Updated: 11:00 a.m.
For the past decade, Jamez Staples has worked to bring the benefits of solar energy to north Minneapolis, the tight-knit community where he grew up. He says for too long it’s been a community overlooked.
He started a company called Renewable Energy Partners installing solar arrays around the city, including more than 900 panels on the roof of North Community High School scheduled to be connected to the electric grid later this fall.
Working on that project “meant everything,” said Staples, 44, who lives less than a block away from his former school. "The North project is near and dear because it’s a low-income project. It’s offered to low-income subscribers. It supports the public schools as well as the city.”
The installation on North High is what’s known as a community solar garden. About 50 local households subscribed to a portion of the project. Then they receive credit on their electric bills for the energy their share of the solar panels produce.
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There are already 130 people on the waiting list to become subscribers, said Kyle Samejima, executive program and engagement director of Minneapolis Climate Action, which manages the project with a goal of making it accessible to anyone in the community.
“It’s whether you rent or own, regardless of income. We don’t check credit scores, and people can pay as they go with no money upfront.”
Renewable energy projects such as this solar garden, have slowly sprouted over the past few years in what Minneapolis has designated the Northside Green Zone. It’s an area with high levels of environmental pollution and “racial, political, and economic marginalization.” The zone’s developments is driven by grassroots community groups and socially-minded entrepreneurs like Staples.
But for the most part, the clean energy transition has so far been centered largely in wealthier communities, where people have the means to invest in technologies like solar and electric vehicles that save money in the long run, but often carry steep upfront costs.
Even community solar — which by its definition should benefit community members who don’t own their own rooftops or can’t afford their own panels — has, to this point, largely benefited business customers.
“There was no obligation to make sure that there weren't people being left behind,” said Staples. “And so it became ‘corporate solar,’ if you will, where those who had the resources could just pony up and buy in, while those who didn’t had to sit on the sidelines.”
But advocates are cheered by new policies that place a focus on equity in the move towards clean energy. These include revamping of Minnesota’s community solar program, and a federal commitment known as Justice 40, which requires that 40 percent of the benefits of the spending on the clean energy transition benefit disadvantaged communities.
“We cannot have change occur only on the pocketbooks of those early adopters, those people who can most afford it and benefit most,” said Margaret Cherne-Hendrick with the St. Paul based clean energy nonprofit Fresh Energy. “That's just not the way that we can do this in an equitable fashion.”
Green energy, green jobs
About four blocks away from North High, Keith Dent opens the door to the roof of Shiloh Temple International Ministries, home to another early clean energy effort in north Minneapolis. About 600 solar panels perched on the roof provide enough electricity for about 50 nearby homes.
Dent describes himself as a solar enthusiast, installer, project manager, trainer and teacher. He runs a business called Just B Solar that hosts solar camps for kids. He was also one of the lead installers on the Shiloh Temple project in 2018.
He’s also a subscriber to it through Cooperative Energy Futures, which built the project, along with several other low-income-accessible community solar arrays around the state.
Dent, who’s also a board member of the group, said his family has saved thousands of dollars in electric bills. He views his subscription as an “asset,” something he can pass down to his children.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” Dent said. His family has used the savings to pay for extracurricular activities for his kids, from ballet to kickboxing.
For clean energy backers like Dent and Jamez Staples, environmental justice also means economic justice. They want people on the North Side to benefit from carbon-free electricity and good-paying jobs in a growing industry. But Staples said the closest job training for this kind of work is two hours away.
So, six years ago, Staples bought an old roller skating rink on the North side that’s now being transformed into a clean energy job training center.
His mantra is to first engage community members, then educate and train them so they can then find employment in a burgeoning industry. There are about 60,000 clean energy jobs in the state, according to Clean Energy Economy Minnesota — with nearly 2,000 jobs created last year alone.
“I don’t want this to be like the dot-com era all over again, right? We missed that window. And it’s done. And all the money’s been made. And we’re still here, right. And, to me, it's like, we got to figure out how to bring people in earlier into these emerging spaces,” Staples said.
“That’s what this training center is about. Power to the People, literally and figuratively.”
When Shiloh Temple Bishop Richard Howell was first approached about installing hundreds of solar panels on the church rooftop, he was skeptical.
“At the time, the concept was very new and foreign to me,” he told MPR News in 2018. “You might as well be speaking in tongues as far as I’m concerned,” he remembers thinking.
But after learning how members of the congregation and broader community could benefit from the clean energy the rooftop panels would produce, he was sold. “Now we’re convinced that this is the right thing to do.”
For solar to make further inroads into communities like north Minneapolis, advocates say more emphasis needs to be placed on outreach, to educate residents about clean energy opportunities like community solar.
"Really what tends to get missed in a lot of this work, whether it’s in indigenous communities or here in Minneapolis is that this work takes so much time and trust [building], said Samejima of Minneapolis Climate Action. “And I often have to fight for the engagement money.”
Her organization partnered with community groups to knock on doors and conduct outreach at North High basketball games and other events to recruit subscribers.
“There really needs to be that trust of someone coming in and offering something that can sound, you know, too good to be true,” she said.
That kind of grassroots engagement is now even more critical after lawmakers revamped the state’s community solar program earlier this year.
Minnesota is a national leader in community solar. The state developed one of the first programs in the country a decade ago. It’s the second largest program nationwide, behind only New York. And it makes up more than half of all the solar installed in the state.
But while about 86 percent of the subscribers to the hundreds of community solar projects around the state are residential, about 86 percent of the solar power actually being produced goes to larger commercial subscribers.
After years of pressure to increase access and equity, state lawmakers recently changed the program to set aside 30 percent of capacity for lower and moderate income residents. Starting next year those subscribers will also receive larger credits on their electric bills.
“So it’s incentivizing developers to go and reach out to those communities, because it is harder, right?” said Logan O'Grady, executive director of the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association. “You have to go door to door more than just, you know, finding one commercial entity to use up 40 percent of the garden.”
The hope now is that going forward, more equity-centered solar gardens like those on North High or Shiloh Temple will increasingly become the norm, as solar spreads.
“We want energy democracy and energy sovereignty so that we don’t repeat the same exploitative systems of the past as we transition to renewable energy,” said Samejima. “As many activists say, a transition is inevitable, justice is not.”
Electric car sharing
Community engagement is also a critical part of the groundbreaking Evie car sharing program in Minneapolis and St. Paul — the largest municipally owned, all-electric, renewably powered car share program in North America.
A collaboration among the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Xcel Energy, the nonprofit HourCar, and other organizations, the program provides 170 electric vehicles — and a network of 280 public charging spots — in a 35 square mile area in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
About 8,000 people have signed up to use the service since it launched last year. Users download an app to reserve cars. A 30-minute trip costs about $5. When they’re done, they can leave the leave the car on any public street for the next person to drive.
From the beginning, the program has focused primarily on low-wealth neighborhoods with majority BIPOC populations, “because we know that those communities are underserved,” said Shannon Crabtree, senior planner and community development manager at HourCar.
“How do we get to a just future without bringing those communities along? I think the answer is we can't. We have to make sure that those folks are included.”
Crabtree says they prioritized community engagement from the beginning. They partnered with 10 neighborhood groups to reach out to residents to answer their questions and address concerns.
In south Minneapolis, Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association Environmental Justice Coordinator Justice Jones has organized a series of community meetings in Somali and Spanish to reach non-English speakers. She said despite substantial outreach, residents still have a lot of questions.
“Like, what is it? How to use it? They didn’t think that they were allowed to use it. And then the fact that they had no idea like what an electric car was, or how it works, or how to charge it.”
Jones said there’s also definitely a stigma that exists with electric cars among lower income people, that they’re only for “rich people.”
Many people also think the service is too expensive, even though HourCar did drop prices by 40 percent to address initial concerns.
“One of the biggest recommendations from community members is that it’s not as inexpensive as Evie thinks it is, especially for those who might already have a car and have some expenses that they have to pay,” Jones said.
But despite those reservations, the program has grown much faster than its backers anticipated. Each vehicle is now used nearly four times per day.
“That’s huge,” said Erin Kayser, EV charging and electric carshare program coordinator for the city of St. Paul. “That’s a lot of trips in a day. We’ve crossed the threshold of 10,000 trips in a month, which really is a tangible reduction in carbon emissions.”
And more broadly, the program has helped change the narrative around who has access to electric vehicles, said Anjali Bains, energy access and equity director at Fresh Energy (and also a board member of HourCar.)
By bringing “that access and education to those who have not typically been at the forefront of electric vehicle adoption, once you actually do that work, it turns out everyone loves electric vehicles, not just a certain segment of the population who can afford it.”
The Evie car sharing service has gotten pushback from more affluent neighborhoods for not placing cars there. They argue adoption rates would be higher in those communities, which would take more cars off the road and more quickly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“I get lots of calls from Mac-Groveland saying we would love to have public chargers. And I absolutely get that,” said Kayser. “But it really was important to us for this first push to really make it clear that this project is rooted in equity.”
Advocates acknowledge it takes a lot of work to reach underserved communities. But they argue that clean energy transition issues cannot be solved without placing equity at the forefront.
"Because equity allows us to really understand where are those solutions that we actually need to design to the problems at hand, rather than thinking, how do we just shift the easiest slice of the segment of our society towards clean energy and forget about the rest,” said Bains.
That would get us to a certain point, added Bains, “but that won’t get you to the entire system transformation we need.”
Correction (Oct. 3, 2023): An earlier version of this story misidentified Kyle Samejima’s role at Minneapolis Climate Action, and mischaracterized Just B Solar’s organizational status. The story has been updated.