St. Paul 350
St. Paul neighbors have faced a lot together in 2020, including the pandemic, racial justice uprising, and a high stakes national election. Yet, in spite of these historic challenges, we also accomplished a lot together and built new skills and values that will stay with us even if/when these challenges are resolved.
Since 2020 was the first full year of St. Paul’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan, which passed at the end of December 2019, this is a good time to take inventory of the climate action we took together.
Part I: The big picture
COVID-19 & Climate Action
The Coronavirus pandemic brought massive disruptions to our patterns as neighborhood businesses shut down or reduced hours, people who were able worked from home, and students switched to distance and hybrid learning. In times of distress our impulse is to come together, but COVID meant that we had to find new ways to connect.
For our St. Paul 350 team that meant ending in-person meetings in March. Instead we continued to meet via Zoom, built a website (SP350.org) and social media accounts, and learned to host livestream events. The direct actions we participated in during the George Floyd uprising as well as the Energy We Can’t Afford campaign launch, and Line 3 solidarity actions were outdoors with social distancing and masks. Although we are definitely eager to continue meeting in person again, the social media and livestreaming skills we built during this season of social distancing will continue to be valuable.
The pandemic has caused much grief, hardship, and uncertainty. It has revealed how precarious we are as neighbors lose jobs, homes, and loved ones. But it has also shown us how quickly we can adapt to demanding challenges, such as rethinking daily patterns of work and school. And it has revealed how we care for each other as people organize networks of mutual aid. Lastly, it has revealed the value of things we take for granted, like essential workers, gathering with friends and family in our homes or local businesses, and breath itself. All these examples of resilience and adaptation are exactly what we need to take action together on the climate crisis.
2020 weather report
With the exception of flash flooding on the East Side in July and a blizzard at the end of October, St. Paul’s weather this year has been mercifully mild. Although we escaped the extreme weather events that struck other parts of the country—derecho winds in Iowa, devastating wildfires in California and Colorado, and another record-breaking hurricane season on the Gulf coast—Minnesota remains one of the fastest-warming states due to climate change.
The loss of the iconic ash trees along Johnson Parkway and many of our neighborhood streets this year is a reminder of the ongoing damage caused by pests like the emerald ash borer, whose range expanded north due to our milder winters. Many of the same things that cause climate change, such as habitat loss, industrial farming practices, and poor air quality also increase opportunities for new pathogens like COVID-19 to develop and spread.
These are just a few examples of how we are feeling the effects of global climate change locally here in St. Paul this year. And, just as the effects can be felt locally, the solutions can be too.
Part II: The Powering St. Paul Pledge Campaign
In 2020 St. Paul 350 built a clean energy campaign to advocate for local clean energy solutions and to prevent the construction of Xcel Energy’s proposed billion dollar 800+ MW new fossil gas power plant and pipeline that would lock St. Paul customers into dependence on fossil fuel power for decades.
The Trump administration led our country in the wrong direction on energy for the last four years. Although we look forward to the new administration in 2021, divided government at the federal and state levels will continue to hinder clean energy legislation. After decades of dwindling state and local government aid and consolidation of corporate power, state agencies are vulnerable to regulatory capture. For example, the MN Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is currently being sued by multiple organizations for questionable rulings and this summer the Office of the Legislative Auditor issued a report citing the PUC’s poor community engagement.
This means that cities like St. Paul must continue to take the lead on climate action. At the end of 2019, the city of St. Paul passed its Climate Action and Resilience Plan, which focuses on reducing carbon emissions from transportation and building use. But when it comes to reducing emissions from burning coal and fossil gas for the electricity we use, St. Paul’s Climate Action & Resilience Plan mostly depends on our investor-owned electric and gas utility, Xcel Energy. Even with Xcel’s commitment to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050, their 15-year energy plan does not reduce emissions fast enough for St. Paul to meet our own climate action goals as a city.
Without a clear vision and goals for our own energy future, we are dependent on a corporation for our energy future in this time of climate crisis. Last year St. Paul 350 met with the mayor’s office and city council members to get them involved in Xcel Energy’s resource planning. So in addition to the passage of the new Climate Action and Resilience Plan, the city council unanimously passed a resolution (RES 19-1870) committing to advocate for our city’s clean energy goals with state regulators and our corporate partner, and to oppose new fossil fuel infrastructure.
Xcel Energy’s proposed Integrated Resource Plan (IRP)
In their 15-year plan for where its Minnesota customers will get their electricity from, Xcel Energy is proposing to retire coal-fired power plants early and increase utility-scale wind and solar. But they are also proposing to build a billion dollar 800+ MW fossil gas power plant and pipeline that could make us dependent on fossil fuels for decades to come—that’s much too late. The Energy We Can’t Afford coalition published a brief entitled, The Health, Safety, Climate, and Economic Risks of Fossil Gas Extraction and Use by Dr. Melissa Partin. It shows the hazards of fossil gas for our communities and our climate.
Power plants are paid for by ratepayers even if they are forced to shut down for economic or environmental reasons, while Xcel stockholders receive a guaranteed return on investment. For example, even though Xcel’s coal plants will be retired early, customers will still keep paying them off. The same situation is almost certain to happen with the new fossil gas plant Xcel is proposing.
Besides proposing new fossil gas power, Xcel’s plan failed to propose any energy storage (which could replace fossil gas) and very little distributed energy.
What we want instead
Local rooftop and community solar gardens (known as distributed solar) offer resilience, efficiency, and ownership opportunities that utility scale solar does not. The extension of the 26 percent federal solar tax credit through 2022 ensures that the cost of distributed solar will remain affordable.
According to St. Paul’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan, there is potential for 800MW of energy production available within city limits just from rooftop solar. That’s 40% of our total energy use. The city has a goal to produce 200MW of local solar by 2030 (we currently have less than 10MW). St. Paul 350 is eager to work with schools, faith communities, and local businesses to develop these resources.
But instead of planning for more local rooftop and community solar, Xcel is predicting a drastic decrease in distributed solar. This year they abandoned plans for the first community solar garden in St. Paul, located in the Railroad Island neighborhood. Minnesota solar developers have also filed more than 100 complaints against Xcel for delays that put projects at risk. According to research by a coalition of 11 MN climate groups, Xcel also has a history of blocking clean energy legislation as a member of the board of the MN Chamber of Commerce.
The Powering St. Paul Pledge Campaign
Xcel’s current resource plan has not yet been approved, so now is the time for us to make a difference. Cities in Xcel’s service territory are important customers and can pressure Xcel to provide more clean energy as cities make their own climate action commitments.
In early 2020, St. Paul 350 launched a “Powering St. Paul” pledge campaign to prepare our own response to Xcel’s resource plan. It is where St. Paul residents pledge to “stand for powering St. Paul with 100% clean, renewable energy for everyone,” and to oppose “new fossil fuel infrastructure.” This campaign is modeled after “structure tests” used in union organizing, which start with easy actions to build a base that can be drawn on for future demands and actions. Instead of organizing our workplace, we’re organizing our city to make demands to our corporate utility Xcel Energy.
We are gathering signatures to share with our city council members, state regulators, and Xcel to demonstrate political will for bold action on clean energy. In spite of the pandemic we have gathered more than 1200 signatures to date. St. Paul 350 has also been (virtually) reaching out to District Councils about our Powering St. Paul Campaign. We have met with all 17 councils and are gathering support letters from their boards (13 received so far).
Every individual pledge and district council support letter represents a conversation we’re having with neighbors about where our electricity comes from, why it matters, and how it needs to change. We want these pledges to tell a story not just of the numbers of supporters, but also of the diverse communities represented. Pollution caused by burning fossil fuels harms all our communities and our climate, and we demand bold action from our city leaders and corporate partners.
Other organizing strategies
In addition to the clean energy pledges and district council support letters we’ve gathered, St. Paul 350 will also submit a comment on Xcel’s plan to the Public Utilities Commission. St. Paul 350 members organized a team of readers to understand and analyze the resource plan in light of the carbon reduction and equity goals expressed in St. Paul’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan.
In this critical election year, St. Paul 350 members hosted “Caucus for Climate” house parties and proposed clean energy resolutions at precinct caucuses to shape party platforms. We also hosted a 67A Candidate Forum on climate change in partnership with East Side Freedom Library with more than 1800 views for the livestream. St. Paul 350 members phone- and text-banked to help get out the vote and volunteered as poll workers.
Another outreach strategy we used is our “ED Talk” (ED = Energy Democracy) community education series. We have hosted livestream workshops on Understanding Electric Power, Understanding Power Dynamics of our Energy System, and Community Pathways to Clean Power.
St. Paul 350 is also a foundational member of the Energy We Can’t Afford coalition, which formed in the fall of 2020 to oppose the construction of new fossil gas power in Minnesota. St. Paul 350 participated in direct actions and hosted a forum on how communities can organize around the issue.
Part III: 2020 Solidarity Actions
St. Paul 350 recognizes that communities who are on the frontlines of the climate crisis are also the most likely to experience low wages, housing insecurity, and systemic racism. In a year of increasing disparities and sometimes overwhelming hardship, we are grateful for courageous examples of resilience and resistance.
Environmental justice starts in our homes and workplaces
The year began with bold collective action by SEIU Local 26. Climate justice groups including St. Paul 350 walked the picket line in solidarity with union members as they went on strike to demand dignified wages, sick days, and carbon emission reductions in the buildings where they work.
The kind of low-wage, service-sector jobs that employ many St. Paul workers are exactly the kind of jobs that we are now recognizing as essential. They are also the kind of low-carbon care work that should be valued and prioritized in St. Paul’s post-COVID recovery plan. Coalitions between workers and climate action groups show how bargaining for the common good can win better contracts for workers and better climate policies for our communities.
St. Paul 350 members submitted a letter of support and testified in favor of the city of St. Paul’s energy benchmarking ordinance. Together with the contract that SEIU won, this ordinance will help our city reach the building emissions reduction goals in our Climate Action and Resilience Plan.
A thriving democracy where every family can put down roots is one of the best tools we have for reversing the injustices that are harming our communities and our climate. This is why St. Paul 350 joined grassroots housing organizations to support the S.A.F.E. housing tenant protections ordinance—one of the strongest in the nation. The more stable our housing is, the more capacity we will have to organize for change that benefits us all.
St. Paul 350 also met with stakeholders for the 112-acre Hillcrest Golf Course development, which will bring 1000 new homes and 1000 new jobs to St. Paul’s East Side. The Port Authority has ambitious plans to make the development net zero for carbon, meaning the buildings, transportation, and infrastructure would produce as much energy as they consume. The Hillcrest development has huge potential to be a showcase in equitable and sustainable development.
Reducing transit emissions
The pandemic has had mixed implications for climate action in our city. Unfortunately one of the most important climate and equity solutions—public transit—has been drastically reduced due to the risk of infection. However, as more people work from home, emissions from single occupancy vehicles have also decreased, resulting in healthier air quality for everyone. This consequence actually moves us ahead of schedule for reducing overall vehicle miles traveled 40% by 2040, one of the most ambitious goals in St. Paul’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan.
As gathering indoors with our neighbors has become risky, more people have connected with nature in new ways through local parks and trails, and neighborhood walking and biking. The city added 20 miles of bike paths in 2020. The city also continued to make progress on the Twin Cities Electric Vehicle Mobility Network, which will complement the more sustainable options of growing our public transit, biking, and walking networks. Besides being powered by renewable electricity, this service offers reliable car access without the cost of car ownership (like parking, insurance, and repairs). The city is currently gathering feedback on charging station locations.
Upholding Indigenous Sovereignty
This year we also saw examples of Dakota and other Indigenous leaders recovering ancestral lands in the heart of what we now call St. Paul. Ongoing community outreach and education about the deep cultural significance of Dakota sites like Indian Mounds Park, Kaposia village (near the Boys Totem Town site), and Phalen Creek has led to challenging and productive conversation this year. St. Paul 350 members testified in support of the Indian Mounds Regional Park Cultural Landscape Study and Interpretive Plan. We also contacted legislators to advocate for funding the Wakan Tipi Interpretive Center in the MN State Bonding bill, which finally passed. We celebrated their virtual launch in October and look forward to the ground breaking in the spring of 2021.
The Line 3 pipeline approval through Anishinaabe homelands north of us shows that the genocide inflicted on Native people in Minnesota is not just in the distant past—it is ongoing. The construction is not only a violation of treaties, it also exposes vulnerable populations to COVID infection as 4000 workers arrive in the area. Anishinaabe leaders who traveled to St. Paul to make their case before the Public Utilities Commission and the Governor are now on the frontlines resisting construction through their homelands. Their fight affects everyone who lives in St. Paul too, since our drinking water comes from the Mississippi River, which the pipeline will cross twice. Please watch for solidarity events and opportunities in the coming year.
Part IV: Growing Energy Democracy in St. Paul
Understanding the relationship between municipalities and the regulated monopolies that supply our power has been a steep learning curve for St. Paul 350 members this year. We are interested in building an energy democracy where the decisions that literally power our lives are transferred from corporations back to our communities.
St. Paul has been dependent on this corporate model to power our lives for so long it’s hard to imagine how it could be different. Imagine if the $350 million St. Paul customers pay Xcel shareholders every year circulated in our communities instead. Imagine if we had local green jobs that earned living wages for our families. Imagine if we could be participants, decision-makers, and owners in our energy future.
What does Energy Democracy look like in St. Paul?
- It’s more than just decarbonizing “business as usual”
- We are transitioning away from an extractive, exploitive way of living to something new
- In some ways, it will be like nothing we’ve seen before
- But in other ways, it might look familiar….
…like Kaposia, which means “light burden,” a Dakota community that understood how to live with this land in a good way, and thrived here for thousands of years…
…like close-knit, self-contained, walkable communities, where arts, culture, crafts, and families are valued—like we remember Rondo…
…like recent immigrants who overcome incredible obstacles to come here and then adapt to our challenging climate and not only survive, but thrive.