A lot of folks came to a hearing at Minneapolis City Hall eight days ago to oppose a ballot measure authorizing the city to form a municipal utility. Mostly they argued that the status quo is sufficient.
I’d like to ask if they understand the question.
Electricity service in Minneapolis is akin to living in a town where there’s only one restaurant and it’s the only place you’ve ever eaten. Mostly you are satisfied. Occasionally the food is lousy; sometimes the service is, too. But you’ve never eaten anywhere else. That’s Minneapolis. One hundred years of the same electric utility.
In discussing this ballot measure, the City Council is exploring the only legal alternative to service from Xcel Energy. The city is not saying — contrary to Xcel’s letter to customers — that Minneapolis is going to buy the electric system tomorrow. Instead, the City Council is asking whether we could get cleaner, more affordable and more reliable local energy. There’s plenty of evidence that we can.
The city’s sources of electricity are getting cleaner, slowly, thanks to the Legislature. Starting with a wind-power mandate in 1994 and then a renewable-energy standard in 2007, the Legislature has required Xcel to provide 30 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. But about 20 percent of our energy still comes from nuclear power, and we still have no plan for storing the radioactive spent fuel. An awful lot still comes from coal, which puts soot and carbon in the air and mercury in our lakes.
The Denton, Texas, municipal utility already gets 40 percent of its electricity from renewable energy. The Sacramento, Calif., utility is dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 90 percent by 2050. We can do better on clean energy.
When it comes to lowering energy bills through efficiency and conservation, Xcel is meeting its state requirements to reduce the growth of electricity demand by 1 to 1.5 percent per year — but a 2011 study by Ceres shows that there are at least 10 large utilities with higher savings rates. We can do better on affordability.
When it comes to cost, electricity rates have risen by 40 percent in the past decade. They leapt another 10 percent in January, and with massive cost overruns at Xcel’s Monticello nuclear plant, they’re going up again next year, too. We, again, can do better on affordability.
Electric reliability in Minneapolis varies, depending on whom you ask. In some parts of the city, it’s great. In others, residents and businesses have suffered numerous non-weather-related outages that severely affect their lives and livelihoods. Based on objective metrics, Xcel customers are out of power, on average, quite a bit more than customers of city-owned utilities in Rochester, Minn., or Austin, Texas. It would be interesting to know how many fewer customers would have lost power in recent storms had Xcel helped implement the city’s 1960-era ordinance for burying power lines. We can do better on reliability.
We’re not alone. Frustrated with years of futile efforts to partner with Xcel Energy to do better, citizens of Boulder, Colo., approved a ballot measure authorizing a municipal utility in 2011. The city’s feasibility study, published this spring, suggested that Boulder can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by using more than 50 percent renewable energy, at a comparable cost and at as good or better reliability than Xcel. The city is still in talks with Xcel to explore partnership opportunities, even as Xcel is financing another ballot campaign to override the 2011 vote.
They, and we, can do better.
Beyond begging the incumbent electric monopoly to change its practices, considering a municipal utility is Minneapolis’ only legal route to energy freedom. And the city can take that step legally (barring changes to state law) only if citizens ratify a ballot measure giving it the authority.
The city already provides utility services like water and garbage, with high ratings from Minneapolis residents and businesses. And there’s plentiful evidence that communities with city-run utilities get better energy service on almost every measure than we get in Minneapolis.
Is a city-run utility the answer? That question is premature. But unless we explore the alternatives to our electric monopoly, we’re going to keep supping from the same 100-year-old buffet.
John Farrell is director of the Democratic Energy Institute for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.