in alignment with the Chambers of Commerce and big business types to take sides with a fortune 500 utility company.
Even before the public hearing took place Minneapolis Energy Options was burned by unity of Chamber of commerce, the downtown council, some union leaders and many trade union members all siding with Xcel’s position that the resolution was too dangerous to even consider. How did this tenuous alliance come to be?
On one side the big money financial types were not excited about the initiative because municipal utilities don't generate dramatic windfall profits for bond market speculators.

The unions involved internalized the predictable corporate fear mongering that transitioning to a municipal utility would spell the end of their union jobs as the know them. Both the corporate types and their captive unions convinced each other that there would have been some irreconcilable difficulty for the city to re-employ those same workers that NSP/Xcel uses now but under city management. Then again, perhaps some unions opposed the resolution not because of any real danger Minneapolis Energy Options supposedly posed for their jobs/ benefits but perhaps because they did not want to make Xcel angry at them.
 The same trade union leaders and members who expressed such great worry about the city spending hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds to buy back the electric grid (that passing the ballot initiative would not even require) were the same unions who cheering for the city and/ or the state to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for a new Vikings stadium without taking a ballot initiative to the people. By all means, not all unions were oppositional. Javier Morillo, president of Service Employees International Union Local 26 spoke at the outside rally in favor of Minneapolis Energy Options but not at the public hearing.
Here is one reason why getting as many speakers for the resolution to show up as there were against the resolution would be an uphill battle: There were many coalition supporters informed about the issue who wanted to speak but could not fit Thursday morning into their daily work schedule. Meanwhile Xcel gave all their employees the option to take a paid day off to come and speak even if they were not fully informed about the issue.
While the opponents of the Minneapolis Energy Options resolution showed quite a broad coalition, not enough environmental groups and coalition partners of Minneapolis Energy Options showed up to speak at the public hearing, largely because we mistakenly did not ask them to.


Overall the campaign was caught off guard because City Hall had directed the Minneapolis Energy Options campaign to have about 10-15 well-polished representative and on-message speakers for the public hearing. Getting those dozen plus speakers is what the campaign focused on during the crucial month of July. Rather than trying to turn out the maximum number of supportive speakers for the public hearing, the bulk of the phone bankers for Minneapolis Energy Options (such as myself) were given a different task. We prioritized driving maximum attendance to a rally held outside City Hall in the hour before the public hearing began. As a result the attendance to the rally was quite decent; about 150 showed up on a summer weekday morning.
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But in hindsight, the rally unexpectedly posed a logistical trap for the campaign. Because some of the anticipated speakers for the rally showed up as little as 15 minutes late, the pro- Minneapolis Energy Options crowd got behind schedule and did not come upstairs to the City Council Chambers until 9:45 AM rather than the originally planned 9:30 AM. Because of these lost 15 minutes, a huge number of oppositional speakers got a chance to sign up to speak before the attendees at the rally outside made it to the sign in table.
The media was all set to cover the public hearing as it started with their cameras in hand. However, because such a great proportion of the early public speakers were in opposition to the resolution, the media that typically feeds off of controversy of differing opinions quickly lost interest and ran away with the headline that opposition was overwhelming. There were indeed many supporters of the referendum present but they had to wait quite a while for their turn to speak.

The core message of those speaking in favor of the Minneapolis Energy Options Resolution was to bring up reasons why the status quo is unacceptable in order to undercut any suggestions of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”
The longtime energy activist George Crocker so eloquently put it in the public hearing:
     “Business as usual will not give you good jobs, will not give you a clean environment, will not allow this city to grow and prosper. Business as usual will put us on the scrapheap of history where it is littered with civilizations that eroded the ecological foundations they depended on for their survival, and then they perished. That is the track we’re on. Deny it.”  NOTE 1

Despite sometime quoting such passionate commentary, the mainstream press ran with the headline that there was overwhelming opposition to the referendum at the hearing in their reporting.
In addition, the mainstream press reinforced the “municipal v. Xcel” and “takeover” narratives that were quite different from the frames Minneapolis Energy Options used in the run up to the DFL endorsement. 

If we had foresaw the process better we would have recruited more speakers ahead of time and would have directed them to be up at the third floor early to sign up to speak rather than wait for all speakers at the rally. In hindsight we needed not need just a few, talented speakers. Having a great quantity of speakers is what mattered in creating an overall impression of how much support there is among constituents.
Then again, in the case of Minneapolis Energy Options, not even playing a good numbers game may have mattered at that point. It is more than likely that even before the public hearing took place the majority of the city council was already planning on killing the resolution, primarily because Xcel’s letter to ratepayers triggered angry messages from constituents.

NOTE 1 ( CITATION FROM http://www.minnpost.com/two cities/2013/08/minneapolis-utility-takeover-unions-and-businesses-join-forces-against-energy-act Minneapolis utility takeover: Unions and businesses join forces against energy activists Share on printShare on email

By Karen Boros | 08/02/13 )


THE OPPOSITION TO THE RESOLUTION HAD PREDICTABLE AND UNPREDICTABLE RECURRING MESSAGE THEMES

Here are the recurring message themes that At a communications team meeting Minneapolis Energy Options held on July 12th, we accurately predicted what five of the opposition messages were going to be that opponents against the resolution used up to and during the public hearing. There were a couple additional opposition message themes that were a bit more unexpected and were moves of political ju-jit-su.

Opposition Message #1- We are not ready yet!: “It is too soon to bring this up to a vote before the Energy Pathways Study is done.”

Opposition Message #2 -Contentment with the status quo: “Xcel is good enough. It is a national wind energy leader, it brought in 1000 trucks after the June 21st storm and and we don’t see power outrages less than 99% of the time” 

Opposition Message #3 - The cost of the municipalization process: “It will cost billions and billions of dollars more than we can bond for and it will freeze the cities assets and explode our debt and put our bond rating in jeopardy.”


Opposition Message #4 - Fear of the unknown/ unfamiliar: “There is too much we don’t know” “Business will not want it and might leave the city” “We have not done this before so it is scary” “service might be unreliable”

#5 Lack of trust that City Government has integrity or competence: “The city council will corrupt this with conflicts of interests” “The city can’t possibly pull this off with so many other things it has not taken care of” “Politicians are not equipped to handle running s utility” “The city does not have same level of expertise as the utility in place” 
“A municipal utility will still have the same monopoly problem just under the new management of bureaucrats rather than business”
No matter how many pro-municipal power talking points the campaign could have used, they all lack relevancy in the face of talking points such as how the city can’t even fill potholes, remove dead branches, fix water maims or plow snow at a satisfactory rate. That is the reason that prevented skeptics of the municipal utility authorization ballot initiative from being convinced by arguments that municipal power would provide better rates or superior quality of service. If they see the Minneapolis city employees as having too many basic tasks then getting into the electric business would thereby be presented as too much to handle.


A 6th opposition theme was a message of solar energy pulling political ju-jit-su on Minneapolis Energy Options. Jerry Wendt spoke at the public hearing against the Minneapolis Energy Options resolution because his condominium association was scheduled to spend $330,000 to install solar panels on its roof in the fall. In his words “The only way we can do this is with Xcel rebates. We don’t want this to blow up in our faces.” NOTE 1
The solar rebates that Xcel offered willingly or unwillingly hence created an unexpected buffer between considering a municipal utility and an agenda to install more solar panels.

When the Minneapolis Energy Options campaign began in late 2012/ early 2013, making community solar arrangements available was one of the biggest motivators for pursuing Municipal Power.
However something changed that dynamic in the time period after the Minneapolis Energy Options campaign began but before it heated up in June and July. The Minnesota State Legislature passed a law requiring that investor-owned utilities like Xcel offer community solar rebates to their customers while exempting municipal utilities and co-ops from the requirement. This fortunate news from the state legislature turned one of the strongest arguments for switching to municipal power into a pro-solar power argument in favor of the status quo as municipal utilities were exempted from the solar gardens law.


#7 The seventh opposition theme was not a message per se, but was still political ju-jit-su. It was a big message of public silence from the professionals who are most active and knowledgeable in the energy policy field. Because of Xcel’s monopoly influence, so many of the successful energy policy organizations shied away from being public supporters of Minneapolis Energy Options even if they were privately or individually in favor.
Xcel bankrolls some very well-meaning energy saving programs plus some solar rebates thus making it awkward for people working for these programs to join in with any movement to displace Xcel from Minneapolis. Professionals who make their living under the Xcel money tree might offer some fine state policies or some visionary ways to improve the energy behavior of individuals but they can only offer weak tea as far as providing a competitor to Xcel’s overall system of energy management.
Why should the city even need to pursue different energy options when we already have an abundance of feel-good, energy-wonk programs? The reason is there has only been marginal progress in actually cutting down electricity and gas sales compared to what could be or should be happening.  Perhaps the unchecked influence of utilities whose profits are dependent upon sales prevented the programs being too effective.
 However the success of Minneapolis Energy Options provided the space for the organizations like CEE, to become much more visionary with exploring systemic change for energy options. CEE became the organization that did the Minneapolis Energy Pathways study. 

NOTE 1 ( CITATION  FROM http://www.minnpost.com/two cities/2013/08/minneapolis-utility-takeover-unions-and-businesses-join-forces-against-energy-act Minneapolis utility takeover: Unions and businesses join forces against energy activists Share on printShare on email

By Karen Boros | 08/02/13  )

POSSIBLE NEGATIVE OUTCOMES IF A MUNICIPAL UTILITY HAD BEEN PURSUED
In summary, the brief but stomping campaign against the Minneapolis Energy Options resolution did not make their arguments on the turf that Minneapolis Energy Options was comfortable or familiar with. They did not argue against whether or not a municipal utility is superior in theory, which the campaign had refined arguments for. Instead they argued on their turf that the practical process of switching to a municipal utility would be too daunting, costly and time-consuming (despite the resolution not requiring an acquisition of Xcel’s infrastructure.
There was no denial that there are many successful municipal utilities. But there is also no denial that most successful municipal utilities were cities that were municipal utilities to begin with or had been for decades. What the arguments focused on is that it is unusual for a city the size of Minneapolis to make the transition from a corporate power company to a municipal utility.
 It would be great if the City of the campaign can wave a magic wand and suddenly create a municipal utility. However, because the resistance of the incumbent utilities will be so fierce, it means following through with the actual process of municipalization will take many, many years before the envisioned municipal power utopia sets in. It would likely be a prolonged struggle because Xcel will not simply give away all their power lines, transformers and substations within the city limits out of the goodness of their hearts. There is a very real fear that the process will be tied up in expensive litigation for several years before any real progress on clean energy and emissions reductions even begin to happen.
That would be a worst case outcome of passing the Minneapolis Energy Options resolution.
In that scenario, environmental activists would probably grow impatient and start wondering how exactly the municipal ownership of wires, meters, & transformers would move momentum toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The cities overall goal of increasing the use of green energy would get mired in complexity over who owns the poles, the wires and the meters even though that was considered a necessary step to allow the city to construct renewable-resource power generation within the city.
Even if Minneapolis could simply condemn and acquire the infrastructure from Xcel on short order, we would still be at the mercy of power plants outside the city unless local renewable energy is already in place. A Minneapolis municipal utility we will have to buy all our power on the open market from the companies producing which introduces uncertainty. But the benefit is that it will Minneapolis would no longer be on the hook for paying off Xcel’s stranded costs.
If consideration for municipal power is brought up again in the future, let this be a guide of discussion issues to watch out for.

THE SPIRIT MOVED ME TO SPEAK AT THE PUBLIC HEARING
Looking back, why critique Minneapolis Energy Options for considering pursuit of a municipal utility?  If state statutes would have given us a less drastic way to create a competing energy management without the seeking authorization to municipalize, then the campaign would have already done so.
The Minneapolis Energy Options party line was that the option to municipalize provided the city with its biggest legally available option to leverage Xcel into making concessions on all 24 items that CEAC (the Minneapolis Community Energy Advisory Committee) wanted out of the utility franchise negotiations.
I had not initially planned on speaking at the public hearing. But during the public hearing, I did not like where the discussion was going so I felt an urgency to pivot the conversation by speaking to the City Council. Midway through the public hearing that had numerous speakers attacking the idea of municipalization rather than the campaign itself, I could see the writing was on the wall as far as Minneapolis Energy Options not making it onto the ballot.
Because the public hearing was more narrowly focused specifically on whether to put the referendum on the ballot, I was in a tricky place to come up with a message. As soon as everyone knew that municipalization on short order was politically unlikely after all, it put the campaign mission of Minneapolis Energy Options into an awkward position.
The message became something along the lines of “I say I am in favor of this ballot initiative because I want the city to have at least some leverage to use for the upcoming franchise agreement negotiations in 2014 but I do not really want to push for a city operated utility because too many people are attacking the idea of municipalization for it to pass as a ballot initiative.”
 I introduced myself to the council as someone who was doing outreach for Minneapolis Energy Options upon the understanding that the only action a yes vote on the referendum would require is a feasibility study. I complained how the referendum was being willfully misrepresented as a jump straight to municipalization by people who conveniently glossed over any mention of a feasibility study being required.
I reframed the campaign in its most positive light: as a broader movement which brought momentum in finally getting a city-wide discussion about clean, affordable, reliable and local energy. I wanted to present the campaign as a catalyst to deepen and diversify grassroots action around energy solutions, climate mitigation and environmental issues with the benefit of bringing multiple organizations to converge around taking charge of our energy future.
 The real issue I wanted to keep public discussion focused on was about maximizing the opportunities for local renewable energy generation in order to build community resiliency and stopping abuses of legalized monopoly power which limit that potential rather than the technicalities of who owns the electric grid.
The takeaway message I made clear to the City Council was that I did not want these valuable city-wide public conversations about our energy future to be drowned out by the fearmongering, costs and uncertainty around municipalization. I expressed that preparing for peak oil and mitigating a compounding climate crisis was the truly important contest before us and I asked for reassurance that elected officials and utilities would give voice to these serious concerns.

I also spoke at the public hearing because I wanted to defend the dignity of the campaign from this multitude of arguments against municipalization. My takeaway message on that was to state that an actual move to municipalize was never our intention in the first place and our motive was instead to provide the city leverage for its utility franchise negotiation. However this was a slippery slope argument for the campaign to make. If the campaign revealed municipalization was never a credible option after all, how could it possibly be used as leverage for negotiation?
Decoupling Minneapolis Energy Options from municipalization may have been a way to defend the legacy of the campaign from those who were fearmongering on the costs and uncertainty around municipalization. But I later became quite worried about an equal and opposite reaction where our gung-ho pro-municipal utility campaign supporters would see our previous talk of municipalization as insincere posturing and might not trust Minneapolis Energy Options again.
Likewise, the city council probably had similar worries that constituents would misinterpret the whole episode a manipulative ploy to get more franchise fees out of Xcel in the next franchise agreement.
At the time I had worry that the leverage we had worked for in the campaign would be lost. However, the leverage Minneapolis Energy Options was working to create showed up in a slightly different form than expected. The utilities were surprised that the City Council made it as far as holding a public hearing. That alone ended up being was enough to convince Centerpoint and Xcel that negotiating a deal with the city was the better way to go than not taking offers to negotiate seriously.

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