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Friday May 27th 2022

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Got Heat and Electricity?

By MARY ELLEN KALUZA

Can you imagine life without electricity and heat? During a Minnesota winter we’d be going to bed at 4 pm in December and sleeping under a pile of smelly bear skins. We take our access to electricity and heating for granted, but there is a lot happening on the other side of our utility meters that impacts the what, where, and how we get that access.

Regulation 

Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is charged with regulating policies, rates, and services for utilities like electricity, natural gas, and landline phone service. This includes approving rate increases for our energy. The PUC members are appointed by the governor and their responsibilities are determined by state law. Most of the regulated utilities are for-profit entities whose purpose is to maximize return to stockholders – like CenterPoint Energy and Xcel Energy. You can imagine, then, the pressure they exert on the PUC to allow rate increases. Learn more about the PUC at: https://mn.gov/puc/. 

The Citizen Utility Board (CUB) of Minnesota, a non-profit organization funded by grants and donations, advocates on behalf of consumers for reasonable rates and regulation of the utility industries. Besides being at the table for us, CUB also promotes energy efficiency and clean energy, and provides direct consumer assistance, such as reviewing utility bills. CUB Minnesota travels the state speaking to citizen groups about how to understand their bills, informing us of programs and rebates to offset the cost of energy in our homes, promoting ways to reduce energy use, and offering guides on renewable energy sources. Find upcoming events and subscribe to their blog on the website: https://cubminnesota.org

Your Bill

Everyone has felt the significant increase in energy prices. Much of this spike is thanks to price gouging during the record low temperatures across The South last year. The natural gas supply infrastructure in Texas had not been winterized, leaving it vulnerable to cold weather and failure. (This was not the first such incident in Texas, but the state government had ignored recommendations to upgrade the infrastructure after prior incidents). Reduced supply and heavy demand drove prices up. Big time. Analysts estimate gas sellers made $11 billion dollars while hundreds of Texans died in the cold. (Welcome to capitalism). It is worth noting that CenterPoint Energy supplies gas in eight states, including Texas. 

Minnesota gas supply infrastructure (also regulated by the PUC) is built to withstand cold weather. Still, we are paying for the problems in Texas with higher prices. A separate surcharge has also been added to help utilities recoup their costs incurred during that time. The PUC typically allows a certain amount of increase while it investigates the need and reasonableness of the request, hence our already heftier bills. CUB is arguing (along with the MN Attorney General’s office, the MN Department of Commerce, and the City of Minneapolis) before the PUC to disallow passing on these costs to consumers. 

Citizens will also have a chance to weigh in at public hearings scheduled for March 3, 2022, at 1:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. Find details on how to attend or submit comments in writing at: https://cubminnesota.org/public-hearings-being-held-on-feb-21-natural-gas-price-spike/.

The Future

Natural gas, oil, and coal are all finite resources. Natural gas will run out, by some estimates, within 40 years. The urgency to move to renewable energy cannot be overstated. But no single answer will save us from smelly bear skins and 4 pm bedtimes. Reducing how much energy we use is critical. The will of our lawmakers to take strong action on this looming crisis is criminally lacking. I’m grateful CUB exists to educate and advocate for fair and sustainable energy policies but we all must step up our game for the not-so-distant future. 

What can we do right now? 

  • Submit a comment to the PUC telling them not to let for-profit corporations off the hook for their bad planning.
  • Contact elected representatives at all levels about keeping energy companies accountable, providing clean energy, reducing waste, and stepping up education about our looming crisis.
  • Reduce energy use – see CUB’s website for ideas and how to get an energy audit: https://cubminnesota.org/consumer-resources/saving-money/.
  • Vote! We elect those that appoint the PUC members and those that make the laws.

And, perhaps most importantly: Spread the word – talk to others about conservation and the need for renewable energy. Our future depends on it.

Mary Ellen Kaluza is a Certified Financial, Housing, and Reverse Mortgage Counselor.

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