Creating a Brighter Energy Future for Lake Wobegon

""Lake Wobegon is a special place, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average." And yet, like so many American communities, Lake Wobegon relies on an energy system that is dominated by fossil fuels. For Lake Wobegon’s pragmatic residents, that type of system made sense… up until now. If the down-to-earth, hard-working residents of Garrison Keillor’s fictitious Minnesota town hope to reliably and affordably keep their lights on, stay warm during the next polar vortex, power the Farmer’s Co-op grain elevator, or continue to drive down to the Chatterbox Café, they’ll need to start applying their above-average intellect to addressing the issues around a changing energy landscape.

The American energy system risks being the thing that time forgot. Our aging fossil-fuel-based system is decaying. And in the absence of a plan, the energy system chokingly chugs along without direction or a full understanding of the challenges ahead. Fortunately, there are communities—towns, cities, and states—that have already begun the process of ensuring a prosperous and reliable energy future that does not rely on fossil fuels. Minnesota is one of those places beginning to consider an alternative energy future; meaning Lake Wobegon won’t go it alone, or be forgotten.

Complementing Minnesota’s existing renewable portfolio standards (~25 percent by 2025) and GHG reduction target (15 percent below 2005 levels in 2015, 80 percent by 2050), the state approved funding to scope an energy future study as part of Minnesota’s 2013 Omnibus jobs and economic development finance bill (HF 729). Should such a study move forward, it would represent an important and deliberate step toward creating a long-term energy strategy that can maximize the opportunities around renewable forms of energy, support local economic development, be on the leading edge of efforts to confront climate change, and avoid the economic risks of continued reliance on fossil fuels.

And it is not just Minnesota’s government building momentum around an alternative energy future. The state’s Fortune 100 companies, such as Target and Best Buy, have set significant GHG reduction goals. Its power companies continue to expand renewable generation, including both solar and wind. And Minnesota’s civil society, pillared by organizations such as Great Plains Institute and Center for Energy and Environment, helps facilitate change and drive innovation in the energy and efficiency sector. That is why RMI was excited to support the Minnesota Department of Commerce in the development of a comprehensive guide to conducting an energy future study for Minnesota.

RMI’s report Scoping an Energy Future Study for Minnesota recommends the state and its communities, citizens, and businesses engage in a year-long study and strategy process to better understand how much of Minnesota’s future energy needs can be met with clean energy. Importantly, the report also provides guidance around assessing the timeline and affordability of a transition to more renewable energy, specifically addressing the diverse needs and resources of particular customer classes and current energy providers. The report details approaches to assessing the impact of system changes on grid reliability and resilience, while also making recommendations to foster the development of a shared understanding of the environmental and health implications of an energy transition. Overall, the report provides an analytical framework and methodology to explore Minnesota’s energy future through a detailed and rigorous study process.

More often than not, conducting an energy future study and building an energy strategy is a top-down exercise—an unsatisfying rigid process with a few meetings, a public comment period, and a report compiled largely behind closed doors. That doesn’t sound much like a Lake Wobegon community meeting, and is not what we recommend for Minnesota. Building an energy plan that ignites action and fundamentally transforms the energy system takes co-creation: the deep involvement of a wide range of stakeholders who become intimately involved in the planning, analysis, and development of an alternative energy pathway.

At the core of RMI and the Minnesota Department of Commerce’s recommendations to develop an energy future study is a stakeholder engagement process that ensures citizens, business owners, utilities, academics, taxpayers, homeowners, and commuters not only have a voice, but are deeply immersed in the process. RMI views its work with communities—from cities like Fort Collins, CO, to states like Minnesota—as important not only because it creates buy-in, but also because there is added value to incorporating all the voices, ideas, and intelligence of a community’s diverse set of stakeholders. Just as RMI uses whole-system design to create superefficient and cost-saving buildings, it uses whole-system, multi-stakeholder engagement to help communities set and meet ambitious goals, while increasing their economic vitality and health.

Communities, from town halls to the steps of state capitals, are the centers of political, social, and economic change in America. They can also be the core of an energy transformation as well. Renewable energy can represent a critical local asset. The falling costs of renewable energy coupled with the frequently high, volatile prices of energy derived from fossil fuels and commonly distant sourcing, gives communities an enhanced ability to determine their own energy future. They can be the seeds of change our aging energy system necessitates.

So, how can Lake Wobegon create the energy future it wants? It starts by setting ambitious and technically informed goals, co-created with a wide range of stakeholders. And it turns into reality when those same stakeholders transform ideas into action. Communities are building momentum toward a transformative shift away from fossil fuels. And Minnesota is taking the right steps towards ensuring a bright future.

A Guide to Conducting an Energy Future Study

RMI’s Scoping an Energy Future Study, although focused on Minnesota, is a useful resource for policy makers, organizations, citizens and business owners in communities of various sizes across the United States. The report provides:


  • An approach to the stakeholder engagement process that facilitates co-creation
  • Recommendations around goal setting for how far and how fast a community can transition to a clean energy system
  • Key decision criteria to include in the analysis (e.g., affordability, reliability, etc.)
  • What sectors to analyze and how to evaluate links between sectors The key levers (technology/behavior) to include in the analysis
  • A reference point for budgeting and project team capabilities to conduct an energy future study