On November 27th, 2018 Community Power manifested an innovative event idea by partnering with the Theater of Public Policy for an Energy Comedy Night. We had been planning to hold a public event about generating community input into Xcel Energy’s 15-year integrated resource plan (IRP) their statement of how they plan to meet customer energy needs over the next 15 years.
We figured adding in a cast of improv comedians from the Theater of Public Policy would add some entertainment value to an event about utility planning. The idea proved to be an overall success as we got robust attendance.
The suspense about how to draw comedy out of the IRP process and big institutional questions regarding energy was part of the event’s appeal.
XCEL STAKEHOLDER SESSIONS ORIGINALLY MOTIVATED THE EVENT
Xcel Energy will release their IRP draft on July 1st of 2019. A final version of the IPR will have to get approved by the MN Public Utilities Commission. Power plants representing 65% of Xcel’s generation in Minnesota are scheduled to retire in the 15 years. The mix of energy resources Xcel decides to replaces this generation capacity with has crucial implications for Minnesota meeting its Climate and Clean Energy goals. That makes Xcel’s next IRP be considered the “SuperBowl of IRPs”.
These high stakes prompted Xcel Energy to hold a series of “stakeholder engagement sessions” leading up to its IRP proposal. From my experience, these sessions have been a lot more presenting to attendees rather than engaging them. These sessions consist of a lot of technical terminology presented in a fast and dense manner and are held during normal workday hours.
The Stakeholder sessions are indeed a way to collect into one room the energy policy professionals likely to have evaluating utility plans as their day job. But overall, the sessions are overall not designed to be accessible for the majority of Xcel customers.
There technically are ways anyone can submit ideas to Xcel on their IRP, including surveys which Xcel sent out. But the nature of the Stakeholder Sessions still prompt a couple of questions:
1: Is the company actually crafting an IRP based on stakeholder input or are they seeking feedback to get clues on how to reduce opposition to a what they have already decided to do?
2: Is Xcel’s goal with the Stakeholder sessions to convince those who will be closely scrutinizing their IPR docket that they have thought things through enough to reach the right conclusions?
Concerns over accessibility and the genuineness of the Stakeholder sessions motivated the Northstar Sierra Club to launch its “Reclaim Your Power” event series.
to invite a greater array of people to share their input into Xcel’s IRP as well as pitching a plan for Xcel to get to 100% renewable energy.
Community Power was similarly motivated to launch an event that models what real engagement looks like- 1: Collecting feedback at a time and place accessible to more community members 2: Motivating people to participate in the public process and 3: Answering in real time the questions on how we break down the barriers to public involvement.
HOW THE THEATER OF PUBLIC POLICY OPERATES
Each Theater of Public Policy Event covers a different political topic. For each event they interview a different set of panelists who are influential or well-known figures in the respective topic area. Next, the Theater’s cast of actors performs improvisational comedy by weaving together metaphors from words the panelists expressed during the multi-person interview. In addition, members of the audience attending the event can ask questions of the panelists, which provides a good opportunity for public engagement. The actors also perform a second improv comedy sketch based on the panelists’ answers to audience Q &A.
The panelists we had for this event were Ellen Anderson of the UMN Energy Transition Lab, Annie Levinson Faulk of Citizens Utility Board, and City Councilmember Jeremy Schroeder of the Minneapolis Clean Energy Partnership.
FOCUSING ATTENTION ON BIG INSTITUTIONAL QUESTIONS REGARDING ENERGY
As Community Power, we felt it was important to direct attention to some institutional level questions about energy, that goes beyond the scope of individual lifestyle & behavior changes with energy use.
One of those points is how utilities choosing to sinking capital into coal and nuclear plants (that can’t change their output quickly) actually undermines the potential for solar and wind power. The other major point is the manner in which us utility customers, rather than utility shareholders) are considered on the hook to pay the costs resulting from utility management making a bad decision.
Pretty soon there will be an inflection point where all this old energy utility infrastructure no longer pays off. But incumbent utility management usually does not imagine or plan for any system more evolved beyond that point. We need to be prepared to call the question and the IRP process is a starting point from which to do so.
An example of how this big question plays out in Xcel’s IRP is whether they will choose to invest in new natural gas powers plant infrastructure. Their eventual decision will largely depend upon whether it is a huge risk to Xcel to put their electric customers on the hook for it.
WHAT IS AN INTEGRATED RESOURCE PLAN (IRP) AND HOW DID IT ORIGINATE?
In Minnesota, an IRP is a utility’s 15-year business plan for how they will meet their customers needs, which they have to file every 3 years.
Not every state has a process requiring IRPs from utilities like Minnesota’s does. The history of the IPR traces back the 1970’s when there was a big fight about utilities in California.
A standard way utility companies have and still make profits is to invest in building a lot of generation and transmission infrastructure. State laws and regulations have granted utilities the promise of guaranteed profits on these investments (with revenue coming from their customer energy bill dollars). From the early to mid-20th century this compact was a way to incentivize energy utilities to make electricity universally available to everyone.
But in the 1970’s, energy efficiency first started being prioritized. Regulators in California then asked pointed questions to utility management about whether the infrastructure they seek to build is actually needed for the future. Out of that question emerged the IRP Process. It prompted utilities to show and explain why they think their customer energy demand will grow in the future and make a case on what the most cost-effective options are for meeting that expected energy demand.
This IRP process does not decide on specific power plants but gives a more general layout over what investments utilities will make.