Carol Johnson: Three decades in, retiring board chair shares memories and insights
Longtime CEE board chair Carol Johnson recently retired from the board after nearly 30 years of service. We sat down to talk with her about her time with CEE, her proudest accomplishments, and what she sees for CEE’s future.
Tell me a little bit about your history with CEE? When and how did you first get involved and in what capacity?
I have been aware of CEE from its inception as the Minneapolis Energy Office in 1979, but my involvement with the organization increased after I was elected to the Minneapolis City Council in 1986.
I had decided to focus on environmental issues while on the council, and in 1989 I attended a conference in
Irvine, California, that was geared toward municipal elected officials — mostly mayors and city council members — who were interested in environmental issues. While there, I heard expert testimony on the most prevalent issues impacting the environment, and climate change was a big one. I wanted to take what I learned and put it into action back home.
A member of the St. Paul City Council was also interested in taking action, so the two of us spearheaded an effort between the two cities called the Minneapolis–St. Paul Urban CO2 Project Plan. The idea behind the plan was to reduce the City’s greenhouse gas emissions by setting targets that could be achieved cost effectively. I approached Sheldon (CEE’s founder and former president) about getting involved and he agreed to staff the effort, which ultimately took about two years to finalize.
Sheldon looped in the local utilities, NSP and Minnegasco (now Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy, respectively), to collaborate on the project. He and CEE really carried the ball on the effort, urging and assisting the City to set reduction targets and figure out how to best implement the plan. It was very challenging and took a lot of work to gain enough support from all the various stakeholders and the entire Minneapolis City Council, but it finally passed by a wide margin during my last council meeting in December 1993.
What are you most proud of in your work with CEE and shaping our state’s energy future?
I served on CEE’s board from the time the organization spun off into a nonprofit in 1989 until just this year. It has been such a good ride, and I’ve been so proud of the organization as well as the leadership and comradery of the staff. It’s really conducive to collaboration and doing what needs to be done.
For me personally, I am really proud of pushing for, and seeing come to light, the first wind-generated power purchased by the utilities in 1993. I really pushed for NSP to do this, and I even made a statement before the Public Utilities Commission. It was nerve-racking, but very satisfying, when the commission ultimately decided to require NSP to include a small amount of wind power in their power supply.
Since then, while we have had a lot of environmental wins, we have still had to fight hard to get to where we are today.
With the new administration in Washington, things can feel a little bleak. However, I am heartened by what I heard from President Obama’s outgoing EPA director, Gina McCarthy. When asked if she thought all of our progress on clean energy would come to halt, McCarthy said, “The clean energy train has left the station, folks.” That’s what I’m building my hope on for the coming years — that our businesses now recognize that their bottom lines can benefit from strong environmental and alternative energy solutions.
Here in Minnesota, I think one of CEE’s most important contributions is the thoughtful, researched information the organization provides to policymakers and utilities. CEE’s good work has helped move our utilities to become national leaders in clean energy, and I am very proud of what Minnesota’s utilities have accomplished.
What’s next for CEE?
CEE has so many opportunities and the work is more important than ever. We need to work very diligently and very quickly if we are to achieve the clean energy goals that we need to achieve. I think CEE is well positioned to lead the way.
And what's next for you?
I’m still working with Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota and I’m also on the board of the Minnesota Peace Project. There is lots of work to do on so many issues. To solve our environmental problems and achieve our vision for the future, we’ll all need to do our part.