Minneapolis Star Tribune – May 23, 2012
Minnesota spends more than $20 billion a year on energy — primarily importing polluting fossil fuels — and the state’s utilities typically lobby against decreasing our dependency. This hampers our economy and harms our environment.
Fortunately, cities don’t have to rely on the Legislature to stand up for more-efficient and cleaner energy use.
Consider Minneapolis. The city’s residents spend $450 million per year on electricity and gas services. As in most communities, these services are delivered by utility companies that have a “franchise.”
This 20-year legal agreement gives each utility a monopoly to deliver electricity or gas to homes and businesses in exchange for an annual fee to the city (about $23 million a year, taken right off the energy bills of Minneapolis customers).
Over the next several years, these franchise agreements will expire. Minneapolis has a choice to make. Its two big utilities — Xcel Energy and Centerpoint Energy — will send their fleets of lobbyists across the river from the Capitol to ask the city of lakes to sign away its energy options — and $9 billion in revenue — for the next 20 years.
We know that Minneapolis residents and businesses would like to install more local renewable energy and reduce energy use. Utility programs have come up short.
Meanwhile, states like New Jersey and our provincial neighbors to the north in Ontario have installed more than 500 megawatts of solar power. They have built more solar power in a single month than our utilities have installed in their entire histories.
Every megawatt of solar can power 200 homes with free, clean sunshine, and every megawatt installed in Minneapolis could mean more jobs and dollars in the local economy.
As city residents, we need to make sure our next franchise agreement paves the way to an energy future that includes reliable, efficient and local renewable energy. Our leaders need to understand that 20-year franchises are confining when energy technologies are changing dramatically.
Almost no one had a cellphone 20 years ago, and most of us were excited to tape our favorite television programs on VHS. It made more sense to sign 20-year franchises with big utilities when there were few economical energy alternatives.
Minneapolis could join Los Angeles, San Antonio and other large cities and consider becoming its own utility. A city-owned utility could funnel those energy dollars into big investments in energy savings and capture the economic opportunities as local energy generation becomes remarkably cost-effective.
Already one in seven Americans are served by a municipal electric utility, retaining control over their energy futures.
The city of lakes could sign franchise agreements with its two big utilities, their polluting power plants and their shareholders for another 20 years. They would be happy to oblige. But we believe that the world is changing and that we should keep our options open.