Xcel Energy executives and lobbyists dramatically increased their pre-election spending on municipal races in Minneapolis in 2021. The escalation comes after years of escalating discord between the utility and city officials over the best pathway to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions and increase its renewable energy use. 

Mayor Jacob Frey — who won re-election last month — accepted a total of $4,150 from eight Xcel executives or lobbyists, including President and CEO Bob Frenzel and regional president Chris Clark, according to campaign finance filings that cover contributions through October 19. Both Frenzel and Clark gave $1,000, the maximum allowed in an election year. None of Frey’s challengers listed contributions from Xcel brass in their finance reports. Five of Xcel’s c-suite donors logged their contributions on one day, June 11.

Xcel increased its spending on Minneapolis elections compared to 2017, when campaign finance reports detail that Xcel executives and lobbyists gave a total of $1,900 to mayoral candidates in advance of the election. Of the 2017 pre-election total, just $500 went to Frey.

Frey did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Utility executives commonly focus their political spending on state and federal races. Frenzel, for example, has poured thousands of dollars into campaigns for gubernatorial candidates known for climate denialism, including Kristi Noem in South Dakota and Jeff Johnson in Minnesota. But contributions can mean more for municipal candidates whose fundraising totals are generally smaller — and the fossil fuel industry has turned its attention to local governments in recent years.

The American Gas Association (AGA), a fossil gas trade group on whose board Frenzel sits, has led a national effort to prohibit cities from implementing policies to limit or ban new fossil gas hook-ups. While Minneapolis has not yet considered such legislation, a long-range plan the city adopted in 2018 includes “[eliminating] fossil fuel dependency from all existing buildings and retrofits that eliminate dependency on fossil fuel appliances.”

The spike in Xcel’s municipal giving raises the specter that the utility could be seeking deeper reach into city policymaking. Frey chairs the Clean Energy Partnership board, designed to hold Xcel and CenterPoint Energy accountable for advancing the city’s climate goals. The publicly-funded body that comprises the city, Xcel, and CenterPoint was formed in 2014 as a compromise to end a municipalization push by climate and clean energy activists. Tensions have run high in recent years, with some city officials and staff accusing the utilities of slowing progress and questioning the purpose of the board itself.

“There’s been a lot of things that have been very frustrating about the partnership,” Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon, who has sat on the board since its inception, said in a 2019 interview. “It really hasn’t given us much more control over our energy future. … Sometimes, it feels like the city’s still mostly doing all the work and the lifting and we don’t have that much influence.”

The 2020 Clean Energy Partnership Annual Report shows the body is still not on track to meet a majority of its broad goals, including a citywide transition to clean electricity by 2030 and an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Additionally, several specific initiatives in the partnership’s 2019-2021 work plan remain unfinished. 

Meanwhile, clean energy advocates are skeptical that the partnership is delivering on its promise. Community Power, a grassroots organization that grew out of the earlier municipalization drive, has called on the Mayor and City Council to “evaluate the performance of the Clean Energy Partnership” and urged them to reconsider municipalization “if Xcel and/or CenterPoint refuse to make and act on clear commitments to a shared and adequate-to-meet-the-need work plan.”

Amid tensions over the pace of progress, meeting notes show Frey has been less vocal and less critical of the utilities than other city leaders who serve with him on the board. But unlike Frey, those officials — Gordon and fellow Minneapolis City Council Members Steve Fletcher and Jeremy Schroeder — lost their re-election bids this year. Gordon, Fletcher and Schroeder did not receive campaign contributions from Xcel executives or lobbyists. 

Xcel’s bet on Frey this year coincided with the candidacy of Kate Knuth, a climate scientist who pledged to implement a local Green New Deal including a push for mass weatherization and electrification. Knuth, who had no utility executive or lobbyist contributions in her 2021 campaign finance reports, finished second to Frey. Asked about the Clean Energy Partnership during her campaign, Knuth critiqued “the big promises and the lack of follow-up to actually make [utilities] accountable.”

The 2021 election cycle also reinvigorated interest in establishing a public electric and gas utility. Four newly elected members of the Minneapolis City Council each included municipalization as part of their platform, potentially foreshadowing a more explicit and visible conversation about how Xcel and CenterPoint are serving the city. One of the four, Elliott Payne, also touted his plan to enact a ban on new fossil gas hook-ups, the type of ordinance AGA and CenterPoint have fought

Beyond receiving the legal maximum in donations from Xcel’s Frenzel and Clark, Frey took money from Assistant General Counsel Jon Bloomberg ($500), Vice President and Deputy General Counsel Ryan Long ($500), Executive Vice President and CFO Brian Van Abel ($500), Area Vice President for Strategic Communications Sara Dietrich ($250), and lobbyists John Marshall ($250) and Sara Barrow ($150). Marshall and Barrow focus on local government issues.

Year-end campaign finance reports, which will include spending that took place between October 19 and the election, will be publicly available in January 2022.

Disclosure: In her previous job, the author worked for Jeremy Schroeder, a City Council Member mentioned in this post, and worked with the Clean Energy Partnership.

Photo credit: Tony Webster via Flickr

Posted by Karlee Weinmann

Karlee Weinmann is a Research and Communications Manager for the Energy and Policy Institute. In her previous role at the City of Minneapolis, she focused on climate and land use policy and led development of nationally recognized ordinances that increase transparency of home energy costs. Karlee was also a researcher for the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and, before that, a reporter covering Wall Street dealmaking for a legal newswire. She lives in Minneapolis.