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Reviewing Two Years of a Novel City-Utility Partnership

| Written by John Farrell | No Comments | Updated on Sep 16, 2016 The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at https://ilsr.org/reviewing-two-years-of-a-novel-city-utility-partnership/
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The first-in-the-nation Clean Energy Partnership has reached the end of its first two-year work plan and has gathered a lot of baseline data. But is it successful?

As expected, it’s hard to tell.  The first work plan wasn’t adopted until well into the first year of the Partnership (2015), and a lot of existing utility and city initiatives around energy complicated evaluation. Furthermore, the work plan items were grouped by target population, rather than the goals and targets of the Partnership.

For background on the formation of the Partnership, listen to this interview with ILSR’s Director of Energy Democracy John Farrell.

Despite the challenge, we’ll give an overview of the progress of the Partnership, as well as a peek into the future based on the first 2017-18 work plan discussion held by the community advisory committee in late August.

Success so Far?

Reading the annual report, it’s hard to tell.  While the Partnership has done well in identifying key metrics to track, from energy efficiency visits through existing audit programs to solar installs within the city, few are measured against the ambitious targets of the Partnership, including:

  • 80% reduction in GHG by 2050
  • A carbon-free electricity supply by 2040
  • 10% local electricity generation by 2025
  • Reach 75% of single- and multi-family households with whole-house energy efficiency retrofit services by 2025
  • Reduce energy use by 17% by 2025
  • Race, ethnicity, income, and age are no longer indicators for who bears pollution impacts or receives economic or environmental benefits

The following graphic shows the discrepancies.

contrasting-the-partnership-goals-with-the-2014-15-work-plan

The work plan items certainly promote reducing energy consumption, increasing renewable energy, and reducing emissions. But the key omission seems to be measurable targets and goals. In other words, we can’t really say if we succeeded!

There’s also a problem of gauging whether  the reported changes are due to the work of the Partnership or whether they would have happened anyway. Let’s check the key outcome, before we dive into the details.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Up

Although emissions are down 7.5% from the baseline 2006 levels, they’ve actually risen 10% from a low point in 2012 (an abnormally warm year) because of increased natural gas use. While we may be able to explain this problem, we’re also making minimal progress.  In eight years since the baseline, weather-normalized natural gas use has fallen by just 9%.

minneapolis-ghg-emissions-2015

In the big picture the city clearly needs help — help the Partnership is intended to provide. How are the Partnership’s work plan items faring, even if we can’t measure their success quantitatively?

A Review of the First Partnership Work Plan

A lot of time was spent developing the means to measure progress and setting baselines, with most major new efforts launching too late in the two-year work plan to expect any significant returns yet. The following provides some details.

Small Residential

The major work in this area involved mapping existing participation, modest expansion of existing energy efficiency efforts by the utility and city, and the creation of a (yet-to-be-launched) community engagement pilot. Without significant expansion, the city is far behind its target of serving 75% of properties by 2025.

  • Mapping current participation – The report covers overall energy use, plus participation in utility energy savings programs and loan programs by census tract. There’s no measure of overall conservation and efficiency, e.g. things residents do that are not part of utility programs. The rising rate of participation (1% of properties per year) is far below the 7% per year average necessary to reach the 75% target by 2025. The Home Energy Squad increased visits to homes by 71%, but it still only reached half the participation rate of 2010, when federal stimulus money drove the program. The weatherization program was new in 2015, as was the financing offer for low-income Minneapolis residents.
  • Community engagement strategy – Meant to reach non-traditional participants including residents of color and low-income folks, the city recently released a request for proposal for a community contractor. The program won’t launch until the position is filled, likely in 2017.
  • On-bill repayment (CenterPoint) – The utility filed its proposed on-bill loan program with the Public Utilities Commission, and although it will simplify financing for some folks, it will not do as much to expand access for those with lower credit scores. See the 2017-18 work plan discussion below for more on on-bill repayment programs that use inclusive financing.
  • City levers, e.g. property energy grades – City staff has yet to release proposals for city ordinances or rules that would improve knowledge of property energy use for prospective buyers.

Low-Income Customers

The annual report details the number of low-income customers served, money spent, and anticipated savings among these customers participating in utility conservation and federal weatherization programs, as well as a map by census tract. The city of Minneapolis did provide a co-pay and interest rate buy down for low-income participants in Home Energy Squad visits, and participation rose significantly (from about 700 to 1,200 visits), especially among renters. However, the report doesn’t say what proportion of the total low-income customers in Minneapolis these 1,200 participants represents, so it’s hard to say how well the work plan programs are reaching this population.

Multifamily Residential

The utility launched a new joint multi-family energy efficiency program late in 2015, but the report offered no insight into  community solar or energy data access as yet.

  • Better utility programs – In October 2015, the utilities launched a joint multi-family energy efficiency program, but no buildings were served by the end of the year, the cutoff for the report. The utilities did report multi-family participation in their existing conservation programs, by census tract.
  • Community solar – No significant efforts or progress was made by the Partnership on community solar for multifamily buildings. Just three community solar projects in Xcel territory have reach commercial operation as of August 2016.
  • Energy data access – The Partnership did not report any progress on energy data access for building owners and renters.
  • Community engagement strategy – As mentioned above, the city has yet to hire a contractor for the Partnership’s first community engagement pilot.
  • City levers, e.g. property energy grades – City staff has yet to release proposals for city ordinances or rules that would improve knowledge of property energy use for prospective renters, increase energy efficiency requirements for rental licensing, or give leverage to tenants in requiring landlords to utilize conservation programs.

Large Commercial

This area of the work plan probably provided the most information, because the city launched a  commercial benchmarking initiative several years ago. In terms of driving participation, however, there’s work to do Only 3% of commercial buildings had accepted the city’s energy challenge by date of publication.

  • Mapping participation – The report provides a lot of data, including total commercial/industrial building use, average Energy Star score of commercial buildings (mapped), and total energy use. It also shows participation in conservation programs by census district, and total savings from utility programs.
  • Access to whole building data – this seems to be a success for larger buildings, whose energy data is not only findable, but public.
  • Challenge program – The Building Energy Challenge launched in October 2015 asking commercial buildings to reduce energy use 15% by 2020. So far, 15 of 429 eligible buildings signed onto the program.
  • Resource workshops – The report did not address the use of targeted workshops for large commercial buildings.

Small Commercial

The only role of the Partnership was to monitor Xcel Energy’s existing “Partners in Energy” Lake Street program for potential design ideas to include in a 2017-18 work plan proposal. No updates were provided in the annual report.

City Enterprise

The city itself was quite active on its promised work plan items, with the city fleet transformation the only item left unaddressed. The city is also considering new ordinances to help push Partnership goals forward.

  • The city successfully subscribed to community solar gardens that can  provide 7% of the electricity for its facilities. Another request for proposal is forthcoming for community solar development on city property.
  • LED street lighting replacement is in progress
  • The report offered no insight into the planned study of switching of city fleet vehicles to natural gas or electricity.
  • There is ongoing discussion of infrastructure development, including design options for distribution infrastructure at new developments.
  • The city is considering four policy ideas under development by staff, including point of sale energy scores for single-family and multi-family properties, using rental licensing to enforce more investment in energy efficiency in rental properties, and a sustainable building policy.

Big Things to Come?

In late August, the Energy Vision Advisory Committee – made up of 15 city residents – began refining the Partnership Work Plan for 2017-18. After some discussion and brainstorming, each member was given 8 votes to prioritize the proposed items (several members were not present, and others did not use all their votes, so only 79 total votes were cast). While far from final, it provides some context about the likely aims in the next work plan.

Inclusive financing via on-bill repayment received 17 votes, more than 20% of the votes cast. There were 13 votes for setting interim, measurable targets for various work plan items, 6 votes for increasing the city franchise fee to support Partnership activities, and 5 votes across several initiatives related to expanding the community engagement pilot. The areas of greatest interest (as measured by total votes) were multi-family housing, primarily for inclusive financing, and the brainstorming “bike rack” for new ideas.

The following list details the votes cast,culled from snapshots of the brainstorm boards. A few were blurry, so apologies for the question marks.

  • Large commercial (13)
    • 5 votes for a making new 2030 (energy use?) targets for new construction
    • 5 votes for city recommissioning policy
    • 2 votes to set benchmark targets for all years up to 2025
    • 1 vote to get Fortune 500 CEOs in Minneapolis to help mobilize participation
  • Small commercial (10)
    • 1 vote to map participation in existing programs for the whole city (beyond Lake St)
    • 4 votes to drive deeper savings via HVAC/refrigeration and to use targeted strategies
    • 1 vote to overlap with community engagement pilot
    • 2 votes for OBR
    • 2 votes for combining EE programs with business orgs (1 vote to engage existing organizations that work with small businesses; 1 vote to fund CIP programs to engage with business outreach partners
  • 1-4 Residential EE (14)
    • 3 votes for defined equity goals
    • 3 votes for citywide expansion of community engagement pilot
    • 6 votes for plan to reach average of 7% per year by 2025
    • 2 votes for OBR
  • Multifamily (20)
    • 1 vote for community engagement
    • 9 votes for OBR
    • 4 votes for tiered licensing
    • 5 votes for expanding existing multifamily EE program
    • 1 vote to use energy efficiency programs to help preserve low-income housing
  • City Enterprise (5)
    • 2 votes for CSG RFP
    • 2 votes for LED conversion
    • 1 vote for fleet reduction / transition to EV
  • Bike rack for new ideas (17)
    • 6 votes to increase city franchise fee
    • 2 votes for Mississippi River hydro
    • 5 votes for measurable outcomes for each work plan item
    • 4 votes for OBR

A Slow Start, but Accelerating

The lesson from the first annual report is that the initial work plan merely set the stage for the work to come. The first hints at the second work plan show a much more substantive and ambitious effort to accelerate emissions reductions and energy savings for Minneapolis residents, regardless of socioeconomic status. Two big questions still remain, however:

  1. Will the second work plan have some meaningful targets against which to measure success?
  2. Will the utilities and city devote sufficient resources to reach them?

Good questions.

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter or get the Energy Democracy weekly update.

Photo credit: EVAC member Billy Weber