The Rural Energy Dialogues seek to give rural communities the time, resources, and knowledge the need to understand the local energy system and identify recommendations for the future. The Dialogues took place in Stevens, Winona, and Itasca Counties (Minnesota) from 2017-2018.
Problems and Purpose
Rural America is home to nearly all of the nation’s energy production, including oil drilling, fracking for natural gas, coal power plants, wind turbines, and solar farms. Meanwhile, many rural landscapes are comprised of forests, farms, and rangelands that can capture carbon. However, rural residents are rarely included in conversations about the future of energy.
To help communities create an energy future works for everyone, the Jefferson Center started the Rural Energy Dialogues in late 2017.
Background History and Context
The Center started diving into these issues from 2014-2016, with the Rural Climate Dialogues. In Stevens, Itasca, and Winona Counties, they convened small groups of residents in each community to learn more about the local impacts of climate change. Then in 2016, they hosted the Rural Climate Dialogues State Convening, where participants from each community worked on recommendations with state agencies and nonprofits. A top priority from the State Convening was to “plan for our future energy transition.” The Rural Energy Dialogues followed to help communities address this priority.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The project is a collaboration between the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Jefferson Center, and funding is provided by the McKnight Foundation, the Bush Foundation, and the Carolyn Foundation.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The first two events, in Stevens County, Minnesota, participants were invited to join the 3 hour long community forums via local op-eds, social media, and outreach by community partners.
For the other events in this series, in Itasca County and Winona County, participants were randomly selected to participate, in order to represent the demographic makeup of their community in regards to gender, ethnicity, party affiliation, age, education, and annual household income. They were invited to participate through a postcard detailing the event dates, purpose, and payment.
Methods and Tools Used
At the first two events in Stevens County, Minnesota, the Jefferson Center used the same outline: over 4 hours, participants would first listen to local experts about the energy system, respond to prompts about what they learned in small groups, them report back to the large groups. Their final report back in the large group was used to inform the recommendations.
At the two-day long events in Itasca and Winona Counties, the Jefferson Center used a Citizens Jury approach to conduct the assembly, where a group of randomly selected citizens gathers to deliberate on an issue. Over the course of two days, participants learned about how the local energy system worked, and made recommendations for the future. Trained moderators from Jefferson Center oversaw the Dialogues, to ensure the event ran smoothly and everyone’s voice was heard.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Stevens County (two three-hour forums)
On December 6, 2017, the Jefferson Center hosted Our Energy Future: Stevens County, a three hour open community forum where attendees learned about the basics of the energy system, discussed energy goals, and brainstormed ways to achieve their goals.
Mike Reese, Director of Renewable Energy at the West Central Research and Outreach Center, gave an “Energy 101” presentation. Brian Draxten, Director of Resource Planning at Otter Tail Power, discussed how the utility makes resource decisions and how they see the energy future. Finally, Blaine Hill, Morris City Manager, discussed the city’s efforts to make Morris climate-smart, as well as their expanding partnership with the city of Saerbeck, Germany.
Community members focused on a few main themes: renewable energy, energy efficiency and behavior change, batteries and energy storage technology, district heating, and local energy ownership. But the question remained: what would these energy system goals look like in reality in Stevens County?
At the follow-up three hour conversation in February, Our Energy Future: Ideas to Action, participants dove deeper into energy priorities. Experts highlighted key features of each of the previously recommended energy goals, and attendees outlined the benefits, challenges to be overcome, and action steps of each goal. Finally, participants voted on the areas they’d like the community to address first, with energy efficiency/behavior change and district heating at the top.
Itasca County (Citizens Jury)
On May 18-19, 2018, the Jefferson Center convened a diverse group of 18 Itasca County community members to learn about their local energy system, and make recommendations on ways it could be strengthened. They randomly selected 13 participants from a pool of Itasca County residents to reflect the demographic makeup of the county in terms of age, gender, education, political affiliation, and more, while 5 participants were chosen to represent public officials and others involved in Itasca County energy issues.
Over two days, participants studied their energy system in detail, assessed criteria for evaluating the energy system, identified challenges and opportunities related to the energy system in Itasca County, and created action plans to help address challenges and realize opportunities.
Their top opportunities for the future of the local energy system included:
- Education of the general public and more community dialogues to create long term energy system improvements
- Educate customers so they can manage their resources more effectively, especially as smart grid and other new technologies are developed, implemented, and improved
- Provide incentives for more efficient use of energy, because these benefit individuals as well as the utilities.
Winona County (Citizens Jury)
Similar to the Citizens Jury in Itasca County, the Winona County Energy Dialogue convened a group of 19 community members, with 13 participants to represent the demographics of the county, while 6 participants represented local officials and other involved in local energy issues. Over 2 days, they listened to experts discuss the local energy system, considered challenges and opportunities, and made plans for action.
Their top opportunities for strengthening the local energy system included:
- Education and involving the community
- Building local energy infrastructure
- Embracing new energy technology
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Rural Energy Dialogues are helping inform representative energy policy at the state, regional, and federal levels. The Jefferson Center and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, along with local partners and leaders, will work to identify resources and other forms of assistance to bring community energy recommendations to life.
The Dialogues help overcome overcome the misperception that all rural communities feel the same way about action on energy policy. Instead, rural Minnesota communities have the opportunity to tell a different story — one in which rural residents are powerful leaders in an energy future representing their needs and priorities
Analysis and Lessons Learned
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