January 27, 2023
Fighting for Energy Justice in Minnesota
An innovative approach in Xcel Energy’s rate case tackles persistent, structural injustices in the electricity system.
It’s no surprise that a utility request to hike rates by nearly a half billion dollars should draw some opposition.
What’s notable is how the Minneapolis-based Just Solar Coalition is leading that opposition. The group, which has never before intervened in a rate case, built an innovative approach that should draw the attention of any group working to create a more equitable energy system.
The Just Solar Coalition, represented by ELPC, critiqued Xcel’s rate hike request by examining it through an Energy Justice lens. We believe this exclusive focus on Energy Justice is the first of its kind in a utility rate case anywhere in the US.
This approach not only questions Xcel’s demand to hike rates, a demand that could unduly burden people who can’t afford it. It also wants the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to ensure access to modern energy technologies that could help all of Xcel’s customers become active participants in the energy system, rather than just passive purchasers of power.
As we argued in a reply brief filed Jan. 27, the Commission cannot make decisions “divorced from context or history.”
“The record in this case highlights significant energy insecurity and energy burdens, particularly for those who are low-wealth and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)—a persistent situation rooted in a long history of intergenerational, intersecting, and institutional decisions,” the brief reads in part. “The Commission must consider and balance these consumer interests to ensure equitable, just, and reasonable rates.”
The argument is simple: Minnesota law requires the Commission to set “just and reasonable” rates. Rates cannot be “just and reasonable” if they ignore persistent, structural injustices in the energy system.
What is Energy Justice?
Fundamentally, the goal of Energy Justice is equity – both social and economic – for all those who participate in an energy system. It seeks to remediate the social, economic, and health burdens on the frontline communities historically harmed by that system.
It’s about reimagining how the energy system works to make power more affordable, clean and democratically managed.
As witness Kristel Porter, a longtime activist and organizer in the North Minneapolis community, said in her testimony:
“People in my community and throughout Xcel’s territory are struggling to afford electricity, which is a basic human need in today’s world. It is hard to understand why it’s reasonable or just for the utility to earn a higher return on its investments when already making record and nearly guaranteed profits on the backs of community members. It’s especially hard to stomach this story that they are investing in us and what we’ve asked for on clean energy when we feel like we are being sidelined or in some cases actively blocked and excluded by the utility.”
How can technology advance Energy Justice?
Historically, utilities have functioned as a “one-way delivery service” for electricity, energy economist Dr. Lorenzo Kristov said in his testimony on behalf of the Just Solar Coalition.
Whether it’s a utility-owned coal plant or a utility-owned wind farm or solar garden on one end of the wires, this profitable 20th-century utility monopoly thinking has continued to guide electric utility policy.
Distributed energy resources, or DERs, disrupt this model by enabling customers and communities to own energy assets and participate in the supply of electricity. The term “DERs” covers a vast and continually evolving array of technologies. These include rooftop solar panels, home batteries, energy efficiency measures, electric vehicles, smart buildings, multi-customer microgrids and other systems that allow customers to have more control over how they obtain and use their energy.
DERs are critical to enabling a more just, equitable, and resilient electric system, with opportunities for communities to build local wealth and jobs through DER ownership. This is why the Just Solar Coalition wants to reduce barriers and streamline access to DERs, especially for the communities least able to benefit from new energy technologies.
DERs aren’t an “either/or” issue. We need large amounts of both utility-scale renewables and community-based DERs. But Xcel’s proposed investments behind its current request to hike rates will work to sustain the legacy monopoly “one-way delivery service” model, Dr. Kristov testified.
Why rate cases?
The Just Solar Coalition convened in 2014 as a diverse coalition of community organizers, environmental justice groups, faith leaders, solar developers, workforce developers and others with a vision of 100 percent access to the benefits of clean energy across Minnesota.
They’ve advanced that vision through educating communities and developers about the need for energy equity, lobbying local governments and the state Legislature, building solar projects and running job training programs. But this was the first time they’ve taken the fight to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission in a rate case.
It’s a move any group looking to advance Energy Justice in their own state should consider.
As witness Dr. Gabriel Chan of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy noted in his testimony, “Rate cases are highly technical proceedings with thousands of pages of technical analysis, but they are one of the most direct ways in which the Commission’s decisions impact consumers, particularly energy insecure consumers.”
Rate cases are where the rubber meets the road. Rather than airy promises from politicians or CEOs, this is where Energy Justice advocates can obtain real, enforceable policies that will hold utilities accountable and elevate low-income, BIPOC and other historically burdened communities.
The Minnesota PUC will issue its Final Order in Docket 21-630 by June 30, 2023.