November 3, 2017 /
By Randy Petersen
A peek at Rochester’s energy future was a bit hazy Thursday.
The four panelists on the UMR Connects panel agreed many questions and constraints remain while the city is tied to a Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency contract for electricity generation through 2030, but they said growing renewable energy opportunities are on the horizon.
“Renewable energy is just going to become more affordable,” said Annie Levenson-Falk, executive director at Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota, answering questions posed by moderator Rick Morris, clean energy organizer with the Sierra Club’s North Star Chapter.
She said declining costs, along with environmental pressures, have already shown shifts on a statewide scale. In 2005, 63 percent of electricity was generated through the use of coal, she said, noting it dropped to 39 percent last year.
Meanwhile, she said reliance on wind energy rose from 3 percent to 18 percent during the same period, and natural gas use climbed from 5 percent to 15 percent.
While lower natural gas prices has spurred more usage, Levenson-Falk said the lower price comes with uncertainty that might not be seen with wind or solar power.
Anna Richey, chairwoman of Rochester’s Energy Commission, said that’s why Rochester Public Utilities would be advised to use its new peaking power plant as a backup to renewable energy when it has a chance in 2031.
Steven Nyhus, RPU’s director of public affairs, said the city-owned utility is keeping changes in mind as it plans for the future. RPU reviews its infrastructure plan every three years, making changes as conditions change. He said the utility is charged with serving customers under existing circumstances while also looking for new opportunities.
“The only thing we can be certain about the future is that it’s absolutely going to change,” he said.
Kevin Bright, sustainability director for the city of Rochester and the Destination Medical Center, said the uncertainty can be why it makes most sense for the city, Mayo Clinic and other long-standing institutions, such as colleges and churches, to take the lead. He said the fact that they aren’t going anywhere means they can spread the cost of new installation over years to save money in the long run.
While some future choices may be uncertain, the four panelists agreed there is something that can be done as residents wait for a clearer energy picture. They said conservation is the best option.
“If you don’t have to use it, you don’t have to pay for it,” Levenson-Falk said.
Nyhus said RPU encourages conservation as an opportunity to reduce costs for the city and utility.
“We often joke around RPU that we’re paying customers not to use our product,” he told the crowd of more than 50, noting it’s an investment the utility will continue to make.
Bright noted that RPU isn’t alone. Midwest Energy Resources offers its customers free conservation kits that include low-flow showerheads and faucet aerators to reduce costs related to heating water.
Additionally, he said energy audits and other programs benefit homeowners and utilities by finding ways to reduce expenses.
Richey also pointed out that conservation isn’t only something for homeowners. She said the Rochester’s energy action plan calls for efforts to reduce costs on a municipal scale that is already shown paths to energy conservation through reports by Environmental Defense Fund fellows working with city departments during the last two summers.
She said she’d like to see similar programs in other parts of the city, including the school district.
Bright said such efficiencies can provide cost savings for businesses, as well as local government.
He noted Rochester has converted 14 percent of its streetlights to LED bulbs, bring an 70 percent to 80 percent savings. He said the city and RPU are working on a plan to convert more lights, which everyone should embrace.
“Everyone wants the city to spend less and charge less taxes,” he said.