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Annie Pottorff, Jefferson Center

Itasca County, Minnesota boasts dense, old-growth pine forests, a series of lakes and streams and the banks of the Mississippi River. This natural heritage is a point of pride for residents and is a huge draw for hikers, kayakers, bikers, anglers and outdoor adventurers of all abilities. But in recent years, residents have been forced to consider the future of their key tourism and forestry industries due to a combination of warmer winters, increased storms, heat waves and droughts, which can cause forest fires. These factors affect storm management, public health, fisheries, growing seasons, pest management, property values and energy use.

Rural communities like Itasca County are facing similar challenges all over the world, as a changing climate and extreme weather events threaten countless industries and the quality of life. These communities play an important role in our energy, climate and agricultural future, but they are often overlooked when it comes to policy solutions and civic engagement. That’s changing with the Rural Climate Dialogues hosted by the Jefferson Center and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. These dialogues, through in-depth democratic deliberation, help drive the development of climate and energy policy that works for everyone. In May, in the second event of the series, a cross-section of Itasca County residents met to study their local energy system, identify challenges and opportunities, and create action plans to achieve community energy goals.

Despite the group's range of political beliefs, backgrounds, and demographics, the event got off to a good start, as participants discussed their love for their unique northern Minnesota community. Participants connected with each other on the natural landscape and how friendly, engaged and helpful their neighbors, families and friends are.  

This shared appreciation for the environment and people set the tone for the two-day event on May 18 and 19. Local energy issues aren’t always exciting, and it can be difficult to understand things like peak demand and energy storage on your own. By providing participants with background information presented by local experts, and the time and space to deliberate, Itasca County residents faced community challenges head-on and realized exciting, new opportunities.

The Itasca County Energy Dialogue featured 18 residents: 13 participants were randomly selected to reflect the demographics of Itasca County and five were chosen for their role in the local energy economy. Many local leaders were in attendance as well, including the Grand Rapids Mayor, City Council members, and representatives from each of the local utilities.

Participants heard four presentations: A Minnesota energy overview from Stacy Miller representing the Department of Commerce; a rundown of the challenges and opportunities of different energy resources from Zac Ruzycki from Great River Energy; a local utilities panel featuring Julie Kennedy from the Grand Rapids Public Utilities Commission (GRPUC), Luke Peterson from Minnesota Power, and Derek Howe from Lake Country Power; and a presentation on energy impacts on consumers and businesses from retired GRPUC director Tony Ward and Itasca County Commissioner and business owner Burl Ives.

These presentations provided the background information community members needed to start crafting recommendations for the local energy system. Working together through a series of large group and small group drafting sessions, here’s what participants had to say to their neighbors at the end of the dialogue:

As individuals and as a community, we can play an important role in shaping our energy system, especially if everyone is involved. Individuals and businesses can conserve energy and save money by installing LED bulbs and other energy saving devices. Communities can save money for everyone by reducing electricity usage during periods of high demand (peak demand). There are many individuals and groups looking for creative ways to lower energy costs and make our energy system work for our community. It’s on us to get educated and be involved. Knowledge is power!

In addition to this general statement, the group identified the top challenges and opportunities their community was facing, along with action plans to address them.

Top challenges included:

  • A lack of technology to support back-up energy storage
  • Communicating the need to replace aging infrastructure even though electricity demand is not growing
  • How to educate consumers on how energy usage affects peak demand

Top opportunities included:

  • Education of the general public through community dialogue to achieve long term goals
  • Educating consumers as smart grid and other new distribution level technologies are developed, implemented, and improved, so that consumers can manage their resources more effectively
  • Providing incentives for more efficient use of energy to benefit the individual users as well as utilities

The complete statement, list of challenges and opportunities and draft action plan are available in the final report. Every word of the action plans was chosen by the participants, proving that with adequate information and plenty of time for deliberation, people can define the best way forward for their own community. Rather than leaving local decision-making up to experts or policymakers miles away, giving rural community members the chance to create their own energy future will result in more sustainable, long-lasting community solutions.

The event wrapped up with reflection, including many participants voicing appreciation for the experience. One participant commented, “I came away impressed with how diverse of a group we were, that we could come away with a common goal. That gives me hope for the community at large.” Several participants voiced that they had learned so much, and saw a great need for more dialogue and education at the community level. “This is all new to me,” one participant said. “There are a lot of people that have no idea, and there are a lot of families that I know can benefit from what I learned, so I’m going to be planting the seed everywhere.”

For more information, you can access the event’s final report here.

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