Worried about Defecits and Unemployment?: Community Powered Energy

As the federal government eyes a shutdown and Minnesota cautiously creeps towards the end of its state-level closure, the underlying questions remain unanswered:

  • How do we balance budgets and live within our means by raising income and cutting waste without sacrificing the essentials, whether at the government level or for people already living on the edge?
  • How do we create lasting jobs and economic opportunity when the costs of living keep rising and people have less money to spend?
  • How do we bridge traditional divides (partisan, ideological, socioeconomic, and cultural) to work together creatively for public health, geopolitical stability, climate and energy solutions, community resiliency, and social justice?

For the neighborhoods around Midtown in South Minneapolis, where the recession has left unemployment edging towards 40%, foreclosure running rampant, violent crime rising, and neighborhoods and community organizations struggling with funding cuts, these questions are at the fore. Things have always been challenging here; absentee landlords control much of the housing, and a large portion of people’s income leaves the community to pay for goods and services elsewhere. Many local residents (the area is primarily low-income, people of color, and has many recent immigrants and non-English speakers) feel they have little agency in corporate and governmental decisions affecting the neighborhood.

In times of crisis, communities can turn against each other in a desperate attempt to protect what remains, or towards each other to work together to create new opportunities and long term solutions. In the Twin Cities Summer of Solutions, we’re helping the community use the opportunities that clean energy and energy efficiency provides to make the latter choice. Scaled up, we hope this work may serve as an example for a world facing challenging times.

The seven neighborhoods (over 13,000 households and over 500 businesses) we’re focusing on together spend over $63 million each year paying for electricity, heating, and gasoline – that number will only go up as prices rise. That money is creating few local jobs – the majority of it pays for coal mining, oil drilling, natural gas extraction, power plants, natural gas pipelines, and more. I don’t need to recite the list of problems these things create for both the local community already plagued with asthma and other respiratory illnesses and for our broader nation and planet. 30-80% of this $63 million/year  can be avoided through behavioral changes and available technologies that pay for themselves, reducing the negative impacts created. Collectively implementing these practices cuts the cost of implementing them (opening access to people and making it easier to finance) and dramatically increases demand for local green business and green jobs, putting people back to work (or into it for the first time). Eliminating those costs helps individuals and businesses balance their own budgets and create new jobs and income. This in turn reduces reliance on public subsidies and increases public income, making economic recovery and fiscal responsibility connected instead of opposed. In doing so, we help create a win-win-win scenario for residents and businesses and across cultural and socioeconomic groups; building community and helping people unite across difference for a common goal.

We believe energy efficiency and clean energy can be a driver for stronger communities and a renewed economy. And more than our belief; we’re making it happen.

So here’s the low down on what’s happening around energy in the Twin Cities …

In the Twin Cities, we have seven project teams of 4-10 people each working on energy, each of which are doing really amazing things to advance the broader systems change. It can get kind of overwhelming, so I’ll try to keep it simple:

Cooperative Energy Futures (CEF) – this is the energy cooperative that solutionaries including myself founded in 2008+2009 and have been using to explore all dimensions of efficiency business, community organizing, and transforming how business is done around energy. Over the past three years, we’ve cooked up some pretty feisty business models that we’re just starting to draw on. This summer, we have four project teams getting the first stages of these business models rolling:

  1. The East Phillips Improvement Coalition (EPIC) contract: Cooperative Energy Futures has been running workshops in people’s homes teaching people how to save hundreds of dollars of energy per year off and on for about a year and a half. The workshops cost $10 per household and we also sell do-it-yourself energy efficiency materials in bulk (which allows us to beat prices of hardware stores). The average resident will buy $10-$50 worth of efficiency save materials, which will pay for their cost in energy savings in a matter of months. Until now, these have been irregular one-time gigs. In June, CEF secured a small contract with EPIC, the neighborhood association of the highly multi-cultural and low-income neighborhood of East Phillips, to host workshops focused on saving electricity for 40 households in the neighborhood and provide a refrigerator coil brush (cleans the coils on your refrigerator, making it run more efficiently) and two high-efficiency light-bulbs. The current team is equipped to serve English and Spanish speakers and has already met with great success at the first couple of workshops held – people are really excited, and they have even identified someone who might want to join CEF’s paid outreach and training team in the future.
  2. Group Contracting for Insulation: In 2008, as CEF was being formed, a volunteer team coordinated a group contract for insulation of 7 homes in Merriam Park in St. Paul. Now CEF is ready to do it again, at a larger scale, with real revenue. The basic method: CEF uses its expertise and residents priorities to find a qualified contractor who will give a discount (probably 10-20%) for getting many households to insulate together, saving each resident time and hassle. CEF helps 20+ neighbors who want to insulate their homes work together to develop the project, set priorities, conduct audits using the existing auditors available, and figure out incentives and rebates. The contractor does the work, the community members get a discount, and CEF gets a part of the discount for its work. In the future, we’ll add in financing tools so that people who can’t afford the $2,000-$10,000 needed to insulate their homes can do it too. So far, CEF has updated its contractor ties, developed a project plan, and reached 12 individuals who are considering moving ahead. Look for more updates after the 7/26 community meeting. Down the line, CEF looks to expand bulk buying to other technologies, including solar similar to what 1BOG is doing.
  3. Cooperative Power Generation: Efficiency is more important than most folks realize (in the Twin Cities, we’ve done a lot of research about who clean energy gets so much of the attention when simple existing energy-saving technologies and practices can solve 60% of the problem at an extensive profit), but CEF is also interested in the other 40% that will take clean energy. Centrally, CEF is looking for ways for residents, including transient residents, renters, and folks without high capital access and credit score to work together to own and profit from clean energy projects. The powerful cooperative structure allows extensive flexibility around group ownership and operation of a project, and allows ways to link large institutional investors with teams of community-owners. So far, the power generation team has analyzed anaerobic digestion (collecting organic waste and producing heat, electricity, and high-quality compost as an input for urban farms), which looks promising but seems stalled until Minneapolis can work through some permitting issues (we’re going to check back in on it in the Fall) and cooperatively owned solar power. The later is moving rapidly through a model that integrates aspects similar to what Solar Mosaic, Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy, and the Evergreen Cooperatives are doing. The summer will be mostly just defining a model and getting some key partners interested, but we already have the states oldest and largest solar installer interested and the local business association introducing us to potential business partners.
  4. Cooperative Financing – for 3 years, CEF has been exploring the holy grail of how to get capital flowing from the vast base of wealth that is in our communities to the vast financial opportunity of energy efficiency. The financial picture is so remarkably positive (where else can you get 15% low-risk returns) but so logistically hard to access. It has been a long hard slog through hundreds of pages of research and best practices, but in the past four weeks we have made major strides towards a working financing model. Now we’re on to finding the allies that will help us pull the millions of dollars of investment needed to build a community energy fund to finance clean energy and efficiency across Minneapolis.

Our Power – is an emerging campaign hosted by Grand Aspirations that is building a broad coalition of neighborhood groups, non-profits, and service providers to help South Minneapolis build a better energy future. Back in 2010, community groups were organizing against an Xcel Energy proposal to build a high-voltage transmission line through the neighborhood. This was causing conflict because many groups, especially in the local business community, supported the line as a solution to the frequent blackouts and power surges that have been costing millions in the neighborhood. Some unity was found around getting the route of the lines moved from overhead along the Greenway, a major bike transit corridor, to underground along 28th street (nearly everyone saw this as an improvement, though some still disagree with the lines at all). As environmental justice groups and local representatives worked to require the utilities to demonstrate that the line was needed, the business and residential community continued to try to figure out how to see eye to eye. In late 2010, I helped facilitate a series of meetings that led to the development of a community energy plan in early 2011 and the growth of a community outreach campaign to get people involved around it.

  1. Community Outreach – this summer, Our Power has a team of nine people doing regular community engagement. Some of this is door-knocking, as well as tabling at events, getting the word out through community organizations and faith groups, and planning for a major community forum to get feedback on the plan scheduled for August 9th hosted in partnership with Minneapolis Community Action. Throughout this process, we’re asking people to sign on as supporters of Our Power’s core values, to commit to some initial actions, and to identify their interest in any of the other opportunities mentioned in this post, as well as other efficiency, solar, and job training opportunities offered by other groups in Minneapolis. At the same time, we’re listening to people’s concerns and collecting information about what kind of support people want and need so that we can identify ways for neighborhood residents to help each other as well as business opportunities that can create green jobs. The progress is refreshing! In comparison to the Spring, where it was basically just me and a local high school student, our pace is amazing – in just three days of outreach, we’ve almost completed an initial pass through of the Corcoran neighborhood, one of seven in the area. 13,000 households and 1,000 businesses – here we come!
  2. Coalition Building – In addition to the grassroots outreach, Our Power is working to build a robust diverse coalition that will sustain itself over time. We are working to anchor commitment and outreach support from various community groups and neighborhood organizations who can provide valuable help getting the word out through existing trusted avenues. Simultaneously, we’re beginning to negotiate formal relationships with service providers to whom we are referring customers – relationships that include revenue to fund our long-term community organizing and, down the road, local hiring and contracting standards.

The Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC) – is a business development organization that helps Latino businesses across Minnesota start and grow. Twin Cities SoS leader Matt Kazinka has been working with them to develop their green businesses for over a year. This year, the relationship has developed into a larger partnership with LEDC creating and administering a survey (in Spanish) on business sustainability for Latino owned businesses, particularly on Lake Street. This will help Matt and LEDC build a green business program to help existing businesses become more sustainable and help new entrepreneurs start green business. Down the line, collaborations with LEDC will also connect with the commercial efficiency services Our Power is coordinating.

Seven teams going full tilt as part of an interconnected system of projects working to shift the energy economy of Minneapolis. It’s a blast.

The best part; I can see the streams of resources emerging that will sustain livelihoods; helping each other cut energy waste, bring energy dollars back to the community, and build a clean energy future. That means that I, the awesome people I work with, and this bold vision of community powered energy have a future.

This entry was posted in Local Programs, Summer of Solutions by timothydenherderthomas. Bookmark the permalink.

About timothydenherderthomas

Timothy is the General Manager of Cooperative Energy Futures and a member of the Community Power Steering Committee. He's all about people power, and being the changes we actually want to see. Timothy has been heavily involved in community development and using climate solutions as incredible opportunities for local economic activity, collective empowerment, and self-determination. He does lots of network building with buddies in the youth movement as well as labor, faith, agricultural, small business, and neighborhood groups.

One thought on “Worried about Defecits and Unemployment?: Community Powered Energy

  1. Really cool to see this all laid out in one place. An example I can point people to when they ask about Summer of Solutions!

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