On any given day in southern Minnesota, dozens of meetings by decision-makers are taking place. Committees, commissions, councils, boards and citizen organizations are abundant and the participants are dedicated to their duties. But, with so many meetings being held, agendas being set and decisions being made, it’s hard for most people to keep up and sometimes decisions are made without the full awareness of the public; this was recently the case in Saint Peter.
This past October, the Saint Peter city council decided to take up the funding of a study to look at distributed generation by individual solar users and decide whether or not to assess some kind of fee for those who choose to pursue it. While discussions were had at a prior council working group meeting and a presentation of the issue was made by the Public Works department at that time, those meetings were held during the business day and rarely attended by the public. So, it wasn’t until the Mankato Free Press—present at that working group meeting and concerned about the tone of the discussion—published an article about the proposed study a few days before the official council meeting, that most people were made aware such a thing was even being discussed.
I saw the article and was immediately interested because last spring I met with most of the council members, the mayor and the Public Works director, Pete Moulton, to discuss Conservation Minnesota’s survey showing overwhelming support in Saint Peter for renewable energy options and efforts by the city to support non-coal energy options. At that time, the council members I met with expressed an interest in having me present the results formally to the council, but my efforts to do so were not well-received by the City Administrator. I also received a lot of push-back from Mr. Moulton, who in my meeting with him argued that the cost of system maintenance was unfairly avoided by solar panel customers.
Back to distributed generation.
After hearing the news I reached out to Councilman Jeff Brand—who was the most interested in our survey and has made himself accessible for questions—to learn more about the study and possible proposal. He indicated that these issues had been mentioned before, but that he was surprised to see a formal proposal so suddenly. More upsetting was the rhetoric he was hearing from colleagues and staff around the issue, including referring to solar customers as “freeloaders” and implying that somehow they were a threat to the solvency of the utility.
As a result of all of these conversations, on October 26th I presented our survey at the council meeting during the open comment period on the issue of distributed generation and cautioned the council against spending the money on the study without considering their constituents’ opinions. I was not the only one—there was a farmer, a Gustavus student and a few other concerned citizens there with the intention of speaking out against the study. What surprised me, though, was that during the introduction of the resolution, Pete Moulton (Public Works Director), offered to the council that other cities assessed fees to accommodate solar customers. Specifically, he said that Rochester assessed a “tariff” as a way to offset costs. This caught my attention because through my roll on the Rochester Energy Commission, as well as my attendance at Rochester Public Utility meetings and networking within the solar community, I knew this to be untrue.
In an effort to ensure I wasn’t missing something, I reached out to knowledgeable sources and found out that not only does Rochester not asses a tariff/fee, but Rochester offers rebates for people who choose to invest in solar and has committed never to additionally charge or penalize these individuals or future solar customers.
I immediately issued a letter to the Saint Peter council members and mayor, making them aware of Mr. Moulton’s error. While I’m sure some may look at this as a “watchdog”, “gotcha” moment, that wasn’t the intention. It is so easy for decisions to be made with the wrong information or a lack of information when people are mis- or less informed about what’s going on in their communities. I see it as one of the most important parts of my job to pay attention to issues that might otherwise fly under the radar and ensure that the interests of our members and others who care about Conservation Minnesota’s issues are represented, even when they can’t be present.
It is my hope that although the Saint Peter council chose to approve the resolution, they will scrutinize the options presented in the completed study and do so with as much input from the public and with the best information possible going forward. Thorough research and full transparency are essential to public policy and facilitate the best possible outcomes for both leaders and citizens. I hope that I will not have to write similar letters in other communities in the future and that doing so in Saint Peter makes other communities aware that people are paying attention and holding public and elected officials to high standards of ethical behavior.
There are many arguments for renewable energy and of course, logistical and financial considerations that each community must make. But, by perpetuating bad arguments and penalizing responsible decisions by individuals, utilities only serve to undermine their own authority and reputations as experts.