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Survey highlights local efforts toward renewable energy  

Credit:  By WILLIAM MORRIS | Owatonna People's Press | March 20, 2015 | www.southernminn.com ~~

OWATONNA – Local residents have a variety of ways to support energy conservation and renewable energy, and based on a new survey, they’re hungry for more.

Conservation Minnesota, a statewide organization devoted to environmental issues, released on Tuesday the results of a survey mailed to Owatonna residents to gauge local support on a number of questions. The responses overall appear to reflect a broad level of support for policies such as efficiency rebates from utilities and state and local government action to support building new renewable energy infrastructure.

“What we found was that people who responded were very supportive of things the community has done to promote energy conservation and the use of renewable energy, and they’re also very supportive of taking more steps on both of those fronts,” said Paul Austin, executive director of Conservation Minnesota.

The survey consisted of seven questions, and more than 4,000 surveys were mailed to Owatonna residents, with almost 550 responses.

“It’s not scientific. It’s not a poll. It’s based on who responds to the surveys we sent out,” Austin said.

This is one of several surveys the group recently issued in cities across the state, he said.

“I was a little surprised the first time we did it in Rochester, but we’re finding that even in communities that aren’t quite the same size, the support [for renewable energy] is pretty intense,” Austin said.

The goal of the surveys is, first, to help Conservation Minnesota set organizational priorities, but also to draw attention to renewable energy at the local level, Austin said.

“We plan on reaching out to folks here to talk about our results and reach out to those institutions,” he said. “It’s starting good, positive conversations that can lead to future decisions the public will support.”

Several questions were meant to measure support for existing measures, including rebates and other programs for customers of Owatonna Public Utilities who reduce energy consumption. Eighty-four percent of respondents approved of such programs.

“Owatonna Public Utilities offers many different rebates,” said Roger Warehime, director of external relations at OPU. “We’ve offered that for many years, and we continue to add to that as we can.”

Residential customers can seek rebates for a variety of appliances and other tools that reduce home consumption, Warehime said.

“For example, we’re adding a rebate for Energy Star dryers, and we’ve also added a bonus rebate for our Energy Star washing machines, because Energy Star added a new category for ‘most efficient’ to their washing machines,” he said.

Business customers can get many of the same rebates, as well as participate in programs to use more efficient lighting, industrial HVAC systems and more.

“We also have our energy audit program, which involves subsidizing the cost of an energy audit of the home,” Warehime said.

The survey results from Conservation Minnesota would seem to support even more efforts in this direction, and Warehime said the utility continues to seek ways to reward customers who save electricity.

“We’re always evaluating for new opportunities,” he said. “We work in a partnership with Austin and Rochester on our [conservation] programs, and we actually meet monthly to discuss that.”

Several other questions on the survey dealt with renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, which also attracted strong approval. That’s not surprising to local energy providers who have already begun taking steps to meet public demand for renewable power.

“Some of our members ask about opportunities to be greener,” said Steele-Waseca Cooperative Electric General Manager Syd Briggs. “A lot just want to conserve, but others want to be a little proactive and ask about wind or solar.”

SWCE is a distribution utility, meaning the majority of the power it supplies comes from other companies.

“We’re a part of Great River Energy. They’re the ones who can actually generate the power and purchase the power, and 15 percent of their portfolio is renewable,” Briggs said.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing the local utility can do to help. On Feb. 10, the Owatonna Planning Commission heard a proposal from SWCE to build a solar energy field on West Bridge Street.

“In one month, we’ve gotten hundreds of calls about it,” Briggs said. “We’re getting a ton of subscriptions.”

The new facility will work on a subscription model in which individual consumers can purchase a 20-year subscription to one or more panels, and then have all the power generated by those panels credited against their bills, Briggs said, a model made possible by the decrease in costs for solar equipment in recent years.

“It got down low enough so that we could do something on economy of scale,” Briggs said. “We can do 250 panels, we can do it a lot cheaper, we do it all at once, we get a volume discount.”

And while the increase in the total generation power of the local grid will be negligible – “It won’t even be a blip,” Briggs said – there’s plenty of room for the idea to grow.

“We can grow right here, and if the response is big enough, we could easily do four times the size we’re doing now and keep on going,” Briggs said.

And other companies already are working on far more ambitious renewable power sources. The Oak Glen Wind Farm northwest of Blooming Prairie, which has a total capacity of 44 megawatts, opened in 2011. And pieces are falling into place for a new solar facility at Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency, which provides power to many regional utilities, including OPU.

“They’ve just received a bid back from an request for proposals to build up to a 5 MW solar place,” Warehime said.

The Conservation Minnesota also included several questions about government policy, such as support for a city council resolution requiring future demand be met with renewable power. One question, which asked if respondents supported the Minnesota Municipal Utility Association’s decision to lobby against Owatonna residents being included in a statewide solar energy standard, received a negative response, with 57 percent opposed.

“It’s easy for the discussion in St. Paul to get divorced from opinions and needs on the ground out in the rest of the state, and we would like those things to be more connected,” Austin said.

But that’s not entirely fair, says MMUA Government Relations Director Bill Black.

“I think the way that question is worded is so misleading. It’s so frustrating to me,” Black said.

From his perspective, the mandate in question – which would have required all utilities in the state to generate or purchase 1.5 percent of their power from solar sources, was a bad case of one-size-fits-all that misunderstood the way the power industry is structured. Under an existing state mandate, 25 percent of all power in the state is to come from renewable energy by 2025, with gradually increasing benchmarks each year. This year, the standard is 12 percent.

“That requirement is not on Owatonna. That’s on SMMPA because they’re the ones who can generate the electricity or buy it wholesale,” Black said.

That requirement can be met by any combination of solar, wind or other renewable power suppliers.

“What happened here is the folks came in and said, we also want a solar mandate, and it’s going to be not on SMMPA, but on Owatonna, and all the local-level utilities,” Black said.

Black said MMUA lobbied against the solar power provision because it undermined the existing local governance of municipal utilities like OPU, which operate as publicly owned non-profits.

“People don’t realize they already own their own utility and have say locally in its decision making process,” he said, adding that the original survey question could be reworded, “You, Owatonna resident, who control your own utility, you oppose the state being able to tell your utility what to do instead of you.”

Across the rest of the survey, the level of support for these and other conservation measures was consistently high, which Austin said will help his organization allocate its efforts in the future.

“It’s really about helping identify what the community is supportive of, and we may not be very needed in moving forward … but we want to be helpful if there’s a role,” he said.

From the survey

Here are the survey questions Conservation Minnesota asked Owatonna residents. Numbers in ( ) represent strong support.

Question 1: Do you support Owatonna Public Utilities offering rebates and programs for both individuals and businesses to reduce their energy use and increase use of solar energy?

  • Support: 84 percent (71 percent)
  • Neutral: 7 percent
  • Opposed: 8 percent

Question 2: Do you support Minnesota’s clean energy policies that have helped create more than 15,000 jobs statewide including 3,500 jobs in Southern and Southwestern Minnesota, many of which are in the wind industry?

  • Support: 78 percent (60 percent)
  • Neutral: 10 percent
  • Opposed: 11 percent

Question 3: In 2013, the Minnesota Municipal Utility Association lobbied against Owatonna residents being included in the state’s solar energy standard. Do you support or oppose this action?

  • Support: 16 percent
  • Neutral: 26 percent
  • Opposed: 57 percent (38 percent)

Question 4: In 2014, the Southern Minnesota Municpal Power Agency announced it will voluntarily meet the state’s solar energy standard and generate 1.5 percent of Owatonna’s electricity using solar technology. Do you support or oppose this action?

  • Support: 75 percent (54 percent)
  • Neutral: 14 percent
  • Opposed: 10 percent

Question 5: Would you support a City Council resolution requiring future energy growth for your city to be supplied with low cost renewable energy?

  • Support: 75 percent (56 percent)
  • Neutral: 11 percent
  • Opposed: 13 percent

Question 6: Do you support replacing outdated power plants with low cost renewable energy in the future?

  • Support: 71 percent (47 percent)
  • Neutral: 14 percent
  • Opposed: 13 percent

Question 7: Should the City of Owatonna support increasing our state’s renewable energy goals?

  • Support: 76 percent (55 percent)
  • Neutral: 10 percent
  • Opposed: 12 percent
Source:  By WILLIAM MORRIS | Owatonna People's Press | March 20, 2015 | www.southernminn.com

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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