In the face of gridlock and inaction at state and federal levels, what tools do cities have to take the lead on local, renewable energy?
In this episode of the Local Energy Rules podcast, John Farrell, director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Energy Democracy Initiative, is joined by Minneapolis City Councilmember Jeremy Schroeder, who has been a vocal leader in city hall on local energy and climate solutions.
The two spoke for a recent episode of the Institute’s Building Local Power podcast, which we have recut here, to highlight the city’s unique partnership with its incumbent utility and what other tools the city is using to address climate change locally.
Interested in what other issues are top of mind for local leaders in Minneapolis? Listen to the Institute’s Building Local Power podcast episode “How Minneapolis is Planning for a More Equitable Future,” for the complete conversation between John Farrell and Councilmember Jeremy Schroeder, which features a broader discussion about the importance of strong, local policy, touching on topics ranging from affordable housing to racial equity.
A transcript and summary of the reproduced episode follow.
|Marie Donahue:||With continued gridlock and inaction at state and federal levels, what local tools do cities have to support renewable energy?|
In this episode of Local Energy Rules, John Farrell, director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Energy Democracy Initiative, is joined by Minneapolis City Councilmember Jeremy Schroeder, who has been a vocal leader in city hall on local energy and climate solutions.
The two spoke for a recent episode of the Institute’s Building Local Power podcast, which we have reproduced here to highlight the city’s unique partnership with its incumbent utility companies and how the city is leading locally to address climate change.
This is Local Energy Rules. A podcast sharing powerful stories about local, renewable energy.
|John Farrell:||I’m John Farrell, ILSR co-director and this episode I’m talking with Jeremy Schroeder, City Council member from Minneapolis, Minnesota, about the ways cities can exercise their local power to confront climate change. We’ll also get a brief cameo from former ILSR staffer and now City Council Policy Aide, Karlee Weinmann. Jeremy, welcome to the program.|
|Jeremy Schroeder:||Hello, thanks for having me.|
|John Farrell:||Absolutely, and Karlee, welcome back.|
|Karlee Weinmann:||Thanks, John.|
|John Farrell:||Karlee says she’s just going to sit and watch this amazing conversation, but you never know. She may feel an urge to jump back in but at any rate, we have lots of stuff to talk about today. What I’m most excited to talk about is in general, the power of cities, so as the federal government has become less relevant, and also an administration that’s failing to lead and many major economic issues from climate change to economic concentration. Cities have been stepping up.|
In the energy sector, the challenges for cities overlap as in more than 30 states including Minnesota, the utility companies that provide electricity or gas service have monopolies that are given to them by the state. Cities don’t control the utilities or where their energy comes from and yet, Minneapolis is one of a hundred cities that have, for example, committed to get 100% of its electricity from renewable resources in a decade. Jeremy, I want to start off by just asking you what I hope is a relatively simple question which is why has Minneapolis made this commitment to 100% renewable electricity?
|Jeremy Schroeder:||Simple answer is we have to. We get the same data the federal government does and when you look at that, we have to act now. If we are serious about stopping and reversing climate change, the time to act was a long time ago. Now, we have to take much more immediate action, much more tougher action. We would hope for the bodies of government that have the resources like the federal government, like the state government to be leading but that hasn’t happened, not just in Minnesota but across the nation.|
You see cities step up with what they have and we’ve had to be pretty creative. We’ve had to really be scrappy about how we do that but it doesn’t supplement for what we would hope to see from the federal government and from our state government.
|John Farrell:||When it comes to achieving renewable energy goals, so the powers of cities vary a lot. We’ve talked before on my energy podcast and on Building Local Power that there are two thousand cities across the country that actually own their own utility company. There’s a few hundred more that are part of, what are called, community choice programs which allows the city to choose their energy supplier. What power does Minneapolis have in order to achieve this 100% renewable electricity goal that is urgent?|
|Jeremy Schroeder:||That’s a great question. I mean, it certainly would be easier if we’d be able to have the choice that a lot of other cities have, but we do have an opportunity that other cities don’t. We have some leverage with our utility companies called the Clean Energy Partnership. I know you’ve talked about that before, but it’s something that we, as a city, ventured in with our utilities to really say, “These are clean energy goals. We want to meet those. We hope that could be a beneficial partnership for not just all the residents of Minneapolis but for utility companies that claim that they want to be at the same place that they want a clean renewable future too and we’re hoping that we can be kind of the test case that can make that possible.”|
|John Farrell:||I was wondering if you could give an example of a way in which this Clean Energy Partnership is trying to leverage both the power of the utility companies over providing the energy and the power of the city. Is there some policy that’s come about as part of this partnership? Are there interesting ways that they have been working together?|
|Jeremy Schroeder:||I think the jury’s still out on whether this is the best and most effective way to do that. I sit on the Clean Energy Partnership with two other city council members and we’ve been there a year, so when you ask about specific policy outcomes like that, I would be very skeptical about. I mean, we have plans. We have some policies that we’re hopeful of.|
An example of one would be inclusive financing. It’s a policy that if we can word that everyone including the utilities is committed to working towards but again, that’s also in its infancy. If we’re able to have inclusive financing commonly called kind of a “pay as you save” model … I’m in the room with two experts, so if I pause a little, I’ve been waiting for you two to jump in but something like that is going to be able to let folks that don’t have access to energy efficiency, we call them “upgrades” but I mean, as time goes on, these are needed things for their household. They’re going to have access and if the utilities can help us leverage that as well as look out for their consumers, I think the Clean Energy Partnership would be a benefit.
|John Farrell:||It was even before you took office just last year, but the Clean Energy Partnership really began about five years ago and I was intimately involved in it for people who want to hear more, you can go to our Local Energy Rules podcast. We’ve done a couple of things. I believe Karlee was the interviewer in one of those interviewing me about the work that took part in leading up to the partnership and it was kind of an alternative to the city actually going through on our utility takeover.|
Of these two thousand cities that have municipally utilities, most of them were formed 100 years ago and were the first utility to occupy that space but a few of them are the result of cities actually taking over using their power of eminent domain to basically buy out the utility company and you already kind of alluded to this, there’s some promise out there for this thing to develop. It’s already been going on for five years and I’m curious if you or maybe if other city council members that have been around a little longer following this are feeling like you’re getting near the break up point or if you feel like you still want to keep following through and seeing what can come of it.
|Jeremy Schroeder:||I think to start on answering that question, it’s really about thinking about the residents of Minneapolis and what’s going to be better for them. We have an outcome we want to get to and that can be interchangeable with different players and different ways of getting there. I think right now we are really trying to weigh how do we get there and the way that’s going to be most cost effective, most inclusive and quickest, how will we have that.|
I think the promise of the Clean Energy Partnership is still there, but as you pointed out, it didn’t start with me. It started many years ago and so the clock is ticking. We are watching the utilities pretty closely and pushing them because I think when the Clean Energy Partnership was started, it had the backing of all Minneapolis residents and I think that’s the power that the city brings forward to talk in that partnership. Another part of it is the residents are holding us accountable. We need to make this city a sustainable city. We need to see outcomes and that’s not just on the city and its enterprise but on the utilities as well.
|John Farrell:||I’m really curious. It’s funny what you say about this notion of timing, and I know I should have pressed the question but for some context for folks too, you’ve got Boulder, Colorado, which has the same electric utility, Xcel Energy although a different division from back in the days when utilities were largely confined to operating within particular states as opposed to these multi-state conglomerates, and they’ve been pretty much actively pursuing municipalization at takeover since about 2011. It’s something that I’ve covered in some of our writing and we’ve talked with folks from Boulder for some of our podcasts and they’re still not there yet.|
In fact, I think they’re very close to issuing the final order for the takeover of the utility but all this time has been essentially just building up to, “Are we actually going to take over?” Meanwhile, the utility and the city haven’t really been able to work together very effectively. I think I share your optimism to some degree about this partnership being able to be a quicker way as you say but there is a lot of urgency, obviously, in terms of what we’re doing.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t address another major policy change that the city has recently adopted, so it’s not just an energy of course that cities are doing interesting things but across a whole range of stuff, so this is around the Minneapolis 2040 plan, or the new city comprehensive plan.
So, we’re going to take a short break and when we come back, we’re going to dive into it a little bit more about the comprehensive plan in Minneapolis, but then also talk a little bit more about how the city has been able to stand up to some of the incumbent power holders in the different sectors that it’s dealing with, especially back to this question of energy.
|Marie Donahue:||Thank you for listening to this episode of Local Energy Rules with guest Jeremy Schroeder, City Councilmember, from Minneapolis, Minnesota.|
A longer version of this conversation was released last month as part of the Institute’s Building Local Power podcast — if you are interested in broader topics on local planning, affordable housing, and more, we encourage you to tune into that full episode.
Now, stay-tuned for more local energy highlights from this episode, after a short message from our Energy Democracy Initiative director John Farrell.
|John Farrell:||Hey, thanks for listening to Local Energy Rules. If you’ve made it this far, you’re obviously a fan and 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 the technical assistance we provide to grassroots organizations.|
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Thanks again for listening. Now, back to the program.
|John Farrell:||So, I’m hoping you can start by just explaining for people like me who are not experts in things outside of the energy sector, what is a comprehensive plan? Then I have a few other things that we’d like to know about. What makes Minneapolis … Why is Minneapolis all of the sudden getting in the news for this comprehensive plan?|
|Jeremy Schroeder:||Sure. Well, let me start with a little background though. A comprehensive plan, Minneapolis is required to submit our basically land use … Kind of started as a land use plan to the Met Council, so all of the cities in the Met Council region must do a plan, so as Minneapolis was doing a plan, Saint Paul was doing a plan, Richfield was doing a plan and it happens every 10 years.|
We’ve been doing it for quite some time now. This isn’t the first comprehensive plan and that kind of leads into some of the other questions but to go a little bit further of what it does is it really talks about kind of the high level of what kind of growth … Looking at our population projections, how much growth are we having? Where are you going to put new housing? Where are you going to allow for transportation? Where are you going to allow … Make sure if affordable, the housing is an issue for you, where would you put that, where would you put workforce housing?
All those questions are there.
The 2040 plan, is more of a framework. I think when you’re fighting against racial inequity as well as climate change, and affordable housing, it’s about intention. The density and moving more people is not necessarily on its face going to fix those problems, but what will change is being able to have something like an inclusionary zoning policy.
Something that I’ve been working on with the council president to make sure that when developers are developing, they are held accountable to having some affordable housing.
My goal is something that would be throughout the city and make sure that every neighborhood is approached equitably so that when people are looking at a home, regardless of their background, they will have some options available.
I mean, we haven’t really talked really about the energy efficiency and resiliency and what the plan would do for that, but it’s the mixed communities are going to be the most healthy, those that have diversity of folks on income and background that are going to be able to be resilient and be able to thrive as their own small community.
|John Farrell:||So, I wanted to talk a little bit, I mean, the comprehensive plan is such an interesting thing, but I want to talk a little bit about some of the news that I was reading about it. Because as a resident of Minneapolis, like you said, it was in the local news all over the place. The discussions were going on.|
They were lawn signs going up saying either people are saying my house is going to be bulldozed. There are other signs saying, we’re all happy to have more neighbors, but then I started, after the policy passed, reading stories in national publications.
Seeing them linked to on Twitter or other social media, people were like, Minneapolis is really done something about affordable housing in a way that other communities haven’t. You’ve addressed this notion, right?
So, I guess what I’m curious about is how much have we actually accomplished.
|Jeremy Schroeder:||I talked a little bit about we have the comprehensive plan, but the next part is the zoning change. That’s going to be the part that you’ll be able to see what else is possible on the property.|
The comprehensive plan is really the beginning. As I talk to my constituents and others concerned about it, just saying, you’re right to push if you have concerns, because this really sets everything else up. The comprehensive plan has these high level goals and the zoning really flows from that.
So while we still have to get into the specifics, the specifics are written from the comprehensive plan.
|Jeremy Schroeder:||So, it really is a balance of how do we be a good place for people to invest in and really have people that are building buildings for 100 years. How do we have that and at the same time, make sure that we have our core goals of being a city for everybody and a city that’s going to be thinking about the next generation and our impact on the Earth?|
|John Farrell:||I’m also curious too, in terms of climate change, in terms of some of the other goals, that you talk about accessibility a lot. I’m assuming that transportation is part of that. The kinds of properties that we’re talking about where we’re getting more people on one space. We are getting rid of the parking requirements that would normally go with the property.|
We seem to be moving toward a way that a lot of people are living now. Like, they’re graduating from colleges. They’re moving to an urban area. They’re maybe not owning a car.
How does this fit in with this whole notion of mobility, which is something that a lot of cities are focusing on and how is Minneapolis able to make sure that if people don’t have access to a parking spot, they’re still going to be able to get their way to a job, for example.
|Jeremy Schroeder:||Well, some of that comes in out in the planning development. As a development is planned, accessibility to transportation, to multi-modal transportation is considered. It is something that if you’re on a transit corridor, less parking’s going to be required.|
But, as you talk about the comprehensive plan and as we think about future in the city, it’s taking on a much different thing. Like transportation’s changing so rapidly right now. What we are seeing is that the things that millennials and like new college graduates are asking for are the same things that many seniors are asking for, and it’s something that makes a lot of people want in their community.
|John Farrell:||I wanted to wrap up with taking this back to the big picture. Obviously, in the energy fields where I’m most familiar, but also I think other sectors of the economy, there’s some pretty powerful incumbent players.|
You alluded in our casual conversation over break that you’ve got a lot of new people on city council and you’re starting to get familiar with the fact that we maybe have a little more power to direct where the city’s going to be for its future than we thought of before.
How has Minneapolis been able to stand up to or even co-op some of these big players and what advice do you have for other cities in terms of them building their own sense of power and agency over some of these really knotty questions, whether it’s mobility or affordable housing or energy?
|Jeremy Schroeder:||I think it’d be two things. Like first, my advice would just be to really concentrate on transformative change. The second one is really bring all the intersections of all these problems together. One thing that I think I’m struck by is just the transformative power, like the need for really transforming these systems.|
An example we talked about over the break was we’ve seen with my new colleagues, just an increase of awareness of the need for affordable housing and a push from city council members when developments coming up for having that.
Even seeing some developers come and say, “Well, we’ll do this much, a certain percentage,” and a council member going, “Well, you could do better than that,” and the developers come back with it.
I celebrate that as a win, but also want to take a pause and make sure that other cities learn that’s more than that. Like, we still haven’t fixed the system. We still don’t require affordable housing. Like, I mean, that’s something that an inclusionary zoning policy, it’s not going to matter who’s in those seats. The city itself will be just, and think about, how everyone can live here.
That level of change we haven’t hit yet and so that’s where something I work on, and my colleagues work on, but just know that work isn’t done.
The other thing for cities is really to bring together all these problems. As we think desperately about how we are going to combat a problem as big as climate change, while looking at the affordability crisis that we have in Minneapolis as well as other cities, as well as transportation and its impact on all of these. How do we bring that altogether?
That’s something where there’s so much going on in the energy sector, not just how energy is generated, but also how buildings are built. How do we live? How is transportation structured? All these things have ways that can be more sustainable and more resilient to climate change.
In the end, when it comes down to it, cheaper. We need to think long term and not just the point where we are now, looking towards what the change will look like, but look toward what the outcome will look like and look at, after a capital investment, are we going to be operating at a much cheaper rate?
I mean, we’ve seen some of that just with the change to LEDs light bulbs, to put it on a really small scale, but when you think about all the things from owning two cars to how our food systems operate, all these things, while they seem very daunting, that amount of change that would happen.
When you look five to ten years down the road, is that the world we want to be living in? Is that the way we want to explain the world to our kids? It’s a struggle and it’s tough, but that’s really where we have to go.
|John Farrell:||I can pick on the energy sector in particular, but I’m just curious, with affordable housing, and I’m sure that developers are pretty powerful folks. I mean, some of these are really big companies that do a lot of property development. How do you, as a city council member, think about how to deal with that?|
You’re in some ways taking on their interest, right? They have a particular way that they’re used to doing developments. Maybe they never cared about affordable housing. Maybe they like to do a lot of parking.
Do you feel like there’s any backlash? Do you feel like there’s any threat to a city in trying to tackle some of these thorny issues in a systemic way given that some of these are pretty powerful entrenched interests.
|Jeremy Schroeder:||Absolutely. I mean, I think that’s what held up change. I think what’s giving me hope is it’s not just the size of the problem and how long it’s been there, like how entrenched the interests are, but they’re seeing the same world we all are. We finally have some cold weather here in January, but that wasn’t the case the last couple of weeks. They know something’s wrong and things have to change.|
So when you’re dealing with a developer or others, they hear the same stories we do. I’ll also say that it’s not just me. It is every single person I represent. They have had their thoughts about what it is to succeed in Minneapolis shaken. It used to be you get your kids to the U [University of Minnesota]. They get a good job.
You’ve done your job as a parent, but now, they’ve got that good job and they still can’t find housing. They still have to think about a really long commute in a place that’s far away from family. It’s something that’s going against our values and when people have that level of faith shaken, they’re on your side too. That’s really transcending everything from housing developers to utility companies.
It’s something that every elected official right now is being held to a different level of accountability and I think we’re better for it.
|John Farrell:||Well, Jeremy, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me about what work with the City of Minneapolis has been up to. I obviously will be following it as a constituent in terms of the work that’s going on, but it’s exciting to be able to share what’s going on in Minneapolis with folks across the country, who are really interested in how to wrestle with these knotty issues, so thank you for your leadership.|
|Jeremy Schroeder:||Of course. Any time, and thanks again, for having us on the show.|
|Marie Donahue:||Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Local Energy Rules, where our host John Farrell was speaking with Minneapolis City Councilmember Jeremy Schroeder about the city’s approach to local renewable energy and climate action in the context of its recent 2040 Comprehensive Plan.|
For more information on what cities can do to support local clean energy, we encourage you to dig into ILSR’s interactive Community Power Toolkit and Community Power Map, both of which are available at ILSR dot org.
While you’re on our website, you can also find more than 50 past episodes of the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can sign up for one of our newsletters and connect with us on social media.
Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.
Clean Energy Partnership
In 2014, the City of Minneapolis entered into a unique partnership with its incumbent utility companies Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy. The Clean Energy Partnership was initially intended to help the city meet its climate action goals, not including an equitable shift to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030. This group, on which Schroeder serves as one of two city councilmembers along with other representatives from the utilities and city, describes itself as a “collaborative leadership framework” that has helped the city advance clean energy initiatives and serves as an alternative to the city taking over the utilities through a municipalization effort.
“It’s something that we, as a city, ventured in with our utilities to really say, ‘These are clean energy goals. We want to meet those. We hope that could be a beneficial partnership for not just all the residents of Minneapolis but for utility companies that claim that they want to be at the same place that they want a clean renewable future too and we’re hoping that we can be kind of the test case that can make that possible,’” explains Schroeder.
Since the partnership formed, Minneapolis has joined now over 100 cities that have committed to sourcing their power from 100 percent renewable resources by 2030.
“It’s… a beneficial partnership for not just all the residents of Minneapolis,” explains Schroeder, in discussing the Minneapolis Clean Energy Partnership, “But for utility companies that claim that they… want a clean renewable future too.”
Learn more about the unique Minneapolis Clean Energy Partnership by listening to our earlier Local Energy Rules episode “At the Two-Year Mark, a Few Lessons from the Minneapolis Clean Energy Partnership” or by reading more about it here.
In addition, Schroeder explains that while the partnership is still relatively new, it has started to allow the city to leverage other energy policies, such as inclusive financing, which can help make sure that folks who do not have access to energy efficiency upgrades are able to finance them.
“We have plans. We have some policies that we’re hopeful of,” Schroeder explains. “If we’re able to have inclusive financing commonly called kind of a “pay as you save” model […] that is going to be able to let folks that don’t have access to energy efficiency. They’re going to have access, and if the utilities can help us leverage that as well as look out for their consumers, I think the Clean Energy Partnership would be a benefit.”
Planning Comprehensively for the Future
Later in the episode, the conversation turns to the Minneapolis 2040 plan, a comprehensive zoning plan developed by the city every 10 years. The latest rendition of the plan outlines a controversial change that will allow up to 3 units of housing on a single residential property, which could greatly increase density. Schroeder and Farrell discuss connections to the city’s legacy of redlining that divided communities and how changes to these patterns will help improve resiliency, energy efficiency, and transportation.
As Minneapolis is planning for a 10 percent population increase in the coming decade, Schroeder explains the importance of intentionally centering equity in policy discussions, including across generations within the context of a changing climate.
“It really is a balance of how do we be a good place for people to invest in and really have people that are building buildings for 100 years. How do we have that and at the same time, make sure that we have our core goals of being a city for everybody and a city that’s going to be thinking about the next generation and our impact on the Earth?” asks Councilmember Schroeder.
Changing Systems in the Face of Entrenched Interests
Farrell and Schroeder wrap up their conversation by discussing recommendations and strategies for thinking systemically, in the face of powerful interests that benefit from the status quo.
Although, as Schroeder points out, these interests — from real estate developers to utility companies — are “seeing the same world we all are… They know something’s wrong and things have to change.”
“My advice would just be to really concentrate on transformative change… Bring all the intersections of all these problems together. One thing that I think I’m struck by is just the transformative power, the need for really transforming these systems,” explains Schroeder.
“Bring all the intersections of all these problems together… I’m really struck by… the need for really transforming these systems,” advises Schroeder.
Ultimately, Schroeder is optimistic about the central role that cities need to play in addressing some of the most urgent local and global problems they face.
“As we think desperately about how we are going to combat a problem as big as climate change, while looking at the affordability crisis that we have in Minneapolis as well as other cities, as well as transportation and its impact on all of these. How do we bring that altogether? … All these things have ways that can be more sustainable and more resilient to climate change,” he says.
For concrete examples of strategies that communities like Minneapolis can take to increase local clean energy, reduce energy use, and fight climate change, 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 70th edition of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell that shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.
This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell or Marie Donahue on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update. Undergraduate intern Eli Crain assisted with editing the audio for this episode.
Featured Photo Credit: City of Minneapolis