Saturday, December 15, 2018


A crucial point related to Xcel’s upcoming 15- year energy plan that deserves getting coverage and attention is whether they will willing do energy modeling at the distribution level, and here is why it is relevant:

 Xcel Energy recently announced plans to reduce carbon emissions in its electricity generation by 80% from 2005 to 2030, and to zero by 2050. Perhaps Xcel will be able to meet its stated "carbon free" goals at a quicker rate by adopting an approach of siting distributed renewable energy generation at strategic points in the distribution grid that would allow them to sidestep having to build new High Voltage Transmission lines. It can be done matching up new distributed generation with to the capacity of each adjacent substation.

If Xcel Energy is inclined to develop renewable power resources in a way that requires the building new million dollar per mile High Voltage Transmission lines, we should be warned that it can get politically dicey to route them through communities and farms to the extent that it could delay the reaching of renewable goals. 

In addition, customers would be saddled with perhaps avoidable costs for new high voltage transmission lines (while utility shareholders get guaranteed returns upon the projects). 

In terms of Xcel's 15 Integrated Resource Plan, the above makes a good case for Xcel to do energy scenario modeling at the distribution level to find out what can be accomplished rather than limiting their modeling on the transmission level.
It would be very disingenuous if Xcel were to come out with a draft IRP that flat out denies the extent to which this likely lower cost approach is feasible if they did not even give it a fair look in their energy modeling. 

Can we get assurance that Xcel Energy plans to do energy scenario modeling at the distribution level...or are questions about Xcel's Modeling software shrouded in lack of transparency and claims to trade secret?

 The relevance for energy modeling is clear with close to 2/3 of Xcel's baseload power plants being scheduled for retirement in the next 15 years. The question of who will cover any stranded costs from the retirement of big baseload plants will get called eventually, alongside the technical questions on what to replace the generation with. So why not model the scenarios now at this time when Xcel is required to come up with a 15 year energy plan? Researchers independent of Xcel have done energy scenario modeling with encouraging conclusions.

Without modeling at the distribution level, there is no way to integrate it into the overall "Integrated" Resource plan. If Xcel is able to skirt around having to modeling at the distribution level, then they can pretend that distributed renewable energy generation opportunities on the low voltage scale don’t exist. We miss our prime opportunity if they are able to get away with that and there is no reason they should. 

A big concern is if Xcel’s modeling software can’t do anything beyond what it could back in 2008. In turn, that modeling software from 2008 was a tool that public entities made them create. The PUC gave a directive to Xcel to figure out how the grid could be different and modernized. It required them to put the modeling program together in 2007 / 2008 but Xcel probably has not done any updates to it since then.

Xcel refused to pursue make proper use of the tool because they figured that the outcome of using the tool would undercut the CAP X 2020 project they already wanted to do. Using an updated version of that advanced modeling software tool would open up a whole great opportunity for dispersed and distributed clean energy generation…the sort that is more difficult for Xcel to keep under their market share.  


    In general, people and organization who already have a lot of money get to do the modeling and control the parameters of what they model, while everyone else who does not have as much money has to beg in some way for access to the modeling. The utility monopoly owns the software and uses its monopolistic powers to turn that ownership into control as well. They have the power to use trade secrets and non-disclosure agreements to shut independent inquiries all down.
In order to get a utility’s modeling info, you often need to sign some sort of non-disclosure agreement. The models are shrouded in so much secrecy and this creates a lack of transparency in the process.


In the Summer of 2018, Grid Lab and the McKnight foundation have released their “Minnesota Smarter Grid” study, showing that Minnesota could retire all of our coal plants, never build a new gas plant and still save people money by investing in clean energy.

With that study, the technocratic grasstops organizations that typically follow utility integrated resource plan process have been demonstrating a growing consensus of replacing out baseload with distributed renewable energy generation with more community ownership & control and no new gas plants. 

While the McKnight Study/ Grid Lab study did model a lot, it did not consider an early retirement of the nuclear plants. There is in fact a “Power flow model” for replacing Xcel’s Prairie Island nuclear plant. The PUC can order Xcel to look into this or follow through with that scenario. The key to making it happen is the integrated transmission distribution network. You can’t do integrated resource planning when you do not have integrated systems modeling. If you have that in place then all these other things become possible.


Given the availability of the Grid Lab / McKnight study, why did Xcel pursue doing a different study with E3? E3 only appeared to look at a rather limited duo of solutions that can both conveniently fall within Xcel's market share: #1 Mass electrification (such as switching out natural gas appliances for higher efficiency electric heat pumps) plus a biofuels switchover (which is Xcel has the potential to produce their own). When I asked the E3 researcher (at an Xcel Stakeholder meeting) about whether the plans involved biofuel crops whose roots sequester carbon and whether it would be a win-win for the climate that builds up soil, it turns out they did not consider net emissions only point source for biofuels.

Doing modeling at the distribution level was left out of the scope of E3, likely because the results of doing so would lead to solutions that do not fit as conveniently under Xcel's market share; a greater balance between customer owned and shareholder owned resources. 


       Community Power initiated an innovative idea of partnering with the Theater of Public Policy’s improv comedians for a public event similar to Sierra Club’s Path to Power. We saw it as a way to add entertainment value and attract attendance to an event about Xcel Energy’s long-term utility planning.  

In addition, comedy is considered neutral, and with the inclusion of intelligent humor, people do not build up the same walls of defensiveness that they would in events of a serious character. 
We figured media sources who would not otherwise not be interested in covering a utility resource planning event would be intrigued to come to a comedy event of that sort and would note the number of attendees who showed up and make a story about how we as the organizers were excited enough about utility resource planning to do this.

      The event was an overall success, particularly in attracting robust public attendance and voluntary donations to cover its costs.  
The way how the Theater of Public Policy operates is that they have their cast of improv comedians that remains the same and a different set of panelists for each event that they interview before the actual performance. In addition, members of the audience can ask questions of the panelist, which is a good quality for public engagement.  
This way you can hear insightful information about public policy matters “straight from the horse’s mouth”.

The panelists for this event were Ellen Anderson of the UMN Energy Transition Lab, Annie Levinson Faulk of Citizens Utility Board, and City Councilmember Jeremy Schroeder of the Minneapolis Clean Energy Partnership.           

       When someone from the mainstream media interviews powerful or influential people involved with public policy, they have a tendency to say “whelp, I have done my job” without asking to many incisive follow-up questions. But the interviewer with the Theater of Public Policy goes a bit deeper in interviewing panelists. They are less apt to let interviewed panelists get away with “wiggling out” because going deeper is what creates opportunity and hooks and metaphors for the cast of improv comedians. This improv group will just go to town the more metaphors an interview gives them.


As Community Power, we have more interest institutional changes regarding energy, thinking beyond the scope of individual lifestyle behavior changes with energy.

We had some crucial higher-level questions about energy that we felt it was crucial to direct audience attention toward at the Theater of Public Policy event.

The first is how utilities sinking capital into baseload plants in order to keep them going for more years actually comes at the expense of potential for clean, renewable energy. The other area is the manner in which we (as utility customers) are on the hook to pay the costs if utility management makes a bad decision…given how shareholders eat the costs in most other industries.

One emphasis is to take a pause in new natural gas plant infrastructure given that it is a huge risk to put electric customers on the hook for this.

Pretty soon there will be an inflection point where all this old energy utility infrastructure no longer pays off while the incumbent utility management does not imagine or plan for any system more evolved beyond that point. And we need to be prepared to call the question when intervening in the IRP. 


With Xcel’s “Stakehholder engagement” meetings on their IPR have been scheduled during work hours on weekdays making it not very accessible to the general public beyond those who are being paid for work in an energy policy related job. In addition, the stakeholder engagement workshops are a lot of dense technical information being presented in a quick manner.
From my experience, the events are a lot of Xcel officials and their research partners talking at us but not a lot of stakeholding. MN Public Utilities Commissioner Schuerger noted that Xcel’s stakeholder events seem to be "talking to," not engagement.

There are ways a number of people can submit feedback on Xcel’s IRP, including surveys Xcel sent out. But in these actual events they seem to be putting things in front of stakeholders that they have already decided.

This leaves one with some question. Does Xcel want to hear feedback from stakeholders in order to learn some answers on critical questions over our energy future? Or are they wanting feedback from stakeholders so that they can know how to reduce opposition to what they already want to do? Is Xcel’s goal with the “stakeholder engagement” to convince enough of the people who will be following their IPR docket that they have thought things through enough to be right?
The MN Sierra Club had these same questions about Xcel’s stakeholder process along with  concerns that it was ineffective and not accessible. In response, the Sierra Club launched their own “Reclaim Your Power” event series from the summer as a way to model what real engagement looks like and listening to the priorities that the community wants.

    This involves making both the content and the timing of the event accessible to the community. It also means equipping and motivating people to participate in the public process and answering in real time the questions on how we break down the barriers to public involvement.


In Minnesota, an IRP is a utility’s 15-year business plan for how they will meet their customers needs, that they do every 3 years.

Not every state has a process requiring IRPs from utilities like Minnesota’s does. The history originates during the 1970’s when there was a big fight about utilities in California.
The standard way utilities have made profits (and to a large extent still make profits) is to build a lot of generation and transmission infrastructure for which law and regulation grants them guaranteed profits from (via their ratepayer dollars). From the early to mid-20th century this set up was a way to incentivize energy utilities to make electricity universally abundant and available.   
In the 1970’s, when energy efficiency first started being emphasized, regulators in California asked pointed question about whether the infrastructure utilities were building was actually needed in the future, upon more energy efficiency. Out of that emerged the IRP Process; The prompting of utilities to show and explain why they think their customer energy demand will grow and what the most cost-effective options are for meeting that demand.

This IRP process does not decide the specific power plans but a more general layout on the expectations over what investments utilities will need to make. An IRP sets the foundations for upcoming the energy regulatory controversies that a utility could expect over the following few years.
Xcel Energy will release an IRP next year which the MN Public Utilities Commission will have to approve. What makes Xcel’s next IRP be considered the “SuperBowl of IRPs” is that power plants representing 65% of Xcel’s generation in Minnesota are scheduled to retire in the 15 years. What resources Xcel replaces this generation capacity with is crucial for Minnesota meeting its Climate and Clean Energy goals.

As a result of these high stakes, Xcel has for the first time come up with a “Stakeholder Engagement” series of meetings in the run up to the release of their IRP.