This was a big week in the city’s consideration of its energy future, as Minneapolis leaders set public hearings to discuss the possibility of forming a municipal utility and also approved a $250,000 study to explore that and other alternatives to expiring franchise agreements with Xcel and CenterPoint.
Candidates for mayor weighed in on those and other major energy issues confronting Minneapolis at a forum earlier in the week at Washburn High School, featuring Council Members Don Samuels and Betsy Hodges, former Hennepin County commissioner Mark Andrew, former council president Jackie Cherryhomes, wind energy attorney Cam Winton, and former alderman Dan Cohen.
Yet none of them made an outright endorsement of the city taking over electric and natural gas service, a matter that the council is considering placing on the ballot in November.
Andrew said he supported the council-approved study, but raised concerns about putting it on the ballot “before it’s ready to be presented to the public.” He said they need to try to secure as much neighborhood support as possible and make a budget identifying how to fund the measure.
Hodges said she didn’t know whether she supported a public utility, but that they would need to ask the question if forming a public utility versus other options would be more, less, or the same in reliability, cost, and helping the city meet its renewable energy goals.
She said that if they kept Xcel and Centerpoint, they would need to push for a shorter agreement than the 20-year one the city has now, as well as higher renewable energy standards.
Cohen was the most critical of forming a municipal utility, saying that the cost of doing so would crowd out every other interest the city has and “freeze any other capital investment for years.”
“We’re politicians,” he said. “We don’t have the expertise” to run a public utility.
Samuels cited one estimate that it could cost $3 billion for Boulder, Colo. – which voted to form its own utility in 2011 – to take over electricity service from Xcel.
“I don’t think any of us can write a blank check on this thing,” he said, adding that he remained committed to giving the issue a fair examination.
Cherryhomes said the city should wait to see what the study reveals.
“Quite honestly, I have a little bit of a nervousness at the city taking over something as major as an energy company,” she said.
Winton said there isn’t enough time to municipalize electric and natural gas service between now and the end of 2014, when the utility contracts expire. He said the city should re-up the contracts for a much shorter period – say, five years – and continue researching other options.
Candidates occasionally took veiled and overt shots at each other.
Winton said they must be candid that prices would go up if the city increases renewable energy, and “that’s what stuck in my craw so much” about Andrew’s press conference last month calling for the installation of solar panels on up to 150 buildings. A supporter in the audience questioned his estimate and suggested the true cost could be double or more.
Andrew, though, stood behind his solar plan, and even complimented Winton. After saying that he was the only person on the stage experienced in environmental leadership, he added, “I apologize to Cam, Cam has been very much a leader on wind energy and ought to get credit for that.”
Hodges, for her part, said that with all due respect to her opponents who have Xcel as a client, “Xcel is not a client of mine .. so I feel free to use every tool possible to push them as hard as possible.”
She was referencing Winton’s admission that Xcel was a customer of wind turbine maintenance services at Duke Energy, where he is an attorney. Andrew said after the forum that his own green consulting company, GreenMark, has Xcel as a client five years ago.