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Q&A: Envisioning Minnesota’s future electricity system

What do Minnesotans want their electricity system look like in the year 2040?

That’s the question a group of civic, business and community leaders are working to answer as part of a nonprofit policy forum.

Annie Levenson-Falk, policy director for the Citizens League

The Citizen League is a “multi-issue, multi-partisan” organization that aims to build common ground around important policy matters in Minnesota. The organization is just turning 60 years old, and over the last six decades it’s worked on “pretty much any state policy issue you can think of,” says policy manager Annie Levenson-Falk.

The organization brought together about 100 people last year (including policy experts from Fresh Energy, which publishes Midwest Energy News) to begin envisioning the state’s future electricity infrastructure.

The group recently released a report covering the first phase of its discussion, which identified affordability, competitiveness, efficiency, self-reliance, and minimizing environmental impact as goals to strive for. In the next phase, beginning early this year, the group will attempt to develop policy recommendations to help meet those goals.

Midwest Energy News spoke with Levenson-Falk last week about how the project is progressing:

MwEN: How and why did the Citizens League decide to look at the state’s electrical system?

Levenson-Falk: Electrical energy is one of the major [issues] that we are working on. The way this project came together is that our members identified electrical energy as an issue that is not at a crisis point in Minnesota, so it’s not something that’s at the front of a lot of people’s agendas unless you work in the field, but it is really important for the future of the state. It’s a lot of major infrastructure, so change happens over the course of decades. So we really need to get out in front of this before it becomes a problem.

Minnesota is pretty well positioned in terms of our university, the research that we do here, the business community that we have here and the things that are developing. We really want to take advantage of this opportunity to be a leader on energy issues. A lot of people already are working on electrical energy, and we don’t want to overlap things that are already being done, but a lot of that work is happening within particular sectors, the focus of business or if it’s solar or wind. They don’t often come together and work across sectors with a long term view of what’s best for the state, what that state needs.

Who’s involved and how has the process worked?

We’ve had more than 100 people involved overall. It’s really a host of folks from the business community, from different types of utilities, academic, environmental organizations, citizens who aren’t affiliated with any particular group but are interested in good policy and because they want Minnesota to succeed.

When you’re talking about something like electricity it’s so ubiquitous that everybody has an interest in it.

What does an ideal Minnesota electrical energy system look like?

Everyone pretty much agrees on six or seven key characteristics, like it has to be affordable, it has to be efficient, it has to be sustainable‚Ķ those types of things, which you can’t really say no to. When you start to dig a little bit deeper, everyone has a different meaning behind those. So the point of our first phase was before we start talking about how do we make it affordable or efficient, let’s talk about what that actually means.

The next phase of the project is going to be: how do we get there?

Why not just leave this up to the utilities and their regulators to worry about?

Utilities are certainly doing a lot of work on this, and Minnesota is in a better position than a lot of other states … but we really heard there is a lack of a space for folks from the utility sector, the business sector, the community, citizens, environmentalists, to all come together and talk about the common good for the state and the long-term focus.

How do you plan to keep this from becoming just a document that sits on the shelf but is never implemented?

We really take that into consideration in all of our policy work. We try to involve the people who are impacted by a problem to help define it and come up with the solutions, but then we also say when you’re coming to the table you have to bring your resources with you. What “resources” means might vary. Obviously if you are the head of Xcel versus a residential customer, the kind of experience and expertise and resources you bring to the table are different.

The next phase is going to be convening a lot of those same people to come up with recommendations to reach [those goals], and then hopefully along the line we’ll have those people involved who need to be a part of moving those recommendations forward.

The Citizen League’s Electrical Energy Phase I report is available here. People who want to get involved with Phase II can contact Annie Levenson-Falk at alevensonfalk@citizensleague.org or 651-289-1072.

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