Democratic Energy Media Roundup – week of March 27, 2015

This week in Democratic Energy:

  • Why homeowners may want to think twice before leasing solar panels
  • How Germany’s solar success shines — even through solar eclipse
  • New Solar ownership program could be key to distributed local energy surge
  • Find out which Texas city is set to completely embrace clean power!

Featured Stories

Leased solar panels can complicate — or kill — a home sale: Nationwide, residential solar installations are booming, up by 50% per year since 2012. But leased panels can cause problems when it’s time to sell a home.
by Kenneth R. Harney, LA Times

Some would-be buyers balk when they learn that they’ll need to qualify on credit to take over your solar lease payments for the next 15 to 17 years. Others say they like the house but won’t sign a contract unless you buy out the remaining lease payment stream — $15,000 or $20,000 or more — because they’re worried that the solar equipment will become obsolete or won’t save as much on electricity bills as advertised.

Local electricity could meet half our needs by 2050
by the Realising Transition Pathways Consortium Project

Co-Leader of the Realising Transition Pathways Consortium, Professor Peter Pearson from Cardiff University added: “This report imaginatively explores an electricity future of a kind that none of us has experienced. It illustrates one of the ways in which the UK might seek to achieve the low carbon transition envisaged in the Climate Change Act 2008.” 

Sunnova Offers Solar Ownership Program to US Residential Customers
by Meg Cichon, Renewable Energy World

Residential solar financing company Sunnova announced today that it is now offering what it calls an EZ Own program, which is like a cross between a solar loan and lease. Essentially, customers will be able to make monthly payments for their home solar system with no money down — all through Sunnova itself rather than a bank. Sunnova will also provide a service warranty package.

Lifting state limits on local power 
by John Farrell, Clean Technica

States should make sure their limits on local power reflect actual technical limitations of the grid, and not just utility interests in protecting market share.”

Solar Energy Squad Goes After “Un-American Electric Power”
by Christopher DeMorro, CleanTechnica

The conventional energy industry has been using its paid-for politicians and long-embedded advantages to try and prevent homeowners and businesses from embracing solar power. This has put solar advocates on the defensive for a long time, but in response to American Electric Power’s (AEP) recent anti-solar campaign, advocates for clean energy are hitting back. Hard.

Public Power Communities Shine the Light on Innovation: Public power utilities, which are owned by the communities they serve, have an inherent interest in helping those communities to innovate and prosper.
by Mark Crawford, Area Development

In Texas, solar installations are showing up all over Austin, according to Carlos Cordova, a spokesperson with public power provider Austin Energy. “The growing distributed solar footprint on thousands of Austin-area homes, public facilities, and commercial properties is clear evidence of the partnerships between Austin Energy and our customers.”

 The trend, he says, has been positive not just for those distributed-generation users but also the local economy. “Incentive programs have helped our customers by sharing the cost of installing solar systems and spurred the development of the clean energy industry in our region,” Cordova observes. “Solar Austin, a local nonprofit group, estimates that Austin Energy’s solar programs have created more than 600 clean-energy jobs in our area. The solar program has helped spur the development of the solar and clean-tech industry by creating green-collar and professional jobs and attracting other related solar companies and investment.”

Solar Eclipse: German power net survives solar eclipse
Deutche Welle

Germany has more installed solar power capacity than any other nation. That led to worries that Friday morning’s solar eclipse might destabilize the power network. Network operators prepared carefully for the event.

Dirk Biermann, an engineer at electricity network operator 50Hertz, said the eclipse was a “stress test” for the Energiewende – the country’s gradual, massive shift toward renewable energies. The network engineers wanted to show that it’s possible to deal successfully with large-scale fluctuations in renewable energy input, whether from sudden increases and decreases in solar energy or in wind power.

Are Solar-Powered Homes Jacking Up Everyone Else’s Electric Bills? (“No!”)
Solar power is cheaper than ever—but utilities are trying to discourage people from using it.
by Tim McDonnell, Mother Jones

John Farrell, a program director at the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, argues that to succeed down the line, utilities will have to act more like grid managers, connecting power from a host of sources (much like data flowing into a server from many places) and investing in technology that helps consumers use power more efficiently. “There’s no outcome 10 or 20 years from now that looks anything like what utilities have been before,” Farrell says. “It’s going to happen anyway, and you just have to choose whether you’re gonna like it or not.”

Democratic Energy Across the Nation


TEP Wants to Reduce Solar Energy Buy-Back Rates
by Zachary Ziegler, Arizona Public Radio

Solar advocates claim the proposal is unfair to solar customers because it will allow the rate to fluctuate year-to-year. TEP reassesses the rate it pays solar electricity providers on an annual basis.

TEP seeks reduced net metering benefits for new home solar customers
by Tony Davis, Tucson News

“They claim rooftop solar customers are costing TEP . . . In fact, the opposite is true,” said Millis, program coordinator for the club’s Grand Canyon chapter. “Rooftop solar customers are investing millions in TEP infrastructure. They build power plants on their roofs — they are small power plants, but that’s one less power plant that TEP doesn’t have to build. It’s saving TEP money, every time somebody goes solar.”

“We’re deeply disappointed in TEP. Tucson expects more from TEP,” Millis said in a telephone interview.


A Utility Business Model That Embraces Efficiency and Solar Without Sacrificing Revenue?
by James Mandel, Ph.D and Martha Campbell, Rocky Mountain Institute

While the utilities and individual customers would do well, the community would see tremendous gains. If 60 percent of the Fort Collins residential market segment participated in a basic package and 10 percent chose to upgrade to additional services (things like energy-efficient windows that might come at a cost premium but deliver great energy savings), Fort Collins’s greenhouse gas emissions could drop by more than a half-million metric tons per year. These reductions would achieve 32 percent of what RMI showed was possible across all sectors (electricity, buildings, and transportation) in the Stepping Up report. It would also help customers access 195 MW of distributed-renewable generation capacity by 2030.


State looks to ramp up renewable energy
by Hugh Bailey, Stamford Advocate


Industry group backs 2016 ballot initiative for ‘solar choice’ in Florida
by Doreen Hemlock, Sun Sentinel


Georgia likely to permit third-party lending for solar panels
by Ray Henry, Associated Press

Power companies have dropped their opposition after getting several concessions. For starters, Dudgeon’s bill does not touch the monopoly system. It puts size limits on solar installations and makes sure an existing utility cannot be held legally responsible for problems caused by another company’s equipment. Utility companies also get a say over safety standards.


Utilities’ Anti-Solar Campaign and Misinformation Debunked by Gabe Elsner

David Owens, Executive Vice President at Edison Electric Institute, claimed on-the-record with the Post, “It’s not about profits; it’s about protecting customers.” But as documents revealed by the Washington Post story show, these efforts are part of a coordinated campaign to maximize utility profits, not protect ratepayers. Owens’ presentation to EEI’s Board stated, “How do you grow earnings in this environment?” in reference to the increase in distributed solar.

Utilities make their money by building big, new infrastructure projects and then sending ratepayers the bill. This is exactly why utilities want to eliminate policies that encourage homeowners and businesses to go solar.

Hawaii’s Alternate Energy acquires Honolulu solar firm Risource Energy
by Duane Shimogawa, Pacific Business News

 He noted that the rooftop solar photovoltaic slowdown, which has been attributed to Hawaiian Electric’s change in interconnection rules in 2013, has restricted homeowners from investing in solar that has led to the closure of several PV contractors in Hawaii.

“At [Alternate Energy] we’re doing what we can to ensure that employees and customers of our green industry are taken care of,” Kawamura said.


Area energy co-op expands into solar: Panels available to subscribers
by Pam Eggemeier, Sauk Valley News

The driving force behind the co-op’s foray into green energy was the people who own the co-op – its members. 

“We had a lot of interest in solar from our members, and that was the main reason we decided to do this,” said Kyle Buros, the co-op’s senior vice president and assistant general manager. 

Its 75 employees now service 26,500 accounts in the four counties, with some members subscribing to multiple offerings that include electric, natural gas, broadband and solar.


Is solar worth $0.33 per kWh? Inside Maine’s valuation debate: A study finds solar has great value, concerning the state’s utilities
by Herman K. Trabish, Utility Dive

“The current electricity rate is about $0.13 per kWh and clearly the value of solar is well in excess of that even if environmental and other societal benefits are left out,” he said.

Legislators are also likely to consider expanding the current 660 KW limit on net metered systems to 1 MW or 2 MW, an augmenting Maine’s net metered community solar programs, Voorhess speculated.

“This study shows solar is a much better value than people think,” said Maine House of Representatives Assistant Majority Leader Sara Gideon (D).


County leads state in solar energy as projects progressing
by CJ Lovelace, Herald Mail Media

Julie Pippel, director of the county Division of Environmental Management, said the solar array is the first of several scheduled for construction through 2016 on county-owned sites that could produce up to 25 megawatts of “green” power.

“We’re hoping to have, by the end of the calendar year, 4 to 6 megawatts complete and online,” she said Thursday.

The projects will add to the county’s state-leading solar portfolio.

County officials in 2012 agreed to a public-private partnership with EPG Solar, which would finance, install and own the panels on up to 130 acres at landfills and other county-owned locations.

New York

New York’s Energy Revolution includes Victories for Environmental Justice
by Raya Salter, Natural Resources Defense Council

 REV’s objective is to revolutionize the New York state electricity system in ways that is already setting precedent across the country, in states like Maryland and others, where regulators are also beginning “utility of the future” proceedings.

North Carolina

St. Eugene is going green; Asheville church to install solar panels

“The Church’s teaching on social justice asks us to get involved in issues that affect us all,” Cahill said. “Parishioners are looking for ways to do this. Our project lets us show stewardship and responsibility for our environment along with other Churches and Synagogues who have already installed Solar Panels.”


OSPIRG students are pushing Oregon to go solar
by Anna Lieberman, Daily Emerald

“Sometimes Oregon isn’t as green as you perceive it from the outside,” Fusco said. “But this is a great way to make Oregon the green state that it is and that it can be.”

New Beaverton schools will include $5 million in solar panels
by Eric Apalategui, Beaverton Valley Times


Why rooftop solar is disruptive to utilities – and the grid
by Seth Blumsack, “The Conversation”

Large-scale solar power plants will continue to get built. But it is in the many millions of rooftops (and in the future, building facades) where the real potential for solar energy as a disruptive technology is taking shape. By installing solar panels, a consumer pays the utility less and, for the first time, becomes an energy producer rather than a consumer only.



Texas city pulls plug on fossil fuels with shift to solar
by Christopher Martin, Bloomberg Business

[Georgetown- population 50,000] will be the first city to completely embrace clean power in the state, which is the biggest U.S. producer and user of natural gas. More will follow as municipalities seek to insulate themselves from unpredictable prices for fossil fuels, said Paul Gaynor, SunEdison’s executive vice president of North America. Burlington, Vermont, made a similar move with its purchase of a hydroelectric plant last year.


Vermont has a chance to reset renewable energy
by Rep. Rebecca Ellis, Waterbury Record

In aggressively promoting distributed renewable generation, Vermont is following both national and global trends. On the electric grid, distributed generation looks a lot like efficiency. Because demand is met locally, utilities do not need to reach out to the grid for supply.


Homeowners’ Payments at Stake in Olympia Solar Debate
by Christopher Dunagan, Investigate West


The necessity of Badger-Coulee is the question
by John Dunn Mauston, LaCrosse Tribune

 New York State is moving toward a better and brighter energy future while Wisconsin clings to the past.

A view from Wisconsin on fixed charges and utility-solar troubles: data is the key to determining solar’s true value.
by Tyler Huebner and Brad Klein , Utility Dive

In Wisconsin, all three utilities argued that customers with solar panels are not paying their fair share of the utilities’ fixed costs, and therefore every single customer should see their monthly connection fee go up from $9-$10 per month to $16-$25 per month.

Raising the monthly connection fee hurts low-using energy customers, who, as the National Consumer Law Center found, are often low-income, minorities, fixed-income, apartment dwellers, and senior citizens.

Let’s put Wisconsin’s level of solar adoption in perspective compared with the dramatic fixed charge increases requested.

West Virginia

AEP seeks to stifle WV energy freedom 
by Bill Howley, Charleston Daily Mail

This fight over the right of West Virginians to produce their own energy impacts solar and non-solar customers alike. More locally-produced energy on the electric grid benefits everyone. The Public Service Commission should ignore AEP’s self-interested arguments, preserve economic competition in the state, and protect utility customers from unfair penalties that only benefit power company profits.

More Democratic Energy News

Community Solar: Key Considerations in Designing a Successful Program: In the first of a series of articles, Adam Capage of 3Degrees addresses ownership and siting of community solar programs.
by Adam Capage, GreenTech Media

Top 10 Cities Embracing Solar Energy—Did Your City Make the List?
by Anastasia Pantsios, EcoWatch 

France Mandates New Roofs Must Be Covered in Solar Panels or Plants
by Lorraine Chow, EcoWatch

Why This Tea Party Leader Is Seeing Green on Solar Energy
by diane toomey, Environment 360

My foray into becoming a strong advocate for decentralized energy began with a fight with a government-created monopoly in Georgia, Georgia Power. I believed that they had far too much power. They received permission that would allow them to bill me, a utility customer, in advance for two nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle in south Georgia that might never come online. Then I found out that there were massive [construction] cost overruns predicted on these two nuclear reactors. So, to add insult to injury, not only was I paying in advance for nuclear reactors that I may never see the benefit of because I could move out of state or drop dead or whatever, I was also paying for the cost overruns and [Georgia Power was] making a guaranteed profit off of the cost overruns. So it was a fight with a government-created monopoly that led me to do a lot of research into decentralized energy. Now, I support all decentralized energy.

Power Grid of the Future: Distributed Generation Led by a ‘Civic’ Energy Sector
by Roman Kilisek, Breaking Energy

“What would our energy system look like if the move to a low-carbon society wasn’t left to governments and big energy companies but was instead led by civil society?” – asks Dr. Stephen Hall, a Research Fellow in energy economics and policy at the University of Leeds (UK). Hall is co-author of a new report titled “Distributing Power – A Transition to a Civic Energy Future”. The idea here is that “communities, citizens and local authorities together can form a “civic” energy sector that could revolutionise the way” electricity is generated, transported and consumed.

The Utility of the Future – Panel Discussion
Energy Collective

The electric power sector is poised for transformative changes. The growing penetration of distributed energy resources, including distributed generation such as solar PV or fuel cells, electric vehicles, stationary batteries, and demand response, could remake electricity markets, power system operations, and utility business models alike. Regulators, utilities, and new technology companies are now positioning themselves for a new era of electricity innovation. What will the utility sector of the future look like? Who will deliver electricity services a decade or two from now? Who is best positioned to grow market share and capture new market opportunities? Will energy consumers benefit from a more distributed power system?

As Solar Power Spreads, Diverse Users Fight Utility Attempts To Penalize It
by Stephen Edelstein, Green Car Reports

Why That Glass of Okanagan Wine Is $10

Why Minnesota’s Community Solar Program is the Best

I’ve been asked a lot of questions about Minnesota’s community solar program over the past couple years and it’s time to make one thing clear: Minnesota’s program is the best in the country.

Why? Because there 10 times more community solar projects in the queue—400 megawatts—in Minnesota than have been built in the history of community solar in the United States (40 megawatts).

Minnesota’s program (see infographic) is a comprehensive approach that makes developing community solar projects economically viable and—most importantly—that does not cap the development of community solar projects. The latter is the key.growth in community solar installations usa

Colorado’s landmark community solar legislation, for example, caps the program at 6.5 megawatts per utility per year (although there’s hope it may increase in the future). Massachusetts has just revamped their solar renewable energy credit program to make community solar a better investment. No other state has had significant community solar development, despite 11 states that have some form of virtual net metering that allows for sharing electricity output from an off-site solar energy project.

How big is Minnesota’s projected success?

Xcel Energy’s queue for community solar already has 20 times more solar in it than the state had installed at the end of 2014. If it all gets built, it would be enough to rank second in the country in annual solar installations in 2014.

I recently wrote that a state’s solar market can’t really launch without third party ownership—leasing or power purchase agreements that allow home and business owners to install solar with zero upfront cost, hand off maintenance concerns, and save money from day one. Indiana was the only potential exception, due to a (now defunct) feed-in tariff program operated by Indianapolis Power and Light. Minnesota may be the second.

I’m no stranger to community solar programs. I worked closely with advocates in Minnesota on the legislation, as part of a suite of pro-solar policies that passed in 2013. I’ve written extensively on community solar policies, from a 2010 report on the obstacles and opportunities to podcasts with leaders in the community solar movement. I’ve testified on community solar proposals in California and Maryland, and lent my advice in other states.

If the projects develop as expected in Minnesota, there will be no contest. To say it like a local, “Minnesota’s community solar program is not too bad.”

minnesota community solar infographic 2 - ILSR

Photo credit: Michael Hicks via Flickr (edited by John Farrell, CC BY 2.0 license)

This article originally posted at For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter or get the Democratic Energy weekly update.

Strength in Numbers, March 2015

Community Broadband Media Roundup – March 20

FCC Outlines Plan To Crush Awful State Protectionist Broadband Laws: from the it’s-about-time dept by Karl Bode, Tech Dirt

While net neutrality rules are designed to protect consumers from a lack of last-mile competition, the agency’s moves on municipal broadband are intended to actually strike at the issue of limited competition at the root. As we’ve noted a few times, ISPs (with ALEC’s help) have passed laws in twenty states preventing those towns and cities from deciding their own infrastructure needs for themselves. 

It’s pure, unabashed protectionism: the bills do little more than protect regional duopolies from change while hamstringing local communities desperate for better service. Usually the laws are passed under the auspices of protecting taxpayers from themselves, ignoring that the bills’ sole purpose is to protect duopoly revenues. 

TV and Internet Service Providers Deliver the Worst Customer Experience: Fifth Annual Temkin Experience Ratings Evaluates 293 Companies Across 20 Industries

The poster child for poor customer experience in these industries – Comcast – was not only the lowest-scoring TV service and Internet service provider, but it was also one of the lowest-scoring companies in the entire Ratings. It ranked 289th overall out of 293 companies for its Internet service and ranked 291st overall for its TV service.

Of the 17 companies that received “very poor” ratings (below 50%) across the 193 companies, five of them were from these two industries: Comcast for TV (43%), Comcast for Internet (45%), Time Warner Cable for Internet (47%), Charter Communications for TV (48%), and Time Warner Cable for TV (48%).

“Internet and TV service providers are awful to consumers. The lack of competition continues to fuel this bad experience epidemic,” states Bruce Temkin, managing partner of Temkin Group.



Broadband coming to Orleans by Jessie Faulkner, Times Standard

The Karuk and Yurok Tribes have been collaborating to bring the speeded-up service to the Klamath River communities of Orleans, Weitchpec, Wautec, Johnsons as well as Orick. A $6.6 million California Public Utilities Commission grant, awarded in October 2013, is financing the project. The tribes provide matching funds.


Fort Collins eyes starting broadband Internet service by Nick Coltrain, The Coloradoan

If the city of Fort Collins made a sound while examining the possibility at offering its own Internet service, it’d be the chirps and whirrs of a 56K modem — Almost connected but with no guarantee of success. 


Businesses would be able to tie into countywide broadband by John Gessner, Sun This Week

Scott County has a high-speed, fiber optic network available for businesses and Internet service providers to tap into.

Neighboring Dakota County doesn’t. One result? Up to 10 companies that were wooed by Dakota County communities instead chose Scott County for its access to limitless bandwidth, according to Craig Ebeling.

Fiber Optic Project Moves Forward: KDUZ

Ten city councils and a standing room only crowd packed the United Farmers Cooperative Berdan Center on Monday for a public hearing and adoption of a tax abatement resolution to fund a loan to the Renville-Sibley County Fiber Joint Powers Agency for the RS Fiber Cooperative.


Broadband companies showing interest in Sanford by Ellen W. Todd, Sanford News

The City of Sanford, in collaboration with the SREGC, intends to finance and own a fiber-optic network connecting 80 community institutions and private enterprises — businesses, the hospital, municipal facilities, the mill complex, industrial parks, schools — in Sanford-Springvale.

Last year, the SREGC commissioned a study on the feasibility of bringing broadband (fiber-optic) communications access to the city. The company that did the study — Tilson Technology Management company of Portland — concluded that broadband access has the potential to add “between $47 and $192 million to the Sanford-Springvale region’s economic output over the next ten years.” 


Lawmakers consider issuing bonds for broadband expansion by Alison Noon, The News Tribune

New Hampshire

Editorial: Fast internet could be a boon for Concord

Creating a truly high-speed, affordable municipal internet network could be a pipe dream – or it could be a pipeline to a more vibrant Concord with a booming economy and a growing population of young entrepreneurs and knowledge workers.

New York

County touts pros of Municipal Broadband System WKBW-7

Erie County’s Broadband Committee released a new report Wednesday touting the pros of building a Municipal Broadband System.

Erie County Legislator calls for faster internet by Mark Belcher, News 4 Digital Producer

“A municipal broadband network could be our generation’s great infrastructure project, like the Erie Canal or the Hoover Dam,” Burke said.

Cayuga County’s high-speed Internet needs, state broadband initiatives discussed at Wednesday Morning Roundtable by Robert Harding, Auburn Citizen

According to Batman, what started out as a few towns became a larger collaboration to find a high-speed Internet service provider for the area. He said the group contacted these companies with a few ideas, including a public-private partnership. 

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of interest in such a venture.

“It simply is not a viable alternative,” Batman said. “It simply is too expensive to serve me and my neighbors without financial incentives and support.”

North Carolina

Community broadband debate centered in a North Carolina town by Renne Schoof, McClatchy Washington Bureau

“You don’t realize how fortunate you are to live in an urban setting in my district until you go into a remote area and have no access to broadband or to cellular telephone,” he said.


Rural Tennessee counties need broadband and internet service too by Dave Shepard, Columbia Daily Herald

The battle is typical of the Big Guys (telecommunications companies) verses the Little Guys (Municipal Electric Providers). My rural district which is comprised of 3 rural counties, Dickson, Hickman, and Maury, need expanded broadband service to make us competitive for industrial and business recruitment. We need expansion of broadband service into unserved areas to help our students do homework assignments and our residents to connect to a high speed internet service for business and pleasure. This service is already available to our state’s residents in densely populated areas all over the state of Tennessee.

My rural counties and constituents need broadband and internet service too, and I plan to vote to help them get it.

BTES adopts resolution to support legislation of municipal broadband by Tammy Childress, Bristol Herald Courier

The Bristol Tennessee Essential Services board adopted a resolution Wednesday to support legislation for municipal broadband.

City County approved a similar resolution earlier this month.

New Maps Show Alarming Pace of Walmart’s Continued Growth

Map: Walmart Square Footage per person, 2000.

Many people assume that there’s no point in having a public debate about the consequences of Walmart’s dominance of the U.S. economy, because the company is already a widespread fact of life.  We must reckon with that reality, the thinking goes, and try to figure out how to make Walmart a better company.

While that’s certainly true in one respect, this view risks overlooking a crucial, and terrifying, fact: Walmart is expanding, rapidly.  There is a critical debate to be had right now about whether a company that already captures one-quarter of U.S. grocery sales should be allowed to grow to control one-third, or even half, of our food supply.

With that very aim in mind, Walmart is now embarking on its third historic wave of store construction, with plans to build 440 to 460  “Neighborhood Market” stores over a two year period,  presumably with many hundreds more to follow.  Neighborhood Market stores are large supermarkets, about the size of an NFL football field, fronted by a few acres of parking.  Walmart has been quietly testing them in a few states and is now launching a full-scale rollout.  The idea is to build these new stores in the gaps between its giant supercenters, so as to vacuum up more and more food sales.  Already, Walmart captures over half of grocery sales in 40 metro areas, according to Metro Market Studies.

To help illustrate the alarming trajectory of Walmart’s expansion, ILSR produced these two maps.  The first shows how much store space per person Walmart had in each state in 2000.  The second shows how much space the company now has.

Map: Walmart square footage per person, 2014.

Nationally, Walmart has doubled its footprint since 2000 to a roomy 2.74 square feet of retail store space for every American.  In Arkansas, Walmart has 5.54 square feet per person — a figure that suggests that the company, which is building about 90 supercenters a year along with its new Neighborhood Market stores, could easily chart a path to tripling its presence in states like California and New York, where it now has less than 1 square foot of store space per person.

The big question is, should we sit back and let it?  Or is it time that Americans get serious about resurrecting anti-monopoly policies?

The Politics of the NCAA Sweet Sixteen

When television cameras zoomed in on Kansas Governor Sam Brownback in the middle of the Kansas-Wichita State NCAA basketball game a thunderous chorus of boos broke out. Viewers gained a rare glimpse of the politics behind March Madness. The announcers pointedly ignored the boos.

Viewers might have been better served if the announcers had offered some context for the crowd’s hostility. Both the University of Kansas and Wichita State are public universities. Brownback and the Republican dominated legislature have savaged state university budgets, resulting in rising tuition and more burdensome student debt.

In fact, twelve of the Sweet Sixteen teams are state universities. (Three are Catholic schools. Duke is the only non-religious private school.) Eleven play in states totally controlled by Republicans. (UCLA is the only team in a totally blue state.) In virtually all of these state spending on state universities has been slashed. Between 2008 and 2014 per capita state spending for state universities, adjusted for inflation, has shrunk by more than 40 percent in Arizona, almost 30 percent in Michigan, about 25 percent in Utah and Wisconsin. And in 2015, even though their state economies have significantly improved, many red states are seeking to further punish their state universities. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, for example, has just proposed a budget that would decrease spending on public universities by $300 million over the next two years, the steepest reduction in state history.

The largely student crowds at NCAA games may also be upset that their states justify cutting spending on state universities in order to reduce state deficits when the deficits have been caused almost entirely by tax reductions that overwhelmingly favor the wealthy. Since taking office in 2011, Walker has steered more than $2 billion in tax cuts through the Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature. By one estimate the state of Kansas lost $803 million in 2014 because of 2012 tax cuts and the cumulative revenue loss will exceed $5 billion by 2019.

While the vast majority of NCAA teams in the Sweet Sixteen play in red states, almost all play in blue cities: Chapel Hill, Durham, Lexington, Louisville, Madison, Tucson, Lansing, Wichita, South Bend, Norman. And many of them are blue in large part because of how their students and recent graduates vote. Responding to the needs of their constituents, blue city councils have tried to lift their income, sometimes by increasing the local minimum wage. But when they try, red state legislatures often step in and strip them of their authority to do so.

In 2007, when Madison, home to the University of Wisconsin raised the local minimum wage, the legislature passed a bill to preempt its right to do so but the effort failed when Democratic Governor Jim Doyle vetoed the bill. In 2011, however, Republican Governor Walker signed a bill abolishing any Wisconsin city from enacting a local minimum wage higher than the state’s. That bill became a template used by more than a dozen other red states, most recently Oklahoma, to enact their own preemption statutes.

For the next week, we can concentrate on basketball and marvel at the remarkable athletes playing their hearts out and set politics aside. But perhaps, maybe during the commercials, we can reflect on the fact that the vast majority of these games are being played by teams from public universities in states whose governments are hostile to public universities and whose policies increase the already considerable financial burden on the students at these universities.









Watch It Again: Creating Economic Inclusion through Entrepreneurship

March 19, BALLE Fellows Adele London and Jay Bad Heart Bull shared the models and impacts of the community and economic development organizations they run in New Orleans and Minneapolis. The Good Work Network and Native American Community Development Institute both use entrepreneurship to advance opportunity in underserved communities. 

Walmart Is Quietly Going on a Massive Building Spree

This piece was written by ILSR’s Walter Wuthmann, and first published by Grist.

In January of last year, residents in Slidell, La., a suburb of New Orleans on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, were shocked to discover that a wooded stretch of land tucked into the middle of their neighborhood was slated to be cleared for a Walmart Neighborhood Market. It not only seemed an unlikely place to put such a store, but just weeks earlier Walmart had announced plans to build a Neighborhood Market less than four miles south on Pontchartrain Drive. Furthermore, Slidell already had two Walmart Supercenters. Developing the wooded lot on Roberts Drive would be the fourth Walmart in a town of fewer than 30,000 people.

“We are beside ourselves,” said Caroline Poupart, who lived directly behind the site of the proposed Walmart. “That green space has been here since the inception of time,” she told The Times-Picayune.

Yet there was little residents could do to stop Walmart. Like most U.S. cities, Slidell has permissive zoning when it comes to commercial development. This particular wooded lot is zoned for “neighborhood commercial,” under which Walmart’s Neighborhood Market store, which is essentially a large supermarket fronted by a few acres of parking, qualified as an acceptable use.

Today, the forested lot in north Slidell is gone, and the small town is saddled with four Walmart stores.

The situation in Slidell is a microcosm of a strategy Walmart is pushing hard across the southern U.S., and will soon advance northward. Having used its supercenters to capture one-quarter of U.S. grocery sales, the chain is building a new wave of smaller stores that are poised to clean up the market share its supercenters don’t already control. In the New Orleans metro area, Walmart accounted for 40 percent of the $2.1 billion people spent on food in 2012, according to data from Chain Store Guide. Its new stores in Slidell and other suburbs will inch that figure closer to 50 percent.

Just how many new stores can we expect to see? Last October, the retail giant disclosed that it was in the process of building about 450 Neighborhood Markets in the U.S. over the next two years. According to a Forbes contributor, “The new Walmart management team is suggesting there could be thousands in five years.” Although these are often described as Walmart’s “small format” stores, they are only small relative to supercenters. An average Neighborhood Market is 43,000 square feet, or about the size of a football field.

This recent escalation in store construction is Walmart’s third major wave of expansion. The rollout is following the same pattern as Walmart’s first wave of store construction in the 1960s, as well as its introduction of supercenters in the 1990s. The company builds in and around Arkansas, where it is headquartered, and then steadily moves out, colonizing one region after another, gaining market power and stripping sales from other businesses as it goes. Today, residents of Arkansas have a roomy 5.5 square feet of Walmart floor space per person.

The business press has seized on the Neighborhood Market as a sign that Walmart, the pioneer of the big box, has decided that small is the new big. But, in fact, Walmart’s pace of building supercenters has slowed only slightly. It’s still moving to build about 175 of the colossal stores in the U.S. over the next two years. Neighborhood Markets are designed not to supplant superstores, but to operate in tandem with them, creating a more convenient shopping option to fill in the gaps and suck up more market share. The company is even testing the idea of using supercenters as distribution hubs for the Neighborhood Markets. It’s a completely integrated vision for doing business, and one designed to enable Walmart to dominate our food system, and our landscape, well into the future.

Secret climate costs

While all of this sprawling new construction is central to Walmart’s corporate strategy, it does not garner even a mention in the 186-page sustainability report the company put out last year. Walmart has crafted its own definition of sustainability, in which land development is an off-limits topic.

If Walmart did acknowledge and measure the climate pollution associated with this part of its business model, the greenhouse gas emissions the company reports to the CDP each year could easily double.

The climate implications of retail development are manifold. There’s the loss of carbon-absorbing fields and forests, for one. Most of Walmart’s new stores are slated for land that has not been developed, including, in some cases, places of extraordinary ecological value. In Miami-Dade County, local environmentalists are fighting to block a Walmart-anchored development from consuming 88 acres of endangered pine rockland, one of the rarest forests in the world.

Then there’s the massive climate emissions generated by producing steel and concrete for all of these new stores. Redefining Progress calculated that it would take more than 850 acres of biologically productive land to offset all of the energy consumed and pollution produced in manufacturing the concrete, steel, and other materials needed for a single 125,000-square-foot big-box store. For the 240 Neighborhood Market stores Walmart plans to build in the next year alone, that works out to nearly 70,000 acres, or about 107 square miles. That’s an area the size of Salt Lake City.

Or consider how Walmart’s expansion is changing shopping patterns in ways that increase our fossil fuel consumption. In a 2012 study, researchers from UC Berkeley calculated that the total amount of energy Americans use moving retail goods around — shipping goods to stores as well as transporting those goods back to our homes — has more than doubled in the last 40 years. In fact, transporting stuff now accounts for 7 percent of all the energy expended in the U.S. The authors concluded that a major driver of this shift was an increase in the distance driven for shopping trips. In other words, we are walking away from Main Street and driving toward the outlying Walmart.

What’s especially depressing about this new wave of Walmart stores is that new retail space is something we certainly don’t need. There are 370 million square feet of vacant shopping centers in the U.S., together with an untold number of empty big-box stores and derelict main streets. The U.S. leads the world in retail vacancy and Walmart is a major contributor to the problem. As the company has opened new retail locations, it has forced existing retailers out of business and then left the skeletons of its own discarded stores scattered across the country. Yet all this space sits empty while Slidell is getting its fourth Walmart.

Planning for a better future

Looking to Walmart to be a responsible company is a dead end. The real responsibility lies with us. Indeed, not every place has succumbed to the retailer’s growth imperative. Even as Walmart exploits lax land-use policies across much of the country — or actively undermines them, as it did in California by forcing referendums on its development projects through paid petition-gatherers, effectively skirting environmental review — some regions and states are well protected by their own laws. Vermont, for example, under its Act 250, does not allow commercial development projects that would encompass more than 10 acres of land unless they gain approval from both the local town planning board and a regional commission guided by an explicit anti-sprawl policy. Vermont has five Walmart stores, three of which, thanks to Act 250, opened in existing buildings.

Other communities have taken lessons from Vermont’s policy and are putting large retailers through a more thorough review before undeveloped acres can be paved. Cape Cod set up a commission that is made up of representatives from each of its 15 towns. The commission has the authority to review and reject any large development projects that could significantly harm the local economy or environment, adding another layer of scrutiny in addition to the municipal planning board. The commission actually did give approval to a Walmart in Cape Cod, but it is about one-third the size of the average Walmart supercenter, and it’s located in an old department store. In 2007, Maine enacted the Informed Growth Act, which would require towns to conduct an impact analysis and hold a public hearing for any proposed store over 75,000 feet before granting it approval. Unfortunately, the law was weakened in 2010 by the state’s new Tea Party leadership, but it is still on the books as an “opt-in” policy.

What these communities have realized is that new retail space alone is not necessarily an economic and social good. We already have space ripe for investment, in the main streets and strip malls that have been emptied by the unending wave of new retail construction. Federal data shows that traditional downtown buildings are actually more energy efficient per square foot than modern mall and big-box construction, due to smart conservation practices like shared walls and natural lighting. Downtowns are also more walkable and significantly cut down on driving. Some academic institutions have even tried to quantify what smaller, more local retail does for communities. Some significant findings are that communities with vibrant downtowns and more locally owned businesses have higher household income on average and stronger social networks. Now is an opportunity to reinvest in better retail space, for higher wages, healthier cities, and a cleaner environment.

Photo of a Walmart Neighborhood Market by Phillip Pessar.

For more on Walmart’s rapid expansion, take a look at our article, “New Maps Show Alarming Pace of Walmart’s Continued Growth.”

Rhode Island Standard Contracts Program Grows Distributed Generation

This is an invited guest post from Virginia Rutter of Eutectics.

By the end of 2019, Rhode Island has a goal to have 200 MW of distributed renewable energy generation in the state, most of it solar. The primary means by which Rhode Island means to meet this goal is through the use of standardized premium-rate contracts—a feed-in tariff—for electricity generated from renewable energy sources.

Phase I: Distributed Generation Standard Contracts Program

In 2011, Rhode Island created the Distributed Generation Standard Contracts (DGSC) Program to encourage distributed generation of electricity through renewable sources and to realize the associated benefits, both economic and environmental. The DGSC Program is available for wind, solar photovoltaic, and anaerobic digester technologies. Interested project owners and developers apply during several two-week enrollments throughout the year, and projects are selected based on the lowest cost. Projects awarded contracts will receive a set payment per kWh from the electric utility, National Grid, for the electricity produced for the fifteen-year term of the contract.

In 2014, the ceiling price for small solar systems (50-200 kW), for example, was 25.75 cents per kWh. In contrast, the average price of electricity for residential customers in Rhode Island in 2014 was 12.5 cents per kWh. Producers therefore earn twice as much for solar electricity from National Grid, with that price guaranteed for fifteen years.

The ten-member Distributed Generation (DG) Board administers the program. Members are appointed by the Governor and hold public stakeholder meetings to determine program details. The DG Board sets ceiling prices, rate classes, and enrollment targets for each type of renewable energy, as well as the standard contracts. National Grid creates the application form and manages the enrollment process. The Public Utilities Commission (PUC) provides final approval and program oversight.

The DGSC Program got off to a quick start – an initial 5 MW project quota was met in the year of the program’s enactment. Annual enrollment targets increased each year thereafter, with a final goal of 40 MW by the end of 2014. This goal was nearly met; through the third enrollment in 2014, 38.6 MW of renewable energy projects have been awarded contracts. Solar installations comprise the vast majority of the projects, at 88%, with three large wind projects and three anaerobic digester projects.

Phase II: Renewable Energy Growth Program

In 2014, the Rhode Island Legislature established a new Renewable Energy Growth Program, to expand the distributed generation contracts by an additional 160 MW, for a total of 200 MW. National Grid has proposed the new tariff structure to the PUC; on November 14, the utility submitted the final rules and tariffs. The draft documents propose separating the tariffs into two categories: residential and non-residential. The residential program is for small-scale solar projects of up to and including 25 kW at residential premises, served under the residential rate classes. The non-residential program includes all other retail customers.

The new program as proposed by National Grid has some other significant changes. First, successful applicants to the program would no longer sign contracts with National Grid but would instead receive Certificates of Eligibility. These certificates would detail the terms of the incentive payments, which would also be spelled out in the tariff and supplementary documents. Second, the residential program would operate under continuous open enrollment, whereas the non-residential would continue to be limited to a two-week window for applications. Third, applicants to the residential program can select 15- or 20-year terms for the program, and third party ownership for small solar systems is allowed, with a separate incentive structure. Lastly, National Grid will recover the costs of this new program through a rider on each customer’s utility bill, estimated at 12 cents per month for residential customers.

Benefits for the State

Increasing distributed generation within the state has significant benefits for Rhode Island. A Brattle Group study found that increasing the DGSC program by 160 MW, the exact size of the RE Growth Program, would lead to a $253 million net positive economic impact to the state, including ratepayer impacts, economic output, tax impacts, and criteria pollutant emission reductions. Further benefits include an average annual gain in full time employment of 246 jobs. The DGSC program has attracted substantial out-of-state investment into the state as well; approximately 60% of the projects developed through the program have been by developers located outside of Rhode Island, with 20% outside of the New England region.

Overall, it seems that Rhode Island’s policies to increase the use of distributed generation sources are a success; the program that will end in December 2014 is on track to meet goals, and there is enough interest to increase the program to five times the original capacity.


  • Rhode Island General Laws, §39-26.2 Distributed Generation Standard Contracts
  • National Grid
  • RI PUC Dockets 4277, 4288, and 4536
  • Brattle Group Study
  • Conversation with RI OER
  • U.S. Energy Information Administration

Photo credit: Montgomery County Planning Commission via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license)




Virginia Rutter is the Research Analyst for Eutectics, where she works on solar and other clean energy financing and policy. Recently she has been focused on community solar gardens in Minnesota, both in tracking the program development and assisting subscribers in navigating subscription options.