What’s Up with Integrated Resource Planning?

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Minnesotans can influence public utilities’ plans for clean energy.

In a nutshell:
– Generating electricity for Minnesota is a big job and utilities invest billions of ratepayer dollars to make it happen.
– Where and how utilities make investments impact our electricity system for decades and provide an important moment to end reliance on costly fossil fuel and move toward low-cost wind, solar, and other zero carbon resources.
– Investor-owned utilities must have their investment plan—known as an Integrated Resource Plan—approved by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, and all utilities must file a plan.
– This planning process is a crucial time for Fresh Energy and other advocates to shape a future that will get us to a carbon neutral economy by mid-century.

When you flip a light switch in your house, what kind of power is it using? Is your electricity coming from coal, nuclear, wind, solar, or something else entirely? Minnesotans have the power to influence how public utilities generate power, as well as their plans for the future, through a public process called “Integrated Resource Planning.”

At Fresh Energy, we are committed to keeping Minnesota on a path to an energy future that is equitable, affordable, and supports the transition to a carbon-free electric system for everyone who lives here. A large part of our state’s electricity future is dependent upon the plans and choices made by our major public utilities like Xcel Energy, Great River Energy, Minnesota Power, and Ottertail Power.

A little-known fact outside of the energy industry is that investor-owned utilities are required by the state to share their plans with the public for feedback through Integrated Resource Plans (IRPs). Fresh Energy uses multiple strategies to make the case for clean energy to decision-leaders, one of which is engaging in the IRP process — and we are on the frontlines of reviewing and providing input to these technical plans. An IRP can be hundreds of pages long, and the review process takes several months to allow staff and experts to fully vet the proposal. By understanding and weighing in on the minutia of IRPs, our staff advocates for an energy system that is clean, healthy, and affordable.

IRPs are just part of the picture – we do a lot of advocacy with utility executives and also pass laws, like the solar standard, that need to be actualized in IRPs.

What is Integrated Resource Planning?

According to the Minnesota Department of Commerce, Integrated Resource Planning is “one of the most important planning and road maps for each electric utility.” The process was created in the 1980s to ensure electric utilities operate within the best interests of the state’s residents, and to ensure long term reliability of the electric grid.

Every two years, all 11 Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs) and Generation and Transmission (G&T) cooperatives that sell electricity in Minnesota are required to file their IRPs with the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC). Each proposed plan includes:

  • a 15-year forecast of how much electricity their customers will need;
  • how much electricity the utility is able to generate;
  • how the utility will provide the electricity it expects their customers to need over the next fifteen years;
  • and an estimate of how much money the utility will need to spend to meet these 15-year needs.

The IRP ultimately lays out a 15-year roadmap for electric utilities. Through this process, these businesses predict the need for their product, and propose how to meet that need. There are many ways to produce electricity – each have different upfront costs, fuel costs, and operating costs – and the IRP is the place where utilities pencil out all of their options. It is often the process through which proposals such as coal and gas plant retirements, energy efficiency, grid modernization, investments in solar and wind, and commitments to assisting low-income households are made.

What is the Process and Timeline?

Plan Submission and Public Comment Period
Once the IRP is submitted to the Public Utilities Commission, the proposed plan must go through at least a 30-day public comment period. When submitted, the plan is given a “docket” number and filed electronically on the PUC’s website. Once the IRP has an official docket, stakeholders, experts (like the staff at Fresh Energy), and ratepayers can submit public comments through the website. The purpose of these comments is to inform the decisions made by the Commission.

Utility Replies, Decision Issued
After all of the public, stakeholder and utilities comments and replies, as well as a hearing, the PUC issues their decision regarding the proposed plan. For investor owned utilities like Xcel Energy this can go three ways, the PUC can: accept the plan as it was proposed or edited through the public comment process; reject the plan and ask the utility to make edits; or the PUC can directly edit the proposed plan to what they see fit. The PUC may only edit the plans of investor owned utilities. When it comes to electric cooperatives and municipal electric systems, the Commission simply accepts or rejects their plans, and the decisions and inputs made by the PUC for these entities are advisory, not binding.

Why Should Minnesotans Care?

Engaging in Integrated Resource Planning is a major opportunity for expanding wind and solar, retiring dirty fossil fuel plants, and committing to energy efficiency.

How your home or business is powered is directly impacted by an IRP. IRPs are powerful processes and set the pace for how a utility plans for its future, they also can influence the bottom line on a customer’s electric bill.

By engaging in the IRP process, stakeholders and experts can make sure that planning stays on the right track toward a Minnesota that is powered by clean energy. IRPs are a major opportunity for expanding wind and solar, retiring dirty fossil fuel plants, and committing to energy efficiency (the cheapest electricity source there is). By engaging in the IRP process, Fresh Energy, the public, and other advocates can highlight the economic, health, and environmental benefits of energy efficiency, renewable energy, and moving beyond coal and gas.