Minneapolis Energy Options tapped into the legitimate and well-founded desire for more clean and renewable energy to effectively launch a campaign challenging Xcel. However critics of the campaign pointed out the irony of how Xcel was already the #1 wind energy leader among utilities in the nation.
Minneapolis Energy Options was hence vulnerable to an interesting political ju-jit-su where the strength of the campaigns environmental goals would be turned into a weak argument against a utility that is already relatively green. Does this mean that launching the campaign to further challenge Xcel and call their Minneapolis service territory into question was a foolish or unproductive move? Should we have instead backed away, shown appreciation and rewarded Xcel for having so much more wind power generation than most utilities? The campaign was fully worthwhile because Xcel needs to be pressured by the grassroots to make pro-environment progress.
Xcel has a history of doing clean energy and energy efficiency investments only after intense community pressure.
Xcel CEO Ben Fowke acknowledges this at the CEE Energy Policy Forum on January 27th, 2015.
“Before we talk about the future I want to talk a little bit about our accomplishments and we did this together. Now sometimes we needed a little push and some in this room might say we needed a little shove. Sometimes we had to shove back a little bit. But you know what? At the end of the day we have accomplished a lot already, not the least of which is #1 wind energy provider in the United States and have been for a decade now.”
Much of the environmental credentials that Xcel takes credit for in their masterful public relations messages actually originate primarily as a result of the success of people-powered grassroots efforts like Minneapolis Energy Options and the policy makers won over by these grassroots movements. Different examples as they come in the news could be tied into this narrative
For example, Xcel only converted the Minneapolis Riverside plant from coal to gas only after an intense clean energy grassroots community campaign which they opposed. Nevertheless Xcel now touts converting the Riverside coal plant to natural gas as one of their major green credentials.
Xcel only agreed to do so after a major coalition of environmental organizations (Clean Water Action, the Izaak Walton League, the Sierra Club, Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota) neighborhood groups, and local policymakers put together the Clean Energy Now campaign. Xcel’s original plan for the Riverside Coal Plant was to try to somehow meet legislative requirements to reduce air pollution while continuing to burn coal.
I have a personal story to tell to illustrate this narrative. Working for the Minneapolis Energy Options campaign was a bit of deja vu to my life. I have prior experience in Colorado working for a successful ballot initiative that Xcel was also campaigning against at the time. Clean energy advocates took advantage of Colorado’s citizen’s petition process after repeated attempts to get a renewable energy portfolio standard though the Colorado State Legislature had failed. I was personally part of the effort in mid-2004 to gather enough signatures to put the renewable standard 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 did confirm that Xcel officially opposes amendment 37 and said it was because the intermittency of wind energy supposedly makes it an inadequately reliable source of energy. Let’s fast forward ten years later to July 15th 2014. Xcel in Minneapolis hosted a public event outside their downtown headquarters in celebration of 10 years as the nation’s top wind power utility. How did this happen?
Ten years earlier, when Xcel was faced with the possibility that voters could force them to use a greater share of renewable energy, Xcel Energy chose to mount a full-scale resistance campaign in the weeks prior to Election Day 2004 spending about a million dollars to run ads against 37. However once Xcel was 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 then-Governor Bill Ritter increasing the renewable requirement to 30% by 2020. Xcel began subsidizing solar installations in 2006 in order to meet the requirements of Amendment 37. 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. NOTE 3
So Xcel then took credit for this progress that was accomplished due to the political success of a policy they has initially opposed.
It was 20 years before the celebration in their downtown plaza that Xcel in Minnesota got ahead in the wind energy curve among the utility industry, though they did so for rather controversial reasons. In 1994, Northern States Power (now a subsidiary of Xcel) agreed to a wind-power mandate in exchange for getting what they wanted with the Prairie Island nuclear waste storage site. In doing so, they enraged many of their counterparts in the investor owned utility business for setting a precedent of making renewable energy deals that the industry was more universally hostile toward at that time.
Overall, Xcel is not at fault to celebrate and take a lot of credit for their recent investments in new wind energy capacity. It is just essential to point out that their more investments in wind energy capacity are merely what is required to meet the state’s renewable energy standard that the legislature passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support back in 2007. The standard requires Xcel to get 30 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
Xcel loves to point out the Solar Electric Power Association ranking them among the top 10 utilities in America for solar capacity. NOTE 4
But does Xcel ever make it clear in their PR messages which state governments made Xcel meet solar goals through legislation?
In 2013 Xcel did formally oppose the Minnesota senate solar mandate bill requiring investor-owned utilities to use solar power for 1 percent of their customers’ needs by the end of 2025 on behalf that it would cost $250 million; NOTE 5 which is a figure far less than the cost overruns of their Monticello facility upgrades.
Similarly Xcel had to be forced by the legislature to allow shared community solar arrangements- an idea that is very popular with the public.
Yet once Minnesota’s solar gardens law was in place, Xcel spokespeople were vocally amenable to allowing community solar projects so customers whose homes are not suitable for their own solar install could invest in part of a solar array elsewhere. “It is kind of unfair to put together a big solar incentive program and then not allow them to participate because they just happen to live in a shady spot,” said Rick Evans, Xcel’s director of regional government affairs. “We do a solar gardens program in Colorado. It works very well. It is very popular. We want to do one here.” NOTE5
The big takeaway lesson and the big moral of the story is that we can’t let entities like Xcel win a political victory on their initial resistance to change. The company has shown great ability to meet clean energy goals once they are set, but at times still to be challenged by the public or else it will be all status quo and lost opportunities for substantial progress.
The pressure from grassroots energy campaigns shows how we can challenge the incumbent corporate- owned utilities to improve their business practices, financing models, and investment strategies. Giving no challenge and simply bowing in subservience to their incumbency would not trigger innovation and would stagnate product development of new energy services. Placating their initial gravitation to maintain the status quo runs counter to mission statements of bringing out innovation.