Voices of 100%: Eau Claire Solar Gardens Save the Day — Episode 134 of Local Energy Rules

Date: 14 Jul 2021 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

For this Voices of 100% episode of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell and guests Kate Beaton and Ned Noel examine Eau Claire’s clean energy goal, the citizen participation that has supported its work, and the strategies the City is using to advance renewable energy.

How will a Midwestern city secure its sustainable energy future? Implementing community solar gardens. 

For this episode of our Voices of 100% series of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell speaks with Eau Claire City Council Member Kate Beaton and Senior Planner Ned Noel. Eau Claire, Wisc. has focused its efforts on building successful community gardens to achieve its clean energy goals. They examine Eau Claire’s clean energy goal, the citizen participation that has supported its work, and the strategies the City is using to advance renewable energy.

Listen to the full episode and explore more resources below — including a transcript and summary of the conversation.

Kate Beaton: My first thought was that’s way more money than I pay. And this person is probably, you know, maybe a little bit more financially strapped than most of us. And that’s not a fair utility bill for that person. And then my second thought was that’s a lot of carbon emissions for one small home. I think that the, there there’s a lot of examples in our city where there’s, you know, maybe rental housing or trailer homes or just old housing that can be updated that can both save people money and save them. Not only money one time, but every single month, while also essentially cutting carbon emissions, that’ll help us with a community-wide goal.
John Farrell: How can a mid-sized Midwestern city advance transformative climate and energy plan against state policy headwinds? After nearly a decade in the trenches, the city of Eau Claire, Wisconsin is finally getting support for its 100% renewable energy commitment from the federal and state governments and its leaders are looking forward to accelerating its progress. I was joined by city council member, Kate Beaton, and senior planner Ned Noel in April 2021 to discuss the city’s clean energy goal, the citizen participation that supported its work and the strategies it’s using to advance renewable energy. I’m John Farrell, director of the energy democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is a Voices of 100% episode of Local Energy Rules, a biweekly podcast sharing, powerful stories about local, renewable energy. Ned and Kate, welcome to Local energy rules. Yeah, thanks for having us. Thank you. So, Kate, I just want to start with you. I was telling you that I like to ask this question of guests when they come on, but I’m just curious, like what about clean energy or climate? Like what is motivated you to get into this space and to work on it? Like why would a hundred percent renewable electricity or renewable energy standard be something that you care about for a city that you helped to set the goals for?
Kate Beaton: Great question. So, I’ve been a lifelong climate activist. I’m 29 years old. Um, so I’m a young person. I was first selected when I was 24 and I for my whole life have really felt the urgency of addressing climate change in a personal sense. I thought about things like, you know, should I have children? Do I want to bring children into a climate crisis? Should I buy a home? And so, I think like a lot of people, a lot of young people, especially these are really existential questions. I’ve been asking myself for a long time. And when I was elected to the city council at the age of 24, I started to realize that I had a little slice of power to do something about it. And, and really my interest in, uh, in, uh, local transition to a hundred percent clean energy by 2050 was really ignited, especially when the federal government started to sort of disinvest in, in those goals. Back in 2017, I had felt really frustrated that we were going backwards and realized that I didn’t have the control over maybe our federal government, but there is, there was something that I could do locally. And so teamed up with a fellow council member and, and city staff like Ned. We set a vision and created a plan and a pathway to get it done. And now we’re working on it now.
John Farrell: That’s great. Kate, thanks for sharing about that. I think it’s just wonderful to hear that arc of, you know, your already strong, personal commitment to it and then realizing, Hey, I’m in this position where I can actually do something about it and that I would imagine that into planning, there’s also a chance to do something about it. What got you into planning and then thinking about climate as a piece of that
Ned Noel: Yeah. As city planners, we often think about systems and the interconnectivity of, of actions, whether it’s land use and the implications of transportation. And I think energy transects, all of how we build communities. So as I really, as I got hired at the city of Eau Claire in 2007, the public and our leadership at that time wanted to have more of a concerted effort. And so I was very fortunate to kind of be in that role to start taking on some of those activities and have learned a lot on the job, to be honest, you know, I mean, with the skills of city planning, they really fit well into the issues of climate change. Because again, like I said, it’s very interconnected. So as the city has made more goals and pledges and projects, and I’ve been very fortunate to be at the table of that and helping to make success and also just learn as I go as
John Farrell: Well. You know, speaking of the goals and pledges, that’s always helpful given that there are now over a hundred cities that have made a 100% renewable energy commitment. Could you explain what’s the specific commitment that Eau Claire has made and the timeline, for example, does it include just electricity or is it talking about other energy uses like transportation?
Kate Beaton: Yeah, so the commitment that the city of Eau Claire made is for all energy uses, including transportation and things like our landfill, like the emissions from our landfill and offsetting that. And it also includes our commitment includes both the city energy emissions, as well as all private energy emissions as well. So our goal really is every bit of power generated and used within the city borders. Our aim is to have it be cleaned by the year 2050.
John Farrell: One of the things they love to dive into is, and some of the specifics of these different climate pledges, cause obviously there’s a lot of complexity underneath what each city has to get to, you know, the utility that’s serving Eau Claire has already achieved, achieved about 25% renewable electricity. I’ve got President Biden, you know, speaking of federal leadership, Kate at the beginning, obviously that’s changed a lot there. He’s now calling for carbon free electricity by 2035. Are there any plans to accelerate the city’s goal in light of the same, especially with Xcel energy, the electric utility, making a sort of a broad commitment to lower carbon from electricity. So significantly by 2040, or sorry, by 2030, or is there an interest in sort of focusing more deeply than on like transportation or gas use and buildings?
Ned Noel: You know, it’s difficult because fleet attrition, we’re not going to change out all of our vehicles in our fleet day one, we have to do that in a fiscal responsible way. And so, as those vehicles sedans or SUV’s and more medium to heavy duty vehicles come, do you know, those are the opportunities to either go fully electric or hybrid technology. We’ve invested a lot in the buses for hybrid technology right now, but it’s an interesting dynamic in terms of what to do, especially related to natural gas with cheap cost still. And if we’re going to electrify buildings, how that actually can raise bill costs for local government. I think we’re trying to look at different strategies of using solar to help offset that higher electric load as we try to get off of natural gas. It’s at least from my point of view, as a planner, you know, just trying to kind of all systems go all, all above approach, not being so pigeonholed into one particular area, but leveraging what the utility is, providing them like you mentioned, but then also knowing what we have to do with our local assets.
Kate Beaton: And if I could just add, I think that when we set our goal back in 2018, a full energy transition, I 2050 was really ambitious for a small city with a tight budget. And I think even now that is still a very ambitious goal, that we’re going to be hard pressed to, you know, we’re going to have to work really hard to achieve it even still. But I will say that the resources that are coming down from the federal government in my view, they, it seems that they’re really going to make that a lot easier, at least because I think really the rubber meets the road on, in our local communities. It’s extremely helpful that these resources are coming down from the top.
John Farrell: Speaking of like the rubber hits the road, the city published a detailed, renewable energy action plan in February, 2020. And I just have to laugh because you’re not the only city that published something like that right before the pandemic. And so, one question I have is like, you know, have you been able to start with implementation? Is there anything that’s like easier because people are staying at home or not in contact with each other or not traveling as much with that renewable energy plan?
Ned Noel: I’ll share. Um, yeah. Colvin did derail a community campaign that we were looking to do related to some funding for energy efficiency, extra rebates to top off on some of the other rebates around energy efficiency. So that request was denied just with COVID funds. We’re restarting that now actually our low carbon living campaign. We’re looking forward to that. And so, in the meanwhile, we’ve been looking at some electrification strategies, we bought an SUV hybrid and we are working on a hundred percent renewable energy electric vehicle charging station. That’s 180 Q w. So that’s been a big project this year to try to get some of that infrastructure organized. So that accelerates the transition to Evie here locally, you know, trying to implement our EDB roadmap plan that we’ve got.
John Farrell: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, we discuss the role of equity and the city’s clean energy efforts, the vole of citizen participation and the near-term goals for the city’s climate action. You’re listening to a local energy rules, Voices of 100% podcast, Eau Claire city, council member, Kate Beaton, and Cedar planner, Ned Noelle, thanks for listening to Local Energy Rules. If you’ve made it this far, you’re obviously a fan. We could use your help for just two minutes. As you’ve probably noticed, we don’t have any corporate sponsors or ads for any of our podcasts. The reason is that our mission at ILSR is to reinvigorate democracy by decentralizing economic power. Instead, we rely on you, our listeners, your donations, not only underwrite this podcast, but also help us produce all of the research and resources that we make available on our website and all of the technical assistance we provide to grassroots organizations every year ILSR, small staff helps hundreds of communities, challenge monopoly, power directly and rebuild their local economies. So please take a minute and go to ilsr.org and click on the donate button. And if making a donation, isn’t something you can do, please consider helping us. In other ways, you can help other folks find this podcast by telling them about it, or by giving it a review on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. The more ratings from listeners like you, the more folks can find this podcast and other podcasts, community broadband bits and building local power. Thanks again for listening. Now, back to the program, one of the things. One thing that is mentioned in the renewable energy action plan is to quote, find an evidence-based transparent, equitable, and inclusive process to meet the goals of a hundred percent renewable energy and carbon neutrality by 2050. What are some of the elements of the plan that you feel do the most to address equity?
Kate Beaton: Yeah. So, when we were writing this plan to achieve a hundred percent renewable energy by 2050, the assumption that we all worked off of was that we’d actually need to cut our energy usage by 50% and then the rest of the energy generation to clean energy. And so, energy efficiency is a huge part of, of what we’re going to have to do in order to achieve this goal. And I think one thing that I’m really excited about is thinking about how we can develop housing that is both affordable and highly energy efficient, and maybe even includes clean energy generation while also updating our existing homes that might be older and poorly insulated. I remember I talked with the owner of a trailer home last fall, and he told me that he pays a hundred dollars per month to in the winter to heat at home. It’s so poorly insulated. And so, my, you know, my first thought was that’s way more money than I pay. And this, this person is probably, you know, maybe, maybe a little bit more financially strapped than, than most of us. And, and that’s not a fair utility bill for that person. And then my second thought was that’s a lot of carbon emissions for one small home. And so, I think that the, there there’s a lot of examples in our city where there’s, you know, maybe rental housing or trailer homes or just old housing that can be updated that can both save people money and save them, not only money one time, but every single month while also essentially cutting carbon emissions, that’ll help us with a community wide goal.
John Farrell: I think was really interesting about the way that cities have approached us is it’s clear that, and one of the things that’s exciting about cities getting into this renewable energy planning is that they tend to do a really good job of outreach into the community to identify folks, to help them make the plan to include a lot of different viewpoints. You had a fairly large advisory group. I think it was over 40 people that were involved in developing the plan. How will the community continue to be involved in the implementation or the evaluation of the plans progress?
Ned Noel: Yeah, that’s a great question. We wanted to make the plan, you know, truly representative of the community, especially from industrial users to like Kate had mentioned low-income and also our, you know, other diverse populations in the community. So, we tried our best to, to have a committee that represented us as best as we could know who the people of Eau Claire are. And so going forward with our Champaign, our renewable energy campaign, and that’s really open to anybody, but we broadcast that kind of across the city. And so, anybody can really take part of that, but we continue to network with some of those relationships. One example I’ll throw out is the home builders association, because we know the building stock is really critical to, to meet these goals. And so, we’re forming partnership with builders and with the association related to the pursuit of net zero energy. So, one of the documents that we created as part of a sub plan of our climate action plan, that’s called the net zero energy building guide. And it’s voluntary since our state building codes, don’t allow us to push past that, but it’s really an educational tool in checklist project planning so that our builders who are interested in this topic as their customers are too, but to really help them to understand the costs and the operational savings and the strategies to employ, like Kate said, if it’s just insulation with an existing house or if you’re building a new house. And so we’ve been working with them strategically on master planning, you know, new subdivisions of builder in particular, looking at geothermal district heating all the way down to just writing articles in the parade of homes magazine, to help them to know that there’s net zero energy houses being built already. Here’s a guide, try to strategically work with those that help build our community for our public.
John Farrell: That’s great. I love that example. It actually brings to mind another question I had for you. One of the things that we’ve seen cities doing, and some other places is cities almost always have some interaction with the state legislature around policies that impact cities. Have you done any advocacy work either with other cities or on your own, for policies that would make it easier to help reach your goal? I’m just thinking of, as an example, I know cities in Minnesota are advocating for like a stretch building energy code. So now you just mentioned like, oh, we don’t the state controls the building energy code. Well, some states like Massachusetts, they have what’s called a stretch code where cities can opt into a more aggressive code that cuts carbon emissions cuts costs for, for living in those buildings. Is that part of the strategy that you have is thinking about what rules can be changed at the state level to make things easier?
Kate Beaton: Yeah. I think I, as a, as a city council member, I really approached setting this vision as a city, as our first action of advocacy towards the state legislature, as well as our energy utility, who sat there a hundred percent clean electricity goal after the city of Eau Claire did. And so I have been focused on connecting with other local elected officials across the state to set the same vision so that to show the west, the concept with the Wisconsin legislature and the federal legislature that people in Wisconsin are on board, no matter if they’re Democrats or Republicans, you know, people in local communities across our state are ready for a transition to a hundred percent clean energy. I do also in my day job work for an advocacy, nonprofit, and am directly advocating on the state level to bring resources to local communities from the state. Right now we’re in the middle of a budget deliberations for the next biennial budget. And the governor has included funding for climate action planning for communities, for example. And so we’ve been working really hard to advocate to the legislature to allow that budget item to go through, to continue to give resources. So, so yeah, yeah, absolutely.
John Farrell: Another question. I didn’t really plan this one ahead either, but just thinking about this idea of leverage, one thing we’ve seen in some communities in Minnesota and other places, I actually just talked with some folks from a town, Oregon is these contracts. So in the same way, like a building energy codes, relationships with utilities in Wisconsin and Minnesota and other Midwest states are limited like the state as the energy regulator for these utilities, but cities often have these franchise contracts. They come due every 20 years or so. And they govern the use of the city’s property to deliver services. So, you know, the gas company runs pipes under the street. The utility company runs poles and wires through the alleys. Do you know if out of curiosity, if  Eau Claire has a franchise contract like that with its electric or gas utility, and have you considered how that sort of offers like a negotiating point in terms of your clean energy?
Ned Noel: Yeah. The state law was constant a little bit different. There’s not as much leverage with those, those franchise, uh, control for the local unit of government. So we, we have thought about that. We’ve, we’ve seen that in other states how that’s been used to negotiate, but it’s not that kind of tool here in Wisconsin.
John Farrell: Yeah. I have a similar problem in Minnesota where it doesn’t allow for a lot of clean energy negotiation, but it was useful for bringing the utilities to the table for kind of partnership conversations. Like how do we get here together then? And it is really interesting to just, I remember talking to a city council member in one city saying essentially like, well, we could nickel and dime them to death with permits if they don’t want to have a good conversation about this. But what is interesting is that some cities that have been able to use that as a way to raise more funds so they can change the fee for the franchise that’s on utility bills. It is a little bit like attacks then on energy use, but it can then redirect funds into those things that cities are interested in doing like helping people cut their energy bills like that constituent, you mentioned Kate who’s paying $500 a month. Right. I would do a lot for them if you’re able to help them use less energy. Well, let me just wrap up by asking you, like, what aims do you have kind of in the next 12 months we’re coming out of a pandemic, you know, knock on wood. We’re able to get back to a little bit of business as usual. Are there any ideas that you’re developing that you hope other cities either in Wisconsin or elsewhere would follow?
Kate Beaton: Well, I think, uh, like we mentioned before, there are a ton of federal resources that have already come through and that are projected to come through. And so personally, as a city council member, I’m already starting conversations about how our city is going to be allocating those resources and really, you know, personally hoping to, to allocate some of those resources towards our goal to achieve a hundred percent clean energy by 2050. One thing that I’m really interested in is a way to use those federal resources, to set up a revolving loan fund that would help upgrade people’s homes to make them more energy efficient. And then the savings that they see on their energy bill would be able to be used to pay off that loan. And then so that, you know, that one time investment is an investment that we can use in perpetuity until we upgrade everyone’s home to fully energy efficient. And so, I think that I am, I’m most excited about ways to be able to invest in our infrastructure that that achieve that goal, but also save people money because there’s a lot of folks who are struggling right now. And I think that there’s a lot that we can do to save people money and fight climate change at the same time. I think additionally, especially on home upgrades and, and, and such, there’s lots of opportunities for like really good paying jobs to be created in our community that further invest in our economy. So those are the types of things that I’m most excited about, but certainly I think the city has plans to build charging electric vehicle charging seat stations, transition our vehicle from of already vehicles to electric vehicles, lots of different projects that of course are super exciting as well.
Ned Noel: Yeah. And I’ll just add, too, what we did as part of our climate action plan was do an assessment of over 600,000 square feet of our buildings, municipal buildings, just to kind of understand their energy use and their deferred maintenance, you know, what is needed there. And so we’ve got a nice set of data on all of our buildings so that we can understand how they can be transitioned to clean energy. And like Kay mentioned with American rescue plan can use possibly some of those dollars to invest in those in-house projects as well and tackle our climate goals also. So it’ll be interesting once we have more federal guidance on how to use those funds, but, you know, we are interested in like a micro grid at our water treatment plant that technology for backup generation, we’re interested, we’re actually going to do geothermal for our library upgrade project. And so, we are starting to do tackle our building stock so that we’re truly putting it into motion, these goals and lead by example.
John Farrell: Talk about it, thank you for having us. Thanks so much. Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Local Energy Rules with Eau Claire city council member, Kate Beaton, and senior planner, Ned Noel, discussing the city’s work toward its 100% renewable energy goal. And the show page look for links to the city’s pledge and several of its initiatives on our website. You can also find ILSR community power map detailing the state policies that give cities more flexibility and choice over their energy sources, as well as the community power toolkit, an interactive collection of stories of how cities have pursued their clean energy goals. Our map also shows the 150 other cities with 100% renewable energy pledges. Also check out the Sierra club’s ready for 100 campaign to learn more about the grassroots effort to advance clean energy at the local level. Local energy rules are produced by myself and Maria McCoy with editing provided by audio engineer, Drew Birschbach. Tune back into local energy rules every two weeks to hear more powerful stories of communities taking on concentrated power to transform the energy system until next time, keep your energy local. And thanks for listening.

Wisconsin Local Government Climate Coalition

Eau Claire, a small midwest city located in Wisconsin, has set ambitious goals for its community. By 2050, the City of Eau Claire plans to run on 100 percent clean energy. In the meantime, by 2030, the Eau Claire community hopes to have at least 30 percent of its energy come from renewable sources. The key to the city’s success? Solar gardens.

City Council Member Kate Beaton’s extensive experience in environmental activism and local government have made it possible for Eau Claire to set its sustainability goals. Through Beaton’s collaborations with fellow city council members and city council staff, Eau Claire plans to rely on 100 percent clean energy by 2050.

Beaton’s collaborator, Senior Planner Ned Noel, emphasizes the importance of “thinking about systems and interconnections” when it comes to building renewable energy infrastructure.

Hired in 2007 by the City of Eau Claire, Noel is constantly examining how energy connects with other structural challenges the city faces. The public has called for sustainability and for leadership to invest in a more concerted effort to continue renewable energy programs. Noel responds to this call and plays an important role in helping the city meet its goals. Together, Beaton and Noel have made significant steps toward accomplishing the city’s renewable energy goals by 2050.

As a lifelong climate activist, it’s important to ask a lot of tough questions, existential questions. – Kate Beaton

A Solar Garden Partnership with Xcel Energy

Eau Claire’s commitment to renewable energy is demonstrated in the city’s investment in developing solar energy infrastructure. To recognize Eau Claire’s sustainability efforts, SOLSMART, a group funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, “awarded Eau Claire with its top honor for easing the transition to solar power for homeowners.” SOLSMART assists with reducing “soft costs” associated with installing and maintaining solar energy infrastructure. This honor underscores Eau Claire’s partnership with Xcel Energy.

In 2016, Eau Claire partnered with the Minneapolis-based utility company Xcel Energy to build a 3,000 panel solar garden. This solar garden has given Eau Claire hope and motivation to reach its goal of getting 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. Some of the advantages of building solar gardens are that the costs are “paid for by the investments of individuals and businesses that will recoup their investment by selling the energy back to the electric grid.

Xcel Energy’s Wisconsin community solar program lags behind the company’s programs in Colorado and Minnesota, the leading community solar state. Watch the nation’s top community solar states progress in our National Community Solar Programs Tracker.

To build off of this momentum, Beaton and Noel are excited for the financial support that will come to Eau Claire this year from the federal government and have begun brainstorming on how to best allocate these resources. Some of the infrastructure projects Beaton and Noel hope to invest federal funding in are a revolving loan fund to save on energy upgrades, EV charging stations, a geothermal energy source for the city library, and a microgrid at Eau Claire’s water treatment plant.

Resources from the federal government can really help small cities reach their sustainability goals. – Ned Noel

The Role of Community Advisory Groups

One main resource the City of Eau Claire draws on is the city advisory group. Composed of more than 40 residents, the advisory group is involved deeply in developing and implementing Eau Claire’s sustainability plan. For example, partnerships with the Chippewa Valley Home Builders Association have allowed the city to set net-zero energy building guides.

In addition, the advisory group has organized other small cities in Wisconsin to build a broader advocacy network. Building this advocacy network has been crucial in Beaton’s day-to-day tasks, which include advocating for resources for local communities and strategizing the state budget’s climate action planning money.

Without community action, Eau Claire would not be where it is today. – Kate Beaton

Episode Notes

See these resources for more behind the story:

For concrete examples of how towns and cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.

This is the 30th episode of our special  Voices of 100% series, and episode 134 of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.

Local Energy Rules is Produced by ILSR’s John Farrell and Maria McCoy. Audio engineering by Drew Birschbach.

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update

Featured Photo Credit: ricketyus via Flickr via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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Angel Ornelas

Angel Ornelas was an intern with the Energy Democracy Initiative in 2021. Angel is passionate about environmental justice and has previous experience in community organizing/mentorship in both the Dallas and Los Angeles communities.