Over the last year, the Great Plains Institute (GPI) celebrated our 20th anniversary as an organization dedicated to transforming the energy system to benefit the economy and environment. As GPI staff, partners, and supporters reflect on the progress we’ve made together and look ahead to future opportunities for even greater impact in 2019 and beyond, we’re sharing a Q&A series we’ve created with our CEO and program leadership team.

This Q&A is with Lola Schoenrich, GPI’s Vice President of Communities. 

What do you consider the most significant transformation in our energy system over the last 20 years in your area of work?

I think the most significant transformation in energy is the major shift toward decarbonization of the electric system and the increase in participation of key actors across the system, from utilities to communities, to contribute toward real progress. Cities and states are making strong commitments to decarbonization, including recent announcements in the Midwest. Utilities are also setting goals and taking concrete steps to decarbonize their generation.

For example, Minnesota-based Xcel Energy (where GPI is headquartered) has committed to become 80 percent carbon neutral by 2030 and became the first utility in the US to commit to become 100 percent carbon free by 2050. It’s worth noting that Xcel plans to reach their 2030 milestone with technology available today. The announcements by utilities demonstrate the amazing transformation that’s been brought about by a recognition of consumer expectations, the declining costs of renewables and availability of relatively cheap natural gas, and an increased urgency about reducing carbon emissions to mitigate climate change.

In addition to state and federal policy, there are other actions that have enabled increases in renewable energy. For example, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator prioritized a large transmission buildout (e.g., the Multi-Value Project portfolio) that brought large-scale wind into the grid and into the marketplace. Then, over the years the system operators have learned how to operate the system that has these intermittent resources on it. So there’s more wind and solar on the system now which they know how to integrate, so utilities are feeling confident in that resource. At the same time, coal plants and nuclear plants are not as economically viable.

Another big change I’ve seen, even in just the last few years, is that cities, local governments, and communities are stepping up in a whole new way. As an example, our records show that in 2016 only 12 Minnesota cities had created climate action or sustainability plans. Today that number is more than 40. This is significant because small- and medium-size cities are critical to making progress on climate—not just major metropolitan areas. And as David Roberts wrote in Vox, “Cities can move utilities, and utilities can move the energy industry.”

The US has experienced major shifts—politically, economically, culturally—over the last 20 years and, throughout, GPI has continued to increase its impact. What has made our approach effective over the years?

One reason GPI has been successful is the leadership of our president and CEO Rolf Nordstrom. He’s had a vision that has continually grown and expanded. He has engaged our staff, partners, and stakeholders on that vision and is always seeking ways to work in partnership, internally and externally, that can make an even greater impact. I think that pushes everybody else to think bigger, more collaboratively, and take on the work that will have the biggest impact.

GPI’s approach of meeting people where they are allows engagement of a really broad range of interests and enables us to make an impact in any political environment. Plus, we provide tools that help people and organizations engage together in a meaningful way, such as shared information, data, modeling, etc.

At the city and community level, we work to scale the energy and climate successes of the leading cities to all Minnesota cities and others across the region and nation. We engage communities one-on-one, often on a fee-for-service basis, or in cohorts and peer groups to develop tools and provide the technical support and capacity that cities need to create and implement ambitious and achievable energy and climate plans.

From your perspective, what is the biggest challenge we face in transforming the energy system that is also surmountable?

At the community level, the challenge is achieving the speed and scale of change that is needed. Cities need to identify what impact they are actually able to have and where they need to engage with others to get the job done. There are differences in what cities can do that vary by state and region that impact how they can influence the trajectory of their energy future.

We’ve found ways to speed up the scale of change at the community level that involve bringing people together for collaboration and learning and to inform decision-making. There are times when cities can do something more effectively together or with other partners, including regional partners. Working together, as we frequently do with our peer cohort model, is also a great learning opportunity for cities.

Another way we’re increasing the scale of impact is by bringing the best national experience about the impact cities can have. We help communities prioritize their options and plan their approach to taking concrete action. Part of that is to provide the best analysis of the particular community we’re working with, including analyzing energy use, discovering the greatest sources of emissions, and finding solutions that take into account a number of factors (e.g.,  commitments that the local utility has already made or not made). For example, a community that is in an electric utility territory that is already on a trajectory to reduce emissions might look at another sector to prioritize their investments, such as in transportation (which is now the largest source of carbon emissions in the US). 

What is the role of collaboration, a core GPI value, in achieving the speed and scale necessary to transform the energy system? Has its importance evolved over time?

Collaboration is more important than ever, for all kinds of reasons. It’s obviously important politically, but another reason that it’s important in communities is that solving the climate problem depends on millions of individual decisions, which car you buy, how many trips you make, whether you get your house insulated or not, how many lights you leave on. Whole communities of people need to be engaged and know how they can be part of a solution and how it benefits them.

Our communities work focuses heavily on the proven peer cohort model because it allows people to learn together and learn from each other. When cities and communities have done something that worked, it makes it easier for the next person to do it. Who they look to is other cities in their state that are similar enough to their community that the same solutions can apply. Groups taking action changes the social norm.

 What makes you most optimistic about the future of energy?

The thing I hold on to is that the pace of technological change can be really, really fast.

A great visual example of this that is used quite a bit are two photos from Vatican Square during the announcement of the two most recent popes in 2005 and again in 2013. In 2005, there is a sea of people, and only a handful of people are holding a flip phone. In 2013, there is a sea of cell phones, it looks like nearly every single person is holding one up to capture the moment. It’s an incredible difference in only eight years.

When it comes to the climate challenge, we need to deploy existing technology and keep innovating. Both strategies are important, necessary, and achievable. We need to reduce emissions by 40 percent in a decade and to do that we need to pursue decarbonization across the energy system, from the grid to the community level, from electricity to transportation. At the community scale, that means things like accelerating electric vehicle adoption and enabling deployment of efficiencies in lighting, heating systems, and buildings. And cities of all sizes across the country are increasingly making commitments, and concrete plans, to deploy these solutions.

So, yes, I’m optimistic. I’m optimistic that we can achieve substantial decarbonization with today’s tools and technologies; we just need to make progress faster at a larger scale.

Another reason for optimism, and pride, is that our Communities Program team is so focused on impact. We’ve talked about how old everyone will be in 2050. The answer for people who are in their 20s and early 30s is that they’ll be in their late 50s or 60s and they’ll be ready for retirement. Solving this problem needs to happen over the course of their careers, and they are the generation that will have positions of power in that critical window of time. I think we have a group of people—and a whole generation—who are really committed to making as much impact as they possibly can.

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