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Grid access remains challenge for small-scale electricity producers

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MORRIS - What changes could be made to Minnesota's electrical system to make it more reliable, affordable and sustainable in the future?

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That is the question the Citizens League, a multi-partisan civic policy organization, hopes to answer with the help of feedback gained at a series of workshops across the state.

Citizens League Policy Manager Annie Levenson-Falk conducted one such workshop at the West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris on Monday, where participants emphasized the challenge for small-scale producers and energy entrepreneurs to connect up with Minnesota's regional electrical grid.

Monday's workshop in Morris was one of six scheduled across the state, and one of two planned for greater Minnesota. At each workshop, Citizens League representatives also shared the results of phase one of the organization's Electrical Energy project.

During phase one of the project, the Citizens League met with stakeholders and developed seven characteristics that would be part of an ideal electrical energy system: affordability, sustainability, reliability/quality, safety, security, efficiency and self-reliance.

Findings collected during phase one of the project indicate a number of concerns that may be a barrier towards developing an electrical system that meets those goals:

• The electrical grid is being less reliable; the increase in demand has not been matched by investments in infrastructure.

• Money for energy is a large part of the state's economy. Minnesota customers spent about $5.2 billion on retail electricity in 2009. Prices for electricity in Minnesota are lower than the national average, but higher than the price in neighboring states.

• The average residential electric bill has remained between one and 2.5 percent of medial household income since around 1990.

• Minnesota's electrical system is not sustainable in the long-term. Most of the electricity used in Minnesota - about 58 percent - is generated from coal.

• The current electrical system is inefficient; between 60 and 90 percent of the usable energy from fuels and raw materials is lost before it arrives at consumers.

• Minnesota is part of a regional electric grid, which means we depend on out-of-state resources of energy. In 2009, Minnesotans spent almost $1 billion on electricity produced in other states. Much of the rest of Minnesota's electricity comes from raw fuels that are imported from other places.

In phase two, the Citizens League will work with citizens across the state to identify the barriers that are preventing Minnesota from achieving this ideal system and develop policy recommendations to overcome those challenges.

In Morris, scientists and renewable energy leaders from the WCROC and the University of Minnesota, Morris noted that regulations from the regional electric grid make it difficult for small producers to get access.

Mike Reese, renewable energy director at the WCROC, said that because access can be a regional and national issue, no one is taking on the challenge.

For more information, visit the Citizens League website at www.citizensleague.org/electric.

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Kim Ukura is the editor of the Morris Sun Tribune. 

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