Amid public criticism from environmental groups and the City of Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota will remain in a statewide energy efficiency program.
On Wednesday, the University withdrew a petition that would have partially exempted it from paying into the Conservation Improvement Program. Now, the University will continue paying the program part of the costs of natural gas use on the Minneapolis campus.
The University’s Board of Regents had filed a petition on Oct. 1 to opt out of the payment. If the the school had withdrawn from the program, it would have been the largest public institution in Minnesota to do so, experts say.
CIP charges participants a fee along with their utility costs from companies like Xcel Energy and funnels it into rebates that encourage energy efficiency. The rebates allow customers to buy discounted LED light bulbs, low-flow showerheads and efficient heating and cooling systems. The University used a $2 million CIP rebate last year to help convert an outdated heating plant into a more efficient steam power plant.
Days after the filing, environmental groups around the state began drafting a statement criticizing the University's decision. The efforts, lead by the Center for Energy and Environment, saw a total of eight organizations sign the joint comment by Nov. 1. The City of Minneapolis has also criticized the move.
Ward 2 City Council member Cam Gordon worried the University’s withdrawal from CIP would set a bad example for other large institutions.
Over the past five years, the University has paid approximately $3.22 million into the program and received about $2.95 million in rebates. The initial filing argued that several financial pressures prevented the University from reaping the program’s benefits.
“In these times of austere budgets, stagnant state funding, public concern about student debt, competitive forces on tuition and a general pressure at all levels to reduce the costs of higher education, continued participation in the CenterPoint CIP program does not make fiscal sense for the University,” the initial filing read.
Gabriel Chan, an assistant professor of science, technology and environmental policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said the University’s initial statement was too narrowly focused.
“It seems like the University's position is … very internally focused, it's a bottom line perspective when really this program is supposed to be about helping the entire utility, all of the customers,” Chan said.
Low-income utility customers, like students, would have been most impacted by the University’s withdrawal, said Joseph Pereira, the regulatory director at the Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota and a joint commenter.
“It’s probably not uncommon to hear about folks in Dinkytown that in the winter pay $300 for heating because their house is leaky, there’s a lot of people there, people moving in and out all the time,” Pereira said.
Around campus, news of the University’s petition to withdraw from CIP has received little attention.
“It was kind of under the radar for a few weeks,” said Jacob Herbers, a graduate student in the science, technology and environmental policy program at the University’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Before the University withdrew their petition, Herbers planned to raise awareness of the CIP withdrawal using social media. He also hoped to start a student petition opposing the move.
The University’s most recent filing suggests they had planned to invest money saved from CIP into other energy-efficient systems on campus.
“We recognize that many partners, both internal and external, need additional consultation as to our efforts and what meaningful change in CIP is needed to accommodate our combined cost containment efforts and ongoing commitment to energy sustainability,” Jerome Malmquist, director of University energy management, said in the new statement.
Center for Energy and the Environment President Chris Duffrin said the organization is pleased with the University’s decision to withdraw their petition. He said CEE plans to work with the University to determine a path forward.
In the future, Herbers said he would like to see more transparency in University decisions and an opportunity for input from the campus community.
“I really think we need moving forward is more of a space for dialogue between various stakeholders including professors, students, administration and community groups on how the University can best balance its energy conservation efforts,” Herbers said.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the name Jacob Herbers' program. He is involved in the science, technology and environmental policy program. A previous version of this article also misstated details about the CIP program and petition to reinstate it. Funding for the program comes from an additional fee participants pay in addition to utility costs. The petition was signed by eight organizations.