Getting energized about solar equity

“Fog in the eyes and throats… wheezing by the firesides.”Charles Dickens, Bleak House

Energy is not a sexy topic. But in the U.S., energy is how we’ve created our growth as a society — so I’ve been trying to add energy consciousness to my learning list lately. As I’ve quoted in this column, we might not be shoveling coal into a furnace anymore, but if we carried our coal in a bag to the trash every week we’d see how much we consume.

According to Enerdata’s Global Energy Statistical Yearbook 2015, America uses more tons of energy than India, Japan, Germany, Canada and France combined.

So the push in Minnesota for community solar gardens (CSGs) is a welcome one. Subscribers can be part of a long-term collective effort in a garden array that a developer pays to install and maintain. I’ll get into the irksome spots in a moment, but first…

As Xcel Energy gets closer to working with developers for the design and construction stage of 25 Hennepin County projects, there are three reasons why renewable energy is doing good things for our community. Simplistically, the recap on solar energy:

  • Reduces our reliance on limited oil reserves by using energy from the sun, which works even in our winter months;
  • Wastes less energy getting from power plant through transmission lines to homes and businesses (see graph); and
  • Sends less climate-changing carbon into the air.

Impact on health 

I recently read an interesting story about the health impact of carbon emissions (, February 24, 2016). Drew Shindell, professor of climate science at Duke University, explained that faulty General Motors ignition switches have been linked to about 20 deaths during the past 11 years. This led to a recall of millions of vehicles, massive media attention and a congressional hearing. Yet air pollution during those same years caused an estimated 40,000 deaths. And how much recall and congressional hearings have happened because of that?

In the broader picture, outdoor air pollution claims about 3.7 million lives annually, according to the World Health Organization. Shindell wrote, “Even in a country like the U.S., with relatively clean air, [air pollution] kills about 130,000 annually and sends another roughly 330,000 to the hospital for respiratory and cardiovascular diseases or nonfatal heart attacks. The huge damages caused by emissions from fossil fuel burning mean that reducing our reliance on fossil fuels can have enormous benefits.”

Being energy conscious 

In lower-income communities—around the globe, and here in Minneapolis—energy is less of a magic trick that illuminates our life. It is often a struggle to keep a leaky home warm in the winter. It eats up a high percentage of income. On average, reports the local Cooperative Energy Futures (CEF), 20 percent of income is spent on utility bills for families eligible for Federal Energy Assistance in Minnesota, as compared to 3 percent for the average Minnesotan. That is why CEF is leading an effort to bring renewable energy to North Minneapolis, for starters.

Currently the most common CSG business models are tending to favor subscriptions, and thus savings, for those who have higher credit scores.

“Many financiers are requiring credit scores because they believe that a large number of people will default on their subscription contracts,” says CEF’s co-founder Timothy DenHerder-Thomas. “I think this is inappropriate, because unlike other consumer lending, a CSG saves more money than it costs. Consumer debt has on average a 3 percent default rate, whereas utility bill payments have a default rate around 0.3 percent. Subscribers have an interest in paying their CSG payments because they are otherwise on the hook for higher utility bill payments.”

CEF’s co-founder Timothy DenHerder-Thomas
Timothy DenHerder-Thomas

CEF does not use a minimum credit score. DenHerder-Thomas also is part of a collective financing effort to make on-bill repayment for energy efficiency improvements and other clean energy efforts available to anyone who pays their utility bills.

The CEF mission, he said, “is to use the power of community to create economic opportunity through energy efficiency and community-based clean energy. As a member-owned cooperative, we believe all energy users should share in the social, environmental, and economic benefits of transitioning our energy system.”

CEF plans to install 4-6 CSGs in 2016. Two projects currently open to subscriptions are:

  • 202 kW, Shiloh Temple, North Minneapolis
  • 600 kW, Edina Public Works Building

To learn more about the CEF solar gardens—and its contracts that require installers to use at least 50 percent minority labor for non-electrical work—visit to find the “Sustainable We E-guide: Energy.”

The free 10-page e-guide also includes links to audio clips from the January forum about community solar gardens that featured five local resident experts, including Larry Weiss of tenKsolar, responding to questions ranging from “why 25-year contracts?” to “should we be holding out for new technologies that are coming?”

Cooperative Energy Futures is one of four nonprofits that will be lauded at the first-ever “Sustainable We” celebration, to be held at Surly Brewery on July 5. Visit the website or Facebook page to sign up and join us!

Mikki Morrissette, founder of, is building toward a citywide “Sustainable We” event at Surly Brewery in June. She welcomes supporters in the effort.