Energy Policy the 'Minnesota Way'- Part 2: Modern Era
In part two of our Energy Policy the 'Minnesota Way' blog series we start with Mike's answer on what motivated CEE to take a more cooperative and progressive energy policy framework. We will then move on to look at how the modern day 'Minnesota Way' came about.
Continued from Part 1 Megan: What motivated CEE to take this approach? Was there a pivotal point at which consensus-building opportunities started to grow?
I’ve heard Bill Grant say that the critical component of those early energy efficiency discussions was the research and fact-based work that CEE provided to policymakers. By focusing on the data and facts, CEE developed the best way to talk about energy efficiency to regulators, legislators and other interested parties – emphasizing that energy efficiency was the lowest cost alternative compared to other resources available to the utility, reducing everyone’s costs and giving customers a tool to lower their own energy bills. In addition, from the utilities’ perspective, since Bill and Sheldon were listening carefully to what utilities were telling them, CEE understood how increasing efficiency affected the utilities. Their analysis regarding energy efficiency helped lay the groundwork for providing utilities with financial incentives for energy savings, reducing or eliminating the utilities’ financial impact of increasing their reliance on efficiency as a resource. That’s been critical to the success of energy policies in Minnesota.
Megan: When did CEE start defining itself as an organization that works on public policy?
At the time, CEE didn’t realize the potential for energy-efficiency policies, nor did others. We drifted into it. We started attending the discussions and started to form and share our opinions, based on the analyses that we were doing. Martha and I started to work on policy issues almost accidentally. There were lots of others doing good work on policy issues. Our fact-based, middle ground approach was made more acceptable to policymakers by these organizations that were pushing hard for aggressive policies.
Policymakers started to see CEE as someone who could help find a path forward, between “not doing enough” and “asking for way too much.” When the utilities were not showing willingness to collaborate, CEE and our allies would show them and their regulators the error of their ways. When the utilities did good work, CEE would publicly praise them, thus encouraging them to do more and do better. That comes from focusing on the data and realizing energy policy is about the long game.
From an outsider’s perspective – I only joined CEE a little over year ago – I think it is important to point out that this approach also opened Bill and Sheldon up to some criticism by environmental advocates who wanted to push harder. Clean energy warriors like George Crocker at the North American Water Office and wonderful advocates like Beth Soholt from Wind on the Wires and Michael Noble at Fresh Energy certainly created the opportunity for progress and compromise, and Bill and Sheldon worked to take full advantage of those opportunities. That became our role in the “environmental advocacy ecosystem” and is one we continue to fill today.
To be clear, this approach is not without conflict. In fact, it is enabled by the strong and excellent advocacy conducted by our ally organizations – Wind on the Wires, Sierra Club, Fresh Energy, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and others.
As I think the New York Times article confirms, this dynamic led to robust nation-leading outcomes that were broadly supported, and that continue to be supported regardless of political swings. Legislative policies that were initially opposed by parties when first introduced were later defended by those parties after they were enacted, as a direct result of the cooperative policymaking these guys established. They worked to ensure that energy policy in Minnesota was not “a zero-sum game” where for one side to win, the other side had to lose.
It’s also important to note that when CEE hired Redmond Associates in the 1990’s, it was the first organization in the environmental community to hire a professional lobbyist. This increased CEE’s ability to deliver facts about energy policies to legislators and, inevitably, to be taken more seriously by all parties and have a greater impact.
Megan: We often need historical perspective to identify a movement or method. When did you start to recognize that there was a 'Minnesota Way'?
It wasn’t until 2013 that I started to call our approach the “Minnesota Way,” but Bill and I recognized the pattern long ago. When Bill went to the Izaak Walton League from the Department of Public Service, we started to work together to engage utilities and other interests, but the “Minnesota Way” didn’t become a legislative strategy until after the legislative settlement authorizing nuclear waste storage at NSP’s Prairie Island Nuclear Generation Facility (historical note: see page 16 of this report) in 1994. While the huge Prairie Island fight in 1994 was the complete opposite of the approach we’re talking about today, the resolution of that fight jump-started the wind industry in Minnesota and in the Midwest generally.
CEE stayed out of that particular debate, but the renewable energy mandates that resulted from the Prairie Island legislation really turned energy policy around in Minnesota and the advocates who engaged in that fight should take immense credit for enabling the progress that followed. One important outcome was that, after a few years of resisting the mandates, NSP started to embrace the renewables that resulted from those mandates and set the stage for Xcel Energy to become a national clean energy leader on both renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Absolutely. After the Prairie Island session, energy policy – environmental impacts, renewable energy, energy efficiency – had a much higher political profile in Minnesota. A couple of years after that session, ideas about deregulating the electric industry in Minnesota began to surface as the cry for “retail competition” for electric supply increased nationally. Sheldon and Bill were both strongly opposed to deregulation – correctly as it turns out – and started to engage cooperative and municipal utilities to build coalitions to oppose deregulating Minnesota’s electric industry. To me, that began the modern era of the “Minnesota Way” of energy policymaking – reaching out to parties who generally have opposing views and learning to work together.
Check back next week for the final installment of Energy Policy the 'Minnesota Way' to learn more about the impact this approach has had on Minnesota energy policy and programs and how we can continue to utilize the 'Minnesota Way' in the future.