Last week, I attended a public meeting in Minneapolis where the Coalition of Utility Cities, Xcel Energy, and the Center for Energy and the Environment talked about the impacts communities will experience when their baseload power plants close. This post reflects on both the value of these public meetings and engagement, as well as the Coalition of Utility Cities’ impact study.
Study Examines Aggregate Impact of Plant Closures
Minnesotans are known for being progressive, so when the communities impacted by the potential closures of their power plants got together to voice their concerns and needs, it wasn’t a surprise. The Coalition of Utility Cities (or CUCs, as they refer to themselves) is leading the way on a project to quantify the impacts of fossil fuel plant closures on both local communities and the state as a whole.
I see and hear firsthand the powerlessness that communities feel when their largest tax payer plans to leave. We also witness that knowledge is power and knowledge from data is very exciting! With the support of the McKnight Foundation, Just Transition Fund, and the Initiative Foundations of Minnesota, the Coalition contracted with the Center for Energy and Environment to quantify the direct and indirect financial and social impacts that hosting a baseload power plant has on seven host communities.
The study also looks at aggregate impacts across the state. The analysis will include impacts on tax base, workers, demographics, and local economies, and will provide a framework to estimate the future social impacts of retiring the power plants in these communities. This work is important because it will help form the basis of proposed legislation, regulatory advocacy, and community-based efforts to help communities navigate the clean-energy transition.
The study creates a framework that utilities can use to submit the impacts on a community when power generation changes. Greater consistency in the methodology for gathering impact data from community to community, and across utilities, is beneficial for the regulatory commission, the utility, and the community. Ultimately, this unique, comprehensive approach—which can shed light on the relationship between a community and their utility, and empower communities to determine their own future—can serve as a model for other states and utilities.
Ultimately, this unique, comprehensive approach—which can shed light on the relationship between a community and their utility, and empower communities to determine their own future—can serve as a model for other states and utilities.
The Value of Public Meetings
When a utility submits an Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) to a Public Utility Commission (PUC), they need to show that there has been community engagement in the process, and the views of those impacted by the IRP are reflected in the information presented to the PUC and portrayed factually. Xcel Energy, the largest publicly-owned utility in the state, is holding a series of public meetings, like the one I attended last week, for this purpose.
It’s worth noting that inviting impacted communities to present on the things that keep their city managers up at night, as the managers described tackling this issue, is fairly unusual in the IRP process elsewhere. But, as we were reminded of more than once during the three hour meeting, Minnesotans are above average. The Coalition’s consultant presented the common and aggregate concerns of the communities and a qualitative summary of the impacts of closure at the state level, as well as several expected outcomes of the impact study and potential policy initiatives.
City managers, mayors, and financial directors were clear to state that they realize there is a change in the energy mix and that they support renewables and will not stand in the way of this change, and they want to be part of the new, cleaner power generation landscape. Animosity and blame were not present but frustration was.
The host municipalities described, one after another, the nature of their town and its current economic status, with photos showing the outsized scope of the power plants, the financial, workforce, and social impacts they expect upon closure, and finally, the legacy costs that may have no end. They used words that conveyed the personal and profound nature of this fundamental change to their homes. “We’ve been proud to have produced power for this state for so many years. This operation is part of the fabric of our community and we need to find a new identity.” The parallels to sending the last child to college were palpable. It’s more than the taxes, the smoke stacks, or the shift change traffic.
Multiple times we heard that there are so many unknowns to the closure timing, process, impacts, outcomes, and more unknown unknowns. “They go on and on, and there are unknown unknown unknowns,” to quote one official. Some questions may have answers, some answers can’t be articulated before an IRP is submitted, or within the needs of an investor owned utility at this time. Most likely, we’ll have to wait and see the full extent of the impacts.
For Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me fans, the Coalition’s agenda item ended with a lightning round where each community was asked what they see as their greatest asset and how will they use it as they face the unknown. Answers ranged from utilizing infrastructure assets, leveraging proximity to adjacent growing communities, developing vacant or underutilized land, and as expected, no defeat. These communities, armed with newly gathered data, fortitude, a collective voice, and committed populations, are taking on transition head on.
These communities, armed with newly gathered data, fortitude, a collective voice, and committed populations, are taking on transition head on.
Minnesotans are above average.