I believe in Energy Democracy.
Energy is 10% of the entire economy, powers and makes possible everything we do in the other 90%, and is the most centralized and tightly controlled of all economic sectors – just a handful of giant oil companies and electrical and natural gas utilities control the vast majority of the wealth. Every year, the average American household puts 5% of their income into the hands of these energy companies, and reaps a return in asthma, traffic congestion, war, destruction of communities in places where energy is extracted, reduced economic security in the face of volatile energy prices, and dramatic and unpredictable changes in our climate as well as the ability to heat, light, and power their homes, schools, and workplaces, and drive between them. For families below the poverty line, this portion of their income is more like 15%, and these proportions get still higher if you count the energy costs embodied in the prices of our food and other products. Every day, our communities are pouring these dollars outside, to massive, centralized energy producers. Every day, we’re pouring these dollars towards the problems that are fracturing our communities, attacking our health, threatening or security, and devastating our climate and ultimately our economy.
What if we reversed this flow? What if we poured this vast channel of wealth – over $1 trillion across the United States alone – back into our communities and towards energy solutions that reconnect us with ecology, create bonds between neighbors, and revitalize our economy my cutting our costs and creating jobs building and servicing smart energy systems in our communities. What would this change do for our society? First, it would send a huge pulse of resources and capital back into our communities to improve the efficiency of our homes, upgrade our infrastructure to local smart grids, and help capitalize a massive wave of localized community-owned energy. Second, it would put these resources into local job creation serving local needs, and require people getting together with their friends and neighbors to learn how to make the transition and work together to do it. Finally, it would eviscerate the dirty energy industry by removing its greatest cash flow (which, let’s remember, is not investors or the government, but us, energy users). We could do all this if only we (collectively, individual consumer choice makes little difference) redirected the money we spend on dirty energy and invested in a better energy.
In 2007, I began a journey to figure out how to turn this big concept into a reality. Read on to learn the what, the how, and the why.
In 2007, I started networking with community groups across Minnesota focused on community energy. Minnesota is the national leader in clean energy generation that is owned by cooperatives and other partnerships of local residents, as opposed to big companies. It was also the pioneer in energy auditing and weatherization back in the 1970s, and more recently has passed at the time nation-leading clean energy standards 25% by 2020 plus major energy efficiency goals (1.5% energy savings from a baseline every year for the next 15 years). It was fruitful terrain to work on. I interned with the Neighborhood Energy Connection, which provides energy audits, home energy loans, and other services for improving energy efficiency, trying to figure out if getting residents to work together in a group to insulate their homes would help insulation contractors provide discounts. I worked with other students to get trained as energy auditors by a leader in the field statewide. I started thinking about how to reverse the low rates of adoption that accompany energy efficiency programs – some of the most successful energy audit programs nationwide get 10% implementation of recommendations from the people who receive audits.
In early 2008, I convened a group of energy enthusiasts to start planning Cooperative Energy Futures (CEF), a cooperative that would help communities transition to a clean energy future while creating community ownership and local jobs. We faced many major set-backs – core leaders dropped out at some of the worst times, undermining our legitimacy, many of our outreach efforts ended in lackluster responses, and we kept losing focus among the vast web of efforts (financing, incorporation, team training, community engagement) that we had too coordinate. But slowly, we moved forward. We piloted a group insulation project where seven neighbors got their walls and attics insulated together at a discount from a contractor (Summer of Solutions 2008 helped out). We tested out community mapping tools to map energy use at the community level. We waded through months of legal research and financing options to incorporate CEF as a co-op in early 2009, and pulled together the initial Board that would get us going. In Spring 2009, we secured a seed grant of $5,900 and an angel loan of $5,000, which we have since repaid at 6% interest. Despite slow progress and difficulty building a sustainable team, we slowly built capacity for a budding organization with long-term roots. You should check us out: www.cooperativeenergyfutures.com.
In late 2009, the next main phase of our work began – we started building networks across South Minneapolis, particularly in the Phillips community. Over time, we focused in on this neighborhood as a place to build a stable base. As opposed to mostly white upper-income neighborhoods where we have often been encouraged to start (and did), this area is highly culturally diverse, and low-income. While this means less financial resources are immediately available, it also means that community members are both more individually concerned about high energy costs and in general have stronger communities ties and concerns about economic stability and job access of the neighborhood as a whole. While many existing efficiency organizations have approached efficiency as a non-profit program providing heavily subsidized services, our approach focuses on using efficiency to build community and create economic opportunity. This means that we focus on identifying and building community leadership to champion the approach, ask participants to pay a fair cost for improvements that pay for themselves in under a year, and build communities where people learn skills and help each other, as opposed to having experts come in and install measures on a one-time basis. These subtle changes shift the dynamic from outsiders to insider and from receiving services to proactive behavior change.
Organizing takes time. It took almost a year of networking across the Latino, Somali, African American, Native American, and European American parts of the community before we really started identifying the people and networks who would help champion this idea. We had at least one difficult organizational relationship characterized by misunderstandings and disagreement that lasted over six months. Ideas kept evolving – we went from selling kits to selling products individually, from selling products to offering training with products as the next step, from making sales to broad-based community engagement.
Suddenly, since mid November, things have started clicking. After months of trying, we suddenly started to get people who wanted to join our community engagement and sales team and get compensated on a commission basis off of the sales achieved. We have started to get teams of neighbors eager to sign up for our Power of 10 community energy planning – you bring together 10 neighbors and we work with you to build a team and develop an energy planning process for the neighborhood. We have Somali leaders who want us to run workshops to teach their community how to be energy efficient, Latino businesses seeking energy assessments, and energy auditors newly trained by stimulus funds who can’t find work and want to help the community become efficient. With a new infusion of seed capital, we bought long-term inventory stocks and are on a roll. Our volunteer team grew to 10 dedicated volunteers and 5 interns, and just expanded again with five community leaders ready to build out our community engagement team.
Enter the Hiawatha Transmission Line struggle. Xcel Energy, the electrical utility in the Twin Cities and the 5th largest energy company in the United States, wants to build a 115kV transmission line through the Phillips neighborhood. Since late 2009, community groups and local political leaders have been fighting this line, which was originally proposed to go overhead along the Greenway, a major bike-only corridor that has helped Minneapolis rise to its current title of the most bike friendly city in the county (it beat out Portland in 2010). The struggle has polarized the community, as local businesses have traditionally supported the line because it is supposed to add electrical reliability in an area where grid capacity is stretched thin, while many residents groups have opposed its negative impacts on health, community aesthetics and local economic revitalization.
In 2010, working with State Representative Karen Clark, youth connected with Grand Aspirations worked with community partners to pass legislation requiring a Certificate of Need (a regulatory permit demonstrating that the energy facility is needed) in addition to the Routing Permit process currently in effect for the site. The line had originally not needed a Certificate of Need, because high-voltage transmission lines under 10 miles long are not required to get one. This provision may make sense in rural Minnesota where that 10 mile stretch might effect 30-60 households, but is poor logic in a neighborhood like Phillips with population densities over 8,000 per square mile. The legislation passed, along with funding for an independent study to assess the need for the lines, but funding was stripped from the process by the Governor (Tim Pawlenty, Republican).
During the Summer of 2010, Summer of Solutions participants worked on a two-pronged strategy – build a strong base of relationships in the community and engage leaders to launch Cooperative Energy Futures, and work with the emerging coalition to do some of the now unfunded process of studying alternatives to the transmission line. We were never in a position to be the formal legal interveners, so we focused on the technical and community based end of things to get as much information as possible to support community energy engagement and the process of assessing need in South Minneapolis. This meant learning as much as possible about how urban electrical grids, energy efficiency strategies, clean energy sources, and demand management (shifting energy use from high-use to low-use times of day) could meet the energy needs of South Minneapolis. In the fall, I supported a team of University of Minnesota students in continuing this research, while another team member (Brianna, who also blogs here) developed the GIS skills to start mapping energy demand in the community.
This Fall led to breakthroughs. The Administrative Law Judge reviewing the routing permit recommended that the transmission line be moved from overhead along the Greenway to underground along nearby 28th Street, a change that would dramatically reduce the local health, aesthetic, and economic development impacts. It wouldn’t however, change where South Minneapolis investing its energy dollars – it would still be pumping in high-volume coal and nuclear electricity as opposed to generating energy benefits locally. A further exciting development emerged as the Lake Street Business Council connected with this coalition – while still supportive of the transmission line, this association of hundreds of area businesses has shown strong interest in working cooperatively towards a better energy future that integrates energy efficiency and clean energy as drivers of job creation, community building, and local economic development.
One night in late September, I woke up at 3AM with an idea racing through my head. For an hour and a half, I pondered and jotted down campaign strategies, organizing partners, messaging, and a set of unifying values for what has become Our Power, an emerging community-based campaign focused on residents and businesses uniting for a better energy future across South Minneapolis. The campaign integrates social diffusion and peer-to-peer outreach models influenced by behavioral psychology, Marshall Ganz organizing theories, and the cultural knowledge embedded in the different groups in the area with a direct linkage between outreach and information and action. By connecting the efforts of an emerging coalition to develop a community energy plan with a range of non-profit and for-profit programs (including the growing community organizing and sales team in CEF) that helps people make the switch around where they invest their energy dollars, Our Power seeks to unify the community around what we can agree on – reliable, affordable, clean energy that builds local economic opportunity and community resilience. It can tell the big story of our transition while helping people walk through specific steps.
This idea bubbled around for a little while, evolved into a campaign plan with discussion with community partners, and has slowly gained traction. Just a few weeks ago, Grand Aspirations secured a local grant ($15,000) to kick-start this campaign by funding youth leader organizing residents and businesses. The coalition of residential and business groups is building deeper trust and shared goals for the long journey ahead. Even Xcel is voicing some support for the overall idea.
In January, I’ll be helping launch this campaign in concert with a rapidly growing number of community partners. I’m getting contacted by school teachers, youth organizers, and state representatives out of the blue as the idea starts to spread. Its picking up its own momentum, and that’s the telltale signature of something that is going to work.
The impossible will take a little while. But that’s okay, because an energy democracy is worth the time and effort, and as it grows, it will change the world.