Boulder residents protest an Xcel Energy coal plant in July, 2011. (Photo by Zane Selvans via Creative Commons)

Could Minneapolis be the next Boulder?

In November, voters in Boulder, Colo., authorized the city to form a municipal electric utility if Xcel Energy doesn’t meet its clean energy demands.

Last week in Minneapolis, a citizens group went public with a call for residents and officials there to pursue an agenda that could lead down a similar path.

The Boulder referendum went to the ballot after the city balked at renewing a 20-year contract with Xcel to provide electricity in the city.

The contracts, known as franchise agreements, authorize utilities to use public right-of-ways in exchange for sharing a small percentage of revenue with the city. They’re typically renewed with little fanfare, but a few cities such as Boulder have recently used the negotiations to try to advance clean energy.

Minneapolis Energy Options wants to add its city to the list.

“We’re not saying that municipalization is necessarily the best option at this point, but we want the city to seriously do its homework before it makes any hasty decisions that lock us down for a long period of time.” said John Farrell, one of the group’s founding members.

Farrell, a senior researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and Ken Bradley, director of Environment Minnesota, co-wrote a commentary published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune last week that introduces the group’s mission and aimed to start a broader conversation (Environment Minnesota and ILSR are both members of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News, but the Minneapolis effort does not receive RE-AMP support).

Minneapolis’ franchise agreements with Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy expire in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Minneapolis Energy Options wants the city to use renewal negotiations to increase the utilities’ investments in local, renewable power and energy efficiency programs.

It’s similar to the rallying cry that put Xcel in an all-out political war with clean-energy advocates in Boulder. The utility spent thousands trying to defeat the ballot measure, and since then it’s moved to exclude Boulder residents from its WindSource and SolarRewards programs.

It’s far from clear whether there is enough political appetite to challenge the utility in its own backyard (Xcel Energy is based in Minneapolis), but Farrell and Bradley said they’ve already heard from elected officials who are interested in the group’s efforts.

Xcel Energy says the Minneapolis group’s claims ignore the facts about its efficiency and renewable programs.

“Xcel Energy’s comprehensive suite of energy efficiency programs surpassed Minnesota’s very aggressive energy efficiency goal, with our customers now saving enough electricity to power every single home in the city of Bloomington — and then some,” Xcel Energy President and CEO Judy Poferl wrote in a response to the commentary. “We lead the nation in renewable energy as the top wind power provider for the eighth year in a row and are well ahead of the most aggressive renewable energy standard in the region.”

In Boulder, residents and city leaders decided Xcel’s efforts weren’t enough. When the utility’s franchise agreement came up for renewal in 2010, the college town was already primed for conflict from years of protest over a local coal-burning power plant.

Other communities that have recently bucked their for-profit utility in favor of a municipal include Marin County, Calif., and Winter Park, Fla.

For now, though, that isn’t the focus of Minneapolis Energy Options.

“We’re not out to municipalize or bust,” said Farrell.

The group consists of about a dozen core members who have been meeting since late last year. They have a few dozen people on their mailing list and have just started to speak at neighborhood meetings around the city to raise interest and awareness.

Farrell said there are other possible outcomes besides renewing the current agreement or abandoning Xcel Energy.

One possibility would be working with Xcel Energy to create a supplemental clean energy fund that would pay for renewable and efficiency projects in the city. Another option might be signing a shorter-term contract that would allow both sides more time to evaluate options.

The conversation needs to happen now, he said, because if a municipal referendum is necessary it would have to be on the ballot in November 2013.

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