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Local View: In Duluth, elsewhere, a just energy transition has to start now

From the column: "This will take time, but I do believe it is possible with the help of voices in our region and in communities around the country. We need to start working now, with big and small

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Contributed photo / Students at the University of Minnesota Duluth created this 10-foot puppet of an owl to help draw attention to the need for a transition to a renewable-energy future.
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On behalf of the students in the UMD Anthropology of Energy course (ANTH3300), I’m writing to thank everyone who attended our Duluth Power Dialog on May 2 at the Kirby Student Center.

Our campus is situated in a region of enormous natural beauty at the tip of Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake by surface area in the world. We are so lucky to be surrounded by nature and its beauty every day.

But now we face an urgent choice: Are we going to work to save this place we call home or are we going to ruin it for future generations?

We need to act now. Our starting point is clear but difficult: Electrify the transportation sector and decarbonize the electricity sector.

Every spring our class hosts an annual Duluth Power Dialog, a public event to talk about the progress being made in Duluth on decarbonizing its electric grid. We study decarbonization from the perspective of energy democracy and how communities and individuals are empowered to capture the benefits of their energy transition, including their right to be owners of renewable-energy generation whether or not it takes business away from monopoly utility corporations that dominate our shared electric grid.

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Our Duluth Power Dialog also draws attention to a just energy transition, how energy decision-making includes local citizens, and how we can ensure that benefits flow to everyone while risks are equitably distributed. We also focus on how good decisions minimize harmful environmental impacts from energy infrastructure while maximizing the natural productivity of the land.

Our class readings showed us that local community engagement in transitioning our regional electric grid has become increasingly important. We studied cases where private, investor-owned power utilities acted in their best interest and not in the interest of their customers. We also read cases where cities and their citizens successfully leveraged their voices to get more locally owned renewable energy into their grids. Germany’s Energiewende is a successful example of a grassroots, community-led national energy transition.

I view a successful energy transition to entail 100% renewable-energy pathways that include both large- and small-scale renewables. This will take time, but I do believe it is possible with the help of voices in our region and in communities around the country. We need to start working now, with big and small steps, to move in this direction.

In past years, the Duluth Power Dialog has paid attention to what is slowing our chances for a 100% renewable-energy future. These include Minnesota Power’s proposed Nemadji Trail methane (gas) power plant in Superior and its resistance to local community ownership of solar energy. These actions hurt rather than help our community. We need to educate people on these topics so we can work together to stop bad decisions from becoming bad practices.

At the 2022 Duluth Power Dialog, we students introduced a new voice. We created a larger-than-life owl puppet to represent future generations and their voices that have been missing from the conversation. We are excited to offer our community a new way to help our civic voices speak louder. Our owl puppet represents something we don’t always know how to put into words. When our puppet makes a statement, it has a new pathway to get that idea across people's minds.

I hope the puppet impacts people for years to come in a positive way. I hope it helps move our energy transition along and reminds people to always do better for future generations. I hope that our puppet shows up at local climate-energy events, carrying messages that move people in the right direction.

Darby Neustel is a graduate this year of the University of Minnesota Duluth. She wrote this originally for an energy, culture and society class after studying Duluth's energy-transition efforts and helping to organize a Duluth Power Dialog event this spring.

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Darby Neustel

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