Luther College Chips

Power referendum is about the people

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To the Luther community: Recently I submitted a letter to the editor to the local Decorah newspaper and online news. Although it is not my practice to submit opinion pieces to Chips, I am breaking my personal protocol given the central importance of Luther students being fully included and welcomed as members of the Decorah community.  This includes acknowledgement of both the “fairness” and right to vote in the May 1 referendum or any other election, as well as the appropriateness to have a voice in the energy future of Decorah.  I encourage all Luther students to educate themselves on this issue and to vote, regardless of their position. My original letter is as follows:

Although I do not live in Decorah, I have been paying close attention to the discussion surrounding the city’s exploration of a municipal electric utility.  I work in Decorah, do most of my shopping in Decorah, and my children attend Decorah’s outstanding schools.  My employer, Luther College, is the largest electrical purchaser in Decorah and one of the biggest economic drivers in the region.  The last rate hike by Alliant Energy — 7.8 percent — cost my employer $130,000 per year. 

I write for two reasons: The continuing call from some Decorah community members that “it’s not fair” for Luther students to vote in the May 1 referendum and to bring attention to the blatant imbalances in motivations, resources, and transparent information shared in the organizations advocating for yes and no. These imbalances can only be addressed by an impartial third party review.

First, though there is no question in terms of Luther students’ legal right to vote, I am saddened by the current atmosphere and urge this community to consider what this mentality reflects. To whoever is referring to the “real residents” of Decorah — stop it, please stop it. Though many individual Luther students are likely transient members of this community — albeit over 1000 Luther alumni live within five miles of Decorah — they represent a constant body of individuals whose families are major contributors in terms of enabling Decorah to be what it is. The benefits are both broad and deep.  Directly and indirectly, Luther students and their families support downtown Decorah businesses, businesses in the broader region, Decorah educational and healthcare infrastructure, the vibrant Decorah arts culture, housing development and property values, a culture and place that is attractive for retirees, volunteer community service, etc.  Try to imagine Decorah without them. 

Significantly, Luther students have chosen to attend a college that has stewardship of environmental resources in its mission statement.  They currently pay electrical costs totaling over $1 million annually and Alliant has told Luther to plan for five percent increases annually.  These students should not be considered ‘others’; they should be welcomed as full community members, and as such, strongly encouraged to exercise their right and responsibility in this democracy — the same as every other Decorah resident. There is no more un-American action than to disenfranchise one’s fellow citizens from voting and no more pro-American action than voting.  Please consider this before questioning the right of anyone, anywhere, ever, to exercise that fundamental right. 

Second, I wish to bring attention to disparities between the two advocating parties in this debate.  On one side is a large, deep-pocketed, out of state company that — while providing Decorah with high quality, reliable electrical service for many years — necessarily has a primary allegiance to their investors, rather than to the Decorah community.  Given that the electric rate in Decorah is one of the highest in the state, Alliant executives are making millions and previous requests for renewable energy projects have either been ignored or denied, Alliant’s business model deserves critique.

Critical evaluation is also in order for Alliant’s inactions, actions, and communications surrounding this issue —  to a community that has loyally purchased their product for 100 years.  Denying the city’s 2017 request for aggregate electrical usage data that customers had already paid for? Ignoring the city’s request to delay installation of smart meters and instead proceeding anyway? Not openly sharing with customers that they could refuse this meter installation, and then attempting to charge $15 per month to those who did so? The Office of Consumer Advocate has since filed an objection. Promoting that Alliant is regulated by the IUB — and is pro-renewable energy — while simultaneously lobbying at the statehouse to decrease this regulation and essentially dismantle the state’s energy efficiency programs?  Planting seeds of fear into Decorah homes and businesses that “only Alliant” is capable of delivering reliable electricity during extreme weather when over 100 Iowa electrical municipals and rural co-ops successfully handle the same extreme weather for their customers?  Flyers advertising shockingly higher cost predictions for municipal power based on — valuation of infrastructure by a most unwilling seller, a self-funded study with a footnote indicating it is not based on real Alliant data, and multiple disputable assumptions that can only be answered by the IUB? These actions do not convey a business that appropriately respects and partners with its long-standing customers. 

On the other side is a group of dedicated Decorah community members who are driven not by personal financial gain, but rather support for community  — one that can determine its own energy destiny and reap the economic benefits of locally-supplied electricity. Through their well-researched, extraordinary efforts, and countless unpaid hours over two years, another model — one that is not driven by profits — has now risen to compete. And make no mistake, Alliant is worried — as evidenced by the remarkable dollars being spent in their intensive marketing campaign and the intensity of their response. 

Key to this debate is what this level of response actually reveals: Alliant has a lot to lose, and that — at least at this moment in time — is the most accurate indicator of what Decorah has to gain. Given that one side is driven primarily for-profit while the other is for-community, that one side has access to vast utility profits to fund its campaign while the other relies on donations and community fundraisers from a small rural town, that one side has a over $16 million financial conflict of interest — and possibly much more given that Decorah’s application has a good chance of success at the IUB, thereby opening the door for other communities — who should be trusted to provide accurate information?  The only equitable solution for this scenario is to give all parties a trial in front of an impartial jury — the IUB — which is required by law to rule ‘“in the public interest.’” This result is exactly what a yes vote would accomplish and nothing more as no decision gets made by the Decorah City Council with this vote.

The discussion thus far has been focused almost entirely on what the risk is of voting yes. What about the risk of voting no?  I urge voters to not take for granted the kind of spirit, passion, vision, and drive for community that has led to this point. The folks leading this effort, along with all Decorah residents, deserve a fair and comprehensive evaluation and they have not had anything close to that yet.  For it is this same creativity, boldness, willingness to challenge the status quo — and dream — that results in things like: new Decorah businesses, the Trout Run Trail, Flower Baskets on Water Street, the Decorah Eagles, the Oneota Coop, the Hotel Winneshiek, Nordic Fest, The Winneshiek Idea House, etc. It is this spice that attracts individuals and families to live, work, play, shop, retire, and go to school in this special place. The risk of losing a few hours of electrical power once in a great while — a claim based on no evidence — will not hold a candle to the risk of losing, diminishing, or demoralizing the spice that makes this city.  What future visionary community project might no longer happen as a result of lack of fair evaluation of this one? 

The bottom line? Decorah’s power is not about electricity, rather, people.  Not many small rural towns have this level of spirit and human capital and as someone who has spent most of my life in such towns I know that it is key to survival.  Decorah is already famous for toppling one Goliath; there appears to be opportunity for another.

Signed,

Professor of Biology Jodi Enos-Berlage

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