Solar Garden may reduce energy for low-income residents

Construction will bring green training, jobs to Northside

Canvassers go door-to-door in north Minneapolis to tell residents about a planned community solar project
Canvassers go door-to-door in north Minneapolis to tell residents about a planned community solar project

Cooperative Energy Futures, a for-profit co-op that works to improve energy efficiency, is expecting to begin constructing a Community Solar Garden in late autumn. The project will be built in North Minneapolis and is predicted to provide clean energy at a lower cost to local subscribers as well as training North Minneapolis residents for jobs in the solar industry.

The Community Solar Garden is going to be built on the roof of Shiloh Temple International Ministries in North Minneapolis and will provide solar energy for 50-60 households in the community that want to get their energy from solar in exchange for a reduction in their energy bills.

“This Community Solar Garden will benefit the local lower-income residents of North Minneapolis who choose to participate in it as priority subscribers,” said Mary Kay Olson, the Community Solar Coordinator for Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light via email. The Solar Garden is expected to lower the energy bill for those who choose to subscribe and will provide a clean alternative source of energy for its subscribers.

“It’s also providing clean energy and [reducing] pollution from coal and other dirty energy plants where our communities currently get most of their energy,” said Timothy DenHerder-Thomas, the general manager for Cooperative Energy Futures who is the leading coalition member and Solar Garden developer. The Solar Garden is expected to reduce the energy bill for households that choose to subscribe. However, low-income households have more to gain from the Community Solar Garden than the average household in Minnesota.

“The average Minnesota household spends about five percent of their income on energy but low-income households spend a much higher proportion — about 15 percent or 16 percent — so energy cost is a pretty significant cost for people living in poverty,” said DenHerder-Thomas. “Subscribing to the solar garden at Shiloh will allow people [to] reduce their energy bills by about 15 percent if they’re subscribing at a month-by-month basis.”

DenHerder-Thomas did not cite a source for his statistics, but the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program Home Energy Notebook for the 2014 fiscal year found that the average Midwest non-low-income household spends about three percent of its income on electrical energy. A low-income household qualifying for energy assistance spends about 20 percent.

Subscribers to the Community Solar Garden can pay monthly. But there is also the option for people to pay a larger one-time fee. “If they subscribe upfront, they pay a larger chunk of money one time, and then they’re basically getting free electricity for 25 years,” said DenHerder-Thomas. “It is a pretty significant savings on electricity bills, which are one of many factors that are affecting people economically.”

In addition to providing clean energy at a lower cost to local subscribers, there will also be a job-training program focused on employing low-income residents from North Minneapolis in the solar industry. Renewable Energy Partners, owned by Northside resident Jamez Staples, is recruiting people who want solar jobs for a training program. The individuals who graduate from the program are expected to be employed in constructing the Community Solar Garden at Shiloh.

“The biggest deal is that you’re able and willing with a good attitude,” said Staples regarding the individuals that he is seeking out for the training program. “First off is obviously the solar installation is a manual labor component of the industry, and you have to be able to lift 60 lbs. comfortably. [You have to] more or less be able to move comfortably on a roof as well as a ladder.”

Staples went on to break down his benchmark for applicants into three criteria. He wants North Minneapolis locals who are able bodied, have a positive attitude, and are willing to go through the training program. Those who make it through the training program are expected to receive a job working on the construction of the Community Solar Garden at Shiloh starting at $15 an hour. Pay can increase based on an individual’s production and those who go on to graduate from the training program should expect to receive $20 to $22 an hour in a year or year and a half following the start of their employment. Individuals with a criminal record will be allowed to enter the training program and gain employment. However, employment is not guaranteed to everyone who enters the training program.

“There [are] no guarantees in life,” Staples said. “What I can do is, I can say that the solar industry has seen substantial need for employees. Obviously, just like any other job interview there’s an opportunity that you have to prove yourself, that you’re able and capable. But this is an opportunity and if they show they have the right attitude and the right work ethic there will be more than enough opportunities for people who demonstrate those skills.”

Training Northside residents in the solar industry is expected to help with the lack of opportunity for people of color in North Minneapolis.

“The job-training program seeks to train Northside locals of color or residents who are unemployed and living on the Northside to be able to participate in the exploding job market for solar installers, professionals and the emerging green economy,” said Olson via email. “This will help alleviate the racial disparities in employment in the city of Minneapolis.”

According to the City of Minneapolis Racial Disparities Study from 2013, 22.3 percent of Black people in Minneapolis, 16 years and older, are unemployed, giving them the second highest percentage of unemployment for all races in Minneapolis behind American Indians. According to the same study, only 6.3 percent of Whites (non-Hispanic) are unemployed. For Whites (non-Hispanic), the poverty rate in North Minneapolis is 15.1 percent. All other racial categories face rates at least 25 percentage points higher according to a June 2014 Workforce Report issued by Northside Funders Group.

Staples and DenHerder-Thomas expect the Community Solar Garden project at Shiloh will improve the air quality, cost of living and lack of employment opportunities for people in North Minneapolis. But many projects statewide have not created access for low-income families or people of color, and if the boom in solar industries leaves these communities out, it could potentially impact ratepayers negatively.

“While the current increases in energy rates are due to expensive decisions the utilities are making to build new power plants and maintain old ones, even while energy use is declining, a fast ramp-up in community solar could add a minor increase in rates.” Staples said. “The benefits of subscribing to community solar are much larger than these costs, but if we see a lot of solar development that is only available to a few, those businesses and wealthy families will get most of the benefits while we all share the costs.”

This negative impact on ratepayers could potentially hurt low income communities like North Minneapolis more than wealthier parts of the city.

“If community solar statewide gets developed in this way, it would have a higher impact on low-income communities like North Minneapolis because low-income people pay a higher proportion of their income on energy and would generally have less access to community solar gardens if they required credit scores or significant upfront wealth,” said Staples.

Staples indicated that the Shiloh project responds to these threats by making sure low-income families and communities of color have access to the benefits of community solar.

“That’s why we’re focused on getting communities of color, as well as low-income residents, involved and engaged in the conversation that’s taking place around community solar,” Staples said. “[By] engaging and educating the community around what community solar is — while creating the necessary access points for them with a pay-as-you-go model or with one-time payment — we’re trying to make sure that they have all the options available.”

Construction is expected to begin in late autumn and will take approximately six weeks to complete. North Minneapolis locals can begin to subscribe to the service this fall and the Community Solar Garden is expected to be online by early spring 2016.


Daniel Abramowitz is an MSR journalism intern and a student at Macalester College. He welcomes reader responses to

One Comment on “Solar Garden may reduce energy for low-income residents”

  1. Even people in wealthier communities have issues getting solar into their neighborhoods. Some of these bigger utility companies aren’t too keen to let money fly out of their pockets. That the people saving money are people who are already at a financial disadvantage is the icing on a sweet cake. And there are jobs coming into the community too? This is great.

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