Minneapolis City Hall. Credit: August Schwerdfeger / Creative Commons

Critics say the city could get more economic and social justice benefits by focusing on locally generated projects.

Minneapolis officials are considering a plan to meet most of the city’s 100 percent renewable energy goal with renewable energy credits, despite a resolution saying it should rely on them as little as possible.

In June, the Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution calling for a transition to 100 percent renewable electricity for city operations by 2022, which would make it the first large American city to hit that target.

The blueprint for getting there involves a blend of energy efficiency, community and on-site solar, and significant purchases through a utility green tariff program, which charges a premium for renewable energy credits from existing projects. The city is also considering investing in a wind farm that wouldn’t provide direct power but would generate renewable credits the city would own.

Some critics say the plan leans too heavily on credits, which shortchanges the city on the economic and social justice benefits of renewables

“I’d rather postpone the goal or do it in a way that’s not going to be economically detrimental,” said John Farrell, a solar expert with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and a member of the city’s energy advisory committee.

While Farrell applauds Minneapolis for being a leader in clean energy, he said there are better ways to achieve 100 percent renewables than paying a premium to a utility, especially for city well positioned to achieve the target.

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Minneapolis has advantages that give it an easier path to 100 percent renewables than many cities, even if that path isn’t the one everyone would like to take. John Dernbach, director of the Environmental Law and Sustainability Center at Widener University in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, said having access to a green tariff program like the one Xcel Energy offers allows the city to move the goalposts closer.

And even without the green tariff, the city benefits simply from getting its power from the largest buyer of wind power in the country. Xcel is the city’s sole electric provider and plans to have a generation mix that is 60 percent renewable and 80 percent carbon free by 2030, all of which counts toward the city’s goal.

Minneapolis considered forming its own power company a few years ago after an initiative Farrell led. Instead, Xcel Energy and the city’s natural gas utility, CenterPoint Energy, formed the nation’s first Clean City Partnership with the city to work on efficiency, renewable energy and equity issues.

Minneapolis later joined more than 70 cities nationally that have committed to the Sierra Club’s “Ready for 100” program to encourage a transition to 100 percent renewable energy. It was the first city in the Midwest to sign on and remains among the largest cities on the list.

Brian Millberg, the city’s energy manager, created the 100 percent renewable plan. Xcel’s green tariff Renewable*Connect program costs an extra 10 percent, but savings from community solar garden subscriptions covers the premium, he said.

The city’s first Renewable*Connect contract, signed last year for 17,800 megawatt hours (mWh), lasts a decade. The contract signed this year for 42,400 mWh runs just five years, placing pressure on the city to come up with a source for almost half its load in 2023 and beyond.

“We think there are renewable energy sources out there that have prices that are dropping,” Millberg said. “We believe we shouldn’t have to pay anything extra, or next to nothing. We’re open to ideas.”

One of those ideas is to build a wind farm. Unlike Xcel’s green tariff, a wind project would add new renewable power to the grid. The resolution calls for as little reliance on renewable energy credits as possible, but gives preference to those that add new renewable power. Such a project could also contribute toward a second goal of moving the entire city to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. 

Minnesota has the nation’s largest community solar program and Minneapolis subscribes to 24 gardens that cover about 6 percent of its energy needs. Community solar will represent 22 percent of the city’s energy generation by 2022, the year the 100 percent goal will be reached. The city estimates it could save as much as $4.7 million over the next two decades on energy due to solar garden subscriptions.

Another component of the Minneapolis plan calls for cutting energy consumption by roughly 3 percent per year through 2023 — which in turn decreases the amount of renewable power needed to reach the target.

Almost a third of the city’s electric use goes to street lighting and signaling, which is being upgraded to energy-saving LEDs. “We have started replacing bulbs, but we have thousands left to go,” Millberg said.

On-site solar energy accounts for just 1 percent of the city’s energy generation and is expected to rise to 12 percent over the next five years as solar is added to water treatment facilities and other buildings.

Dernbach, the environmental law professor, said most renewable policies by municipalities are “less attentive” to low-income residents than the Minneapolis version. “I read the Minneapolis resolution and it’s quite remarkable,” Dernbach said.

Margaret Levin, executive director of the Sierra Club’s North Star chapter, said Minneapolis should assist in helping people of color find energy jobs because they have been disproportionately impacted by past energy choices. “We’re hoping the (100 percent renewable) resolution creates jobs for people underrepresented in the energy economy,” Levin said.

Ellen Anderson, executive director of the Energy Transition Lab at the University of Minnesota, has studied and participated in several projects now underway in the city. One concept that has emerged is the construction of community solar gardens directed at low-income subscribers.

Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light’s Just Solar Coalition is doing just that, with the first of its solar gardens now underway on the roof of a church in north Minneapolis. Another solar garden and microgrid will be built atop a high school in north Minneapolis by minority owned Renewable Energy Partners, she said, with the focus, again, on getting neighborhood subscribers.

Anderson has begun a study of “inclusive financing” that allow utility customers to pay for energy efficiency projects on their bills. The program would not require credit scores and improvements would have to pay off in lower utility bills, she said.

“There’s a disproportionate energy burden on low-income communities and communities of color – they pay more as a percentage of their income for energy,” Anderson said. “If we’re really going to tackle climate change, this is a population you can’t ignore.”

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.