By MICHAEL KRAUSE and
The recent defeat of the Solar Schools Project in Little Falls offers a prime example of how new ideas and perfectly sound projects too often falter when they run up against misinformation and ideological opposition.
The goals of the regional Solar Schools Project are beneficial and straightforward: build the capacity of businesses and organizations to develop solar energy systems in Central Minnesota, and create greater interest among students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by working with solar energy facilities at their schools.
The project, sponsored by the Region Five Development Commission (R5DC), also hopes to show that a coordinated plan to develop solar energy at multiple school districts will be less costly than if each school developed the solar arrays on their own. And these lower costs will give schools a modest discount on their monthly utility bills, while the schools will pay nothing to construct and operate the solar equipment.
The decision of the Little Falls School District to withdraw (published in July 24 Morrison County Record article) from the solar project represents a troubling trend. Too often we see a small group of local residents using misinformation to create unfounded fears, and in this case behind-the-scenes, to obstruct a project that would strengthen local businesses, prepare students for the future, and save taxpayer dollars that go to pay energy bills.
One example of misinformation was the argument that local tax dollars were behind the project. The primary source is a $1.993 million grant from Xcel Energy, from fees charged to Xcel customers as part of its licensing agreement for Xcel’s nuclear plants in Minnesota. These are not “tax dollars” and because none of the participating school districts are in Xcel Energy’s service territory, grant funds actually do not even come from utility customers in the region.
Another misleading argument was that solar energy is unfairly or uniquely subsidized by the federal government. Solar and other renewable energy projects currently receive an investment tax credit that phases out beginning in 2019. The tax credit has helped the solar energy industry “come to scale” and the costs to install solar have gone down by 60-70 percent in the last few years. In many parts of the country, solar energy is now cost-competitive with other energy sources. And keep in mind that oil, gas and coal industries have enjoyed enormous special tax breaks for decades.
Perhaps the biggest falsehood spread by anti-renewable activists is that solar energy and other new energy technologies have no role to play in the economic future of Central Minnesota. According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), Central Minnesota has 9.9 percent of all jobs in the state, but 19.2 percent of all of the energy sector jobs. In
other words, we have nearly twice as many energy jobs as the state as a whole.
Also according to DEED, the top 20 energy and utility-sector jobs in Minnesota pay an average wage of $29.56 an hour and most of these jobs require industry and technical certifications, but not necessarily a four-year college degree. Will Little Falls students be at a disadvantage in competing for these good-paying energy jobs because of an “anti-solar” campaign by a handful of residents that seem motivated by anti-government sentiment and conspiracy theories?
Bi-partisan and mainstream liberal-conservative consensus is building for renewables, especially in Minnesota. When the debates over solar energy and other energy changes are framed as issues of choice for consumers — and market competition for utility monopolies — many responsible conservatives actually have come down on the side of solar energy and the rights of local individuals and entities to generate their own energy if they can.
In Minnesota, we are concerned about a disturbing trend in our communities of well-organized but small groups with ideological views, from both the left and the right, pressuring local officials and sometimes disrupting public meetings. Their dialogue is not always civil and their positions are often not based on facts or objective science. They peddle a false narrative that the greater public good is less important than their imaginary loss of individual liberty or narrow agendas.
It takes courage on the part of local officials to resist the pressure from activists and not let them hijack public debate. Leaders need to challenge false assertions and respond to bad information with more complete perspective and valid science. Residents need to support officials who insist on a broader perspective, respect diverse views, and stand up to bullying.
The students in Little Falls schools are watching, not only to see if they will be given this opportunity to learn about new energy technologies – but also to see whether community leaders and residents insist on fairness in our democratic discourse and decision-making.
Michael Krause, of Minneapolis, is the principal at Kandiyo Consulting. Dane Smith, of St. Paul, is president of Growth and Justice, a policy advocacy group.