Let there be light

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Energy. We turn on light switches, drive to work, watch TV, and perpetually stare at our phones, but how often do we consider where the energy comes from to make all of this possible? 

It is something I have taken for granted, as if power is an infinitely replenishable resource.  Fortunately, renewable energy projects are moving toward making this a reality.

For years Xcel Energy and Centerpoint Energy have maintained a monopoly of the energy industry in Minneapolis. Commercial and residential energy users in the city pay $450 million annually for electricity and gas to these two monopoly energy corporations. This has prevented residents from accessing alternative options for energy sources, particularly if they were hoping to get off the grid. 

Most of the municipal utilities in the country were developed years ago, while some cities have implemented significant increases in renewable energy options and community control. 

Colorado is an early adopter of energy municipalization, with 29 municipal utilities currently, or those that are locally owned and operated. Through years of analysis and community engagement, cities like Boulder developed resident-led initiatives to reduce carbon intensive energy supplies and greenhouse gas emissions, while increasing organics recycling and bike transit infrastructure. Locally owned and operated energy has created community driven strategies resulting in a real impact on climate change.

Starting in 2011, Minneapolis Energy Options organized community members and City Council leaders to explore local energy municipalization and advance clean, local and affordable energy. Despite overwhelming support from the community in precinct caucuses and public hearings, the plan did not pass through City Hall. However, in a compromise with Xcel, Centerpoint, and the city, a Clean Energy Partnership was negotiated offering the city and its residents more decision making power in their source of energy.

Which brings us to today. Mayor Betsy Hodge’s proposed 2015 budget, which included funding to the Clean Energy Partnership, faced being cut until a contentious five-hour Council hearing saved it. Now the people of Minneapolis have the opportunity to develop their own clean energy initiatives in collaboration with Xcel, Centerpoint, and the city.  Recently I sat down with a few dedicated community leaders who are taking advantage of this opportunity.

Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light is a nonprofit organization that responds to climate change by bringing Minnesota’s faith communities together to join the climate justice movement. Cooperative Energy Futures is a for-profit co-op that seeks to create jobs and shared equity in communities by addressing climate change through clean, efficient systems. The two organizations have teamed up on a revolutionary new project with a faith community in North Minneapolis.

The partnership is like an act of divine intervention to heal the earth, merging the intersections of the environment, faith race, and economics into positive opportunities for a community that has faced harsh consequences of climate change. 

Louis Alemayehu is a writer, educator, activist and poet who is working with the two groups to help reclaim communities spiritual connection to the earth. 

“These challenges around environmental justice are really profound cultural issues.  I’m challenged right now to create a new culture so that we can live in a healthy relationship with the environment, so the integrity of the water, the air, and the soil is maintained.  When industrialization came about the honoring of the sacred went out the window and was considered expendable.  Today that terminal system of industrialization is coming to an end, and we are creating a new paradigm that sustains life for future generations,” said Alemayehu.

Recently Southwest Journal assistant editor Dylan Thomas wrote an article on MNIPL and its push to increase access to clean energy for all communities by issuing a request for proposals.  A focus of this initiative is not only to develop community solar, but to do so in neighborhoods experiencing a high impact from climate change, and for development to be with those residents not for them.  This emerging market holds tremendous economic opportunity, but MNIPL does not want to leave those directly affected behind. 

“This is an eco-apartheid in the making,” said Julia Nerbone, Executive Director of MNIPL.  “Some will have solar shares, with no electricity costs in eight to 12 years. Some will continue to buy from the coal-based system, and pay much more than today. The poor are blocked from entry and the rich get richer. MNIPL is committed to doing solar right and have it be the vehicle for bringing people out of poverty.” 

Forming intentional partnerships with community members with job training and a cooperative business model creates a collaborative system where everyone benefits. 

The organizations are working with MCTC on a job training program, where 50 percent of the graduates are people of color, and 100 percent are able to be hired after graduation.

One of their first projects being developed is a community solar garden in a faith community in North Minneapolis.  CSG’s allow clean energy access to large and diverse communities, who may not otherwise have the opportunity due to roof requirements and financial resources.  The community solar garden will provide enough clean, solar energy for 60 homes. 

Individuals can subscribe to the solar garden with a variety of financing options, with an upfront fee or monthly dues.  Over time subscribers will not only make a significant impact on climate change, but they will also be able to save up to 10 percent on their energy costs.  Unlike the cost of oil, which will always go up and down, the cost of renewable energy such as solar will decrease over time. This new energy system has potential to achieve economies of scale across the city providing local jobs for individuals living in the communities directly affected by climate change, and will reduce emissions in areas with a high carbon output. 

The future of clean energy in Minneapolis is now and it looks bright.    

Ryan Stopera is a social worker and community organizer in Minneapolis. He is on the board of directors of MN Neighborhoods Organizing for Change and the Lyndale Neighborhood Association. Ryan is also working on clean energy programs to create jobs in lower income communities around the city. In his free time he enjoys rock climbing and cycling.