By Autumn Saign
The mission statement behind our community solar work is “clean and equitable energy for all,” but it’s more than just a catchy motto. Distributed and renewable energy systems, such as community solar gardens, are one of the (many) stepping stones towards energy equity and environmental justice.
Energy isn’t Neutral
The United States’ energy system is highly reliant on fossil fuels. These practices accelerate climate change, perpetuate environmental injustice, and contribute to financial and racial disparities. The negative impacts of fossil fuels are unequally distributed throughout the nation. Polluting facilities, such as coal plants, are more likely to be situated in or near minority communities due to patterns of systemic racism and housing segregation. Because of this exposure to pollution, people of color experience significantly worse health conditions and are at greater risk for premature death.
In addition to being environmentally hazardous, energy in the US is expensive. One in three American families face energy insecurity, meaning that they struggle to pay their energy bills and/or face challenges keeping their homes at appropriate temperatures. Energy insecurity disproportionately impacts communities of color across the country. For example, black households encounter a median energy cost burden that is about 60% greater than white households.
A Cleaner, More Equitable Future
Energy is an issue of equity because the allocation of affordable and clean energy, along with the pollution caused by fossil fuels, varies significantly according to race and class. Renewable energy initiatives pose the potential to lessen energy burdens while also protecting the environment. Ironically, these approaches have remained widely inaccessible to the people who need them the most due to participation barriers such as income and homeownership requirements.
Community solar gardens (CSGs) can be designed to dismantle these participation barriers by providing clean and cheap energy to people regardless of their incomes or whether they rent or own. A CSG is an array of solar panels installed on the roof of a local building whose electricity is shared by more than one property. This system provides solar energy for groups that would typically be excluded from it, such as renters.
In addition to inclusivity, CSGs can confront energy insecurity by lowering utility bills. Solar technology has become increasingly more efficient and affordable over the past decade. Solar energy is one of the cheapest energy sources because of the minimal extraction costs (sunshine is free!) and the overall cost of solar has decreased by ~90% over the past decade. CSG subscribers can save money on energy costs while also participating in renewable energy initiatives.
The adoption of distributed community solar will make renewable energy more accessible and electricity more affordable, all while fighting climate change and promoting environmental justice. Solar energy is tied to environmental justice because it lowers pollution, which is the most abundant in communities of color, by displacing fossil fuel combustion. Another component of environmental justice is assuring that people of color, who are often excluded from the environmental industry, are represented in the fields. CSG developments can be intersectionally equitable by hiring local and minority workers and pursuing partners that do the same.
Fossil fuel energy extraction hurts people as well as the planet, and the most vulnerable groups experience the effects of global warming and pollution the most severely. Environmental injustice and climate change are vast, complex problems that demand diverse and innovative solutions. Community solar gardens are a triple threat, encompassing affordability, accessibility, and sustainability. These developments combat environmental degradation and social disparities simultaneously. Community solar gardens won’t solve everything, but they’re a notable step in the right direction towards resilient, sustainable cities.
by Zaynab Ahmed
The zero-waste movement is a fairly new and emerging environmentalist effort to eliminate waste from daily life completely. It has expanded tremendously and remarkably quickly throughout the nation since its inception in the 1980s shortly after the founding of Earth Day in the 1970s. However, there is a large proportion of society that lacks easy access to education and resources related to zero waste movement efforts. The zero-waste movement lacks intersectionality and has even been called out for its racist presentation. The zero-waste movement aims to emphasize the inclusion of all people and the creation of communities through these zero waste initiatives to better the planet for our entire society. However, we currently see a failure to recognize the current racial-based identity divide taking place. Zero waste portrayal is centered around white, middle to upper-class voices and fails to incorporate BIPOC and unprivileged communities who are most affected by the environmental issues the movement focuses on. Environmental racism has extensively made an appearance in all environmental movements, the zero waste movement included.
Why is the implementation of intersectionality so vital within environmentalism? Leah Thomas, an environmentalist who advocates for intersectionality within the discipline states, “The future of Environmentalism is intersectional, and we can't save the planet without uplifting the voices of its people, especially those most often unheard.” Intersectional environmentalism strives to protect people and the environment simultaneously. It works toward providing equity to the masses of those who find passion within environmental pursuits and highlights environmentally-related injustices done on vulnerable communities. Intersectional environmentalism is vital for those who identify with underrepresented communities and aspire to have a voice for environmental issues they wish to bring to attention.
As a black first-generation immigrant woman, growing up underprivileged and underrepresented, struggling to find the balance between my many intersectional identities, I viewed caring about environmental affairs as a privilege for years. Advocating for matters that directly pertain to the infliction of violence and suffering on people because of issues of racism or injustice seemed to me, far more pressing. However, what I failed to realize or was never taught was that environmental issues do directly inflict suffering especially on those of minority races and within underprivileged communities.
We see very few voices within the zero waste movement from minority races largely because it is more challenging for them to voice their achievements and struggles within this movement compared to their white and privileged counterparts. The movement needs to also reflect more diverse experiences to broaden its audience and appeal. It is significantly more difficult for BIPOC communities to resonate with the zero waste movement when they see none of their personal experiences with environmentalism reflected in popularized conversations and efforts. Also, the movement is inaccessible to underprivileged groups who lack the necessary resources and financial means to participate. Failing to acknowledge and create solutions for these issues further contributes to the problems of environmental racism and social injustice.
However, it is not enough to simply include BIPOC communities but rather we need to also be led by them. If we are simply asking for the bare minimum requirement of being included more in the zero waste movement, we will most likely still see BIPOC communities having a small influence. Environmental racism is systematic and deep-rooted and requires significant amounts of work to combat as well as to gain more equality. Organizations that promote zero-waste efforts that are made of BIPOC people and for BIPOC people are the best aids for this issue. It allows for minorities to create their platform and format their creation of what this movement is to them.
Minneapolis Climate Action works actively towards solutions to combat environmentally racist issues within the Minneapolis Area. Some of our ongoing projects include creating a curriculum to educate the East African predominant community within Minneapolis on sustainability solutions and providing resources for them to be able to implement sustainable practices into their lives. As a zero-waste ambassador at MCA with intersectional identities, I hope to aid in changing the face of zero waste and provide a diverse and unique perspective to its efforts.
by Autumn Saign
Xcel Energy, Minnesota’s largest utility provider, has a lot of influence on how energy is generated and distributed throughout the midwest. The corporation has the power to lead the state towards resiliency or impede our progress. Along with simply supplying our homes with electricity, Xcel must also be held accountable for a commitment to fighting climate change and prioritizing environmental justice.
Xcel’s proposed 15 year plan, the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), outlines how the company will provide energy from now until 2034. This report card gave Xcel failing grades in equity, avoiding fossil gas, and energy independence. The new plan is woefully inadequate from both an environmental and social perspective. If approved by the Public Utility Commission (PUC), the IRP will allow the provider to continue relying on fossil fuels and further widen the persisting economic and racial disparities in Minnesota.
We cannot ignore the contradictions within the IRP. The document boasts of goals such as an 80% reduction of carbon emissions and the elimination of coal by 2030, yet a major component of the plan relies on building a new fossil gas plant in Becker, Minnesota. This facility is estimated to emit just as much greenhouse gas as the coal it’s intended to replace. Releasing three million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere per year doesn’t sound like they’re really all that committed to carbon reductions, right?
Xcel’s new plan betrays both the human and nonhuman environment. The quality of the environment is intimately linked to concerns of human equality. Environmental degradation is an issue of social justice. The most polluted places are often the areas with the greatest social and economic disparities. Extracting energy from fossil fuels comes with unavoidable consequences. The communities surrounding these facilities, often consisting of low income populations and people of color, experience disproportionate amounts of pollution present in their daily lives. Constructing a new fossil gas plant, which comes with another invasive pipeline, is an act of environmental injustice.
Xcel is allocating one billion dollars towards the new facility while decreasing community solar investments by 90%. The IRP commits to adding 273 Mega Watts to community solar power over the next decade. That number may seem high, but in 2018 alone Minneapolis established about 200 MW of decentralized solar power. Over a span of ten years, ~300 MW is brazenly insufficient. Distributed solar, such as rooftop solar gardens, benefits the community and the climate simultaneously. Pollution and energy cost burdens decrease while the resiliency of the electrical grid increases. The IRP needs to support the expansion of decentralized, renewable energy systems if Xcel is to actually commit to reducing carbon emissions and pursuing equity.
The deprioritization of community solar further reveals Xcel’s true agenda. Xcel has delivered the IRP as if their new plan is designed for the consumer, but ultimately they are aiming to maximize profits just like any other monopolized corporation. Large, centralized energy facilities, such as the proposed power plant in Becker, are the easiest way for utility providers to profit the most. Shareholders are even guaranteed a high rate of return (10%) on their investments, and this interest is paid for by taxpayers and reflected in our energy bills. It’s also likely that the new gas plant will be shut down for economic reasons before it’s up for retirement, leaving consumers to pay for the millions of dollars of stranded costs. Utility providers have the advantage of appearing as if they’re institutions providing a public service, but they are profit motivated and actually legally responsible for making as much money as possible for their shareholders. Profit motivation is nothing new, but climate change is simply an expense we cannot afford regardless of revenue.
Energy is an environmental issue, a social issue, and a political issue. We are existing in an era of mass uncertainty and injustice. As a leader in the industry, Xcel has the authority to influence the actions of other national utility companies along with the resources needed to transform the energy standard. Xcel’s 15 year plan must be revised to include more aggressive policies to move Minnesota towards a future of renewable and decentralized energy systems. Xcel is responsible for building and maintaining energy infrastructure and we are responsible for paying for it. Following this logic, what we want should matter. Utilities are for people.
Bottom line? We are in a climate crisis that disproportionately impacts vulnerable communities, and we simply cannot afford to continue expanding fossil fuel infrastructure.The good news is that we can (and have the legal right) intervene. The PUC is required to accept and consider the public’s input before approving the IRP. We cannot allow Xcel to further accelerate climate change and continue enacting racial injustice.
Submitting a comment is easy. You can dispute the IRP by mail, email, online, or through an organization. Please take the time to submit a comment to the PUC by February 11th, 2021, and share with your friends and family. Easy directions, contact info, and comment outlines can be found here.
“In this climate crisis; in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the need to end a legacy of racism across the country, we can accept nothing less than a plan that seeks to heal both our planet and our communities.” - Patty O’Keefe & John Farrell of the Minnpost
Last week a New York Times article went viral on social media. The article called attention to the reprogramming of a clock in New York’s Union Square to show the amount of time we have to change our ways before the effects of climate change become irreversible. The clock reads a little over 7 years. It is very encouraging to see an art installation that calls attention to climate change hit the mainstream. There is only one problem. We already have done irreversible damage to our environment.
The clock in New York City is based on calculations done by the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change. These calculations are focused on the “carbon budget” which is an estimated amount of CO2 that can be emitted into the atmosphere and keep the average warming of the earth under 1.5 degrees Celsius. Unfortunately it is already too late to hope for an average warming goal under 1.5 degrees. The estimates are also based on our current emissions rate, so, if we start curbing our emissions it will begin to extend the clock; however, if we continue to increase them, our time will shorten.
To non climate scientists, 1.5℃ might not seem like a lot, but when we are talking about average global temperatures, it can have a big impact. In the 1.5 case scenario (which is our most optimistic forecast) the year 2100 will consist of: a half a meter rise in sea level, 149% increase of extreme warms, 17% increase in extreme rainfall, increase of average drought length by 2 months, average crop yield decrease of 6%, and many more troubling impacts (carbonbrief.org). This is all without taking into account the compounding effects of decrease in ice coverage leading to increased absorbing of solar energy.
With those changes will also bring a large number of climate migrants. A climate migrant is anyone who is incentivized or forced to move because of climate change. This can occur because of increased temperatures, rising sea level, or increase in frequency and intensity of natural disasters such as floods and droughts. It is estimated that by 2050 there will be 143 million climate migrants, in 2017 this number was estimated to be 22 million. There are climate migrants right here in Minneapolis.
If by some miracle we stopped emitting carbon tomorrow, would we be out of danger? The short answer is no. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years before returning back to its natural cycle. There is also a lag of about 40 years between when carbon is emitted to when the global temperature climbs. So even if we were able to go carbon neutral today, temperatures would still rise for the next several decades and then stabilize there for thousands of years.
It is difficult for us humans to grasp the damage we are causing when we don’t directly see its impacts for so long. But, just because we struggle to wrap our heads around it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. This is not to say that it is too late to have any impact at all. In fact quite the opposite, changes that are made now will not only help us achieve our most optimistic climate goals but they will also get the ball rolling on the next decade of reform that needs to happen.
The climate is changing now. Eight of the hottest ten years in recorded history have happened in this decade, and all ten have occurred since 1998. Rates of hurricanes, droughts, floods, wildfires, and severe storms are all increasing along with their severity. We may have seven years before our carbon budget runs out but we can not wait that long to take action, the earth needs us now.
P.S. Don't forget to vote
Thousands of years ago, low-growing turf grasses were helpful in fending off danger and in hunting for food. Through time, these grasses evolved for use in recreation and livestock grazing purposes. As a result, lawns became a status symbol. A grass lawn, as opposed to cropland, signified that you were wealthy enough to own land that you didn’t have to farm. Today, grass lawns are the status quo, although most of us may not stop to consider why. What is important to consider is how this change from prairie to a grassturf urban landscape affected the Minnesotan ecosystem.
In short, this change has resulted in extensive soil erosion, water pollution, and decreased biodiversity across the Midwest. There are, however, ways in which you can remedy these adverse effects. So, this spring, try something different with your lawn.
There are many ways to make your lawn more sustainable: planting a vegetable garden, recycling runoff rainwater, and even using solar lights. However, the healthiest lawn is the one that is restored to the way that nature intended it to be. In the Midwest, that means prairie. Prairie restoration, or reconstruction (depending on the area in which you live) is a conservation effort that includes the act of reintroducing native grassland species into an area where they were destroyed for urban or industrial development. Prairie restorations increase biodiversity, create habitat for native animals, and reduce water runoff and soil erosion. Once they’re established, prairies are cheaper to maintain than a traditional lawn. So, how exactly do you get started?
With practically the whole city under quarantine, many individuals and families have found themselves with more free time than they know what to do with. That makes it the perfect time to get outside: being active, spending time with family, and reconnecting with nature. The weather couldn’t be better either! Armed with reasons to take this unprecedented opportunity to reconnect with the natural world in the beautiful city of Minneapolis, today’s blog post will explore some outdoor adventures fun for the whole family, as well as ways to incorporate outdoor living into your life-under-quarantine.
As a reminder, if you or any of your family show any symptoms of sickness (even the common cold), please stay inside. When outside, remember to follow the rules of social distancing: maintain a six-foot radius between you and others, avoid touching shared surfaces, wash your hands frequently, and avoid touching your face.
As I’m sure you’ve heard, a citywide bag ordinance went into effect on January 1st of this year, which requires retailers to charge five cents for each bag used by the shopper. While enforcement by city officials is not scheduled to occur until June, most shoppers and retailers are already abiding by the change. That is not to say, however, that there haven’t been mixed feelings toward the new policy.
The ordinance was implemented with the goal of reducing single-use plastic consumption and making a push toward more environmentally-friendly city practices. Single-use plastics are polluting our waterways and contaminating the natural landscape as they leach chemicals for years on end. Reducing plastic bag waste will also increase recycling efficiency. Prior to the ordinance, plastic bag entangements could clog recycling facility machinery for upwards of four hours every day. The transition to the new bag ordinance has been done with “an emphasis on education, rather than punishment,” according to local paper The Star Tribune. There are some exceptions to the ordinance, including those for farmer’s markets and low-income shoppers using SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
Some shoppers are not happy about paying for something they used to receive for free.
“It’s another form of sucking people into becoming some type of an activist for the environment and trying to control the masses,” one shopper, Megan Bacigalupo, told CBS Minnesota. Others are concerned about the lack of privacy for low-income shoppers.
“When that [WIC or SNAP transaction] goes through, the cashiers don’t know what’s happening. It’s a seamless transaction,” said Jamie Pfuhl, president of the Minnesota Grocers Association. “So unfortunately now, a WIC or SNAP recipient is going to have to identify that that’s what the transaction is, and that’s against what we’re trying to achieve there.”
These criticisms point out that, like anything else, no policy is perfect. That’s not to say, however, there hasn’t been overwhelming positive feedback toward the bag fee as well.
“If we are truly concerned about the greater biodiversity on our planet right now at a time when so much is being threatened, it behooves us to do this,” commented Cathy Geist, a biology professor at MCTC. Reduction of biodiversity, or the variety of life in a particular ecosystem, is one of the major consequences of climate change. These reductions can have profound impacts and can lead to severe, even irreparable ecosystem damage.
“It’s hard to change patterns, right? But once you understand the reasoning behind it and we’ve come a few times, forgot a bag, pay extra for a bag, then you start to remember, right? And it becomes a culture,” shopper Charles Dennis said.
This bag ordinance is the perfect catalyst for a cultural shift, starting right here in Minneapolis. Little actions can become powerful when initiated by the masses. Sustainability isn’t just a buzzword. Rather, it’s about making lots of small changes, the results of while accumulate to create a bigger impact. When we pitch in, and encourage our neighbors to do the same, we can have a remarkable impact on the planet and the generations to come.
With the opening of its first full-size, cashierless grocery store in Seattle, Amazon made one thing abundantly clear: it has solidified its position as a multi-industry king. Dominating the online, home technology, and now grocery marketplaces, Amazon has been the center of it’s fair share of praise and criticism. Perhaps the focal point of Amazon’s online shopping success is their fast, free shipping for members. Amazon isn’t the only industry leader offering increasingly-rapid shipping options as a way to stay competitive. Because these trends are on the rise, with no end in the forseeable future, this week’s blog post will address the carbon footprint of such expedited shipping options.
A 2013 study published by MIT estimated and compared the carbon footprints of both in-person buying and online shopping purchases. The study included various factors, including packaging, transportation, energy consumption, and information flow. As a result, the study touted online-shopping as the surprising environmentally-friendly alternative to brick-and-mortar shopping, based on numerous scenarios and the idea that “the main component of the [emissions produced by the] Traditional shopper is the customer transportation, whereas Cybernaut‘s emissions are linked to a parcel carrier, who uses an optimized delivery process.” (Weideli, 2013). This was not the case with expedited shipping options (overnight, one-day, two-day). To learn more, read the study here.
However, this blanket statement should not end your days of in-store shopping, as there are significant drawbacks to consider as well. First, the carbon footprint of these corporate shipping practices is enormous regardless, especially when using vans that are smaller than traditional freight vehicles (which require more trips to and from the inventory distribution center). There are also labor implications to consider; the manpower needed to facilitate such expedited shipping often results in less-than ethical working conditions. Buzzfeed conducted an investigation into this trend, and this is what they found. Vox has also found that with increasing shipping convenience, there has been a rising trend toward single-item purchasing. This increases shipping demands, and thus, environmental impacts. When online purchases show up the next day, it is tempting to order five items independently, rather than bundling them into one consolidated (read: less environmentally-strenuous) order.
The best way to reduce your environmental impact when it comes to all purchases, be it in-store or online, is to reduce how much you are buying in the first place. Reducing and reusing are the first steps in reducing waste and carbon emissions. Do you need to order that reusable grocery bag from the internet and receive it by tomorrow, or can you repurpose fabric scraps from around the house into a new bag? Being an informed, critical consumer is an excellent way to take action and make waves in the climate conversation.
This blog post has focused primarily on the environmental impacts of corporate malpractices, but there are lots of other resources with great information surrounding other points of controversy regarding the online shopping industry. EcoWatch writes more on the carbon footprint of shipping practices. The New York Post and Business Insider detail what a day in the life of a factory worker really looks like: overworked and underpaid.
Recycling has been a part of mainstream knowledge since the 1970s, and most people are familiar with the principles behind the program. While imperfect, recycling programs worldwide go a long way in reducing raw materials energy consumption and are still very much an important part of our waste diversion efforts. While composting and overall consumption reduction efforts should come first, knowing how to maximize your recycling efficiency is also an integral piece of the climate puzzle. By reducing the contamination of our recycling plants, we can ensure that the energy used in the recycling process is being spent in the most productive way possible.
Let's start with what can be recycled.
Aluminum, tin, steel. Ensure there is little to no food residue (Hennepin County suggests 95% clean as a general rule of thumb). Avoid tossing pressurized cylinders, electronics, and scrap metals. Minneapolis has solid waste programming in place for the bigger, bulkier items you may need to get rid of, such as the aforemention electronics and scrap metals. Find more information here.
Cartons. Think milk cartons, juice boxes, and wine cartons. Toss the lids before recycling. If they’re dirty, give them a thorough rinse before tossing them in the bin.
Glass. Most glass bottles and jars can be recycled, but be more cautious with glass that does not contain a product upon purchase; many of these contain strengthening additives that can interfere with the recycling process. Instead of throwing these out at all, try out a new craft or two (ideas here) to reuse this non-recyclable glassware.
Plastics. Minneapolis accepts plastics #1-#5. Minneapolis is unique in that we have industrial composting facilities that can accommodate #7 plastics. However, #6 plastics still belong in the trash. Placing them in the recycling is counter-productive, as more energy will be wasted in the process of sorting them out than by simply throwing them away. Try to cut down on this waste by reducing your consumption of #6 plastics and by reusing or re-purposing them several times before finally tossing them.
Cardboard cans. These come from a wide variety of products, including powdered drink mixes, refrigerated dough, and even baby formula. Do not recycle grease or wax containers.
For a more comprehensive list of what can and cannot be recycled in Minneapolis, be sure to read this page with lots of helpful recycling information published by the city.
Another strategy to increase your recycling efficiency is to avoid “wishcycling,” or putting things in the recycling bin without checking recyclability in the hopes that it will be recyclable. This can contribute to inefficient recycling processes, which can be more energy intensive in the long run than it would have been to toss it in the garbage in the first place. Unfortunately, the current rule of thumb is “when in doubt, throw it out.” This wasteful adage can be countered, however, by the reduction and reuse of household waste products.
Remember that recycling programs vary from city to city. In Minneapolis, we are incredibly lucky to have curbside, one-sort recycling, but that is not the case in all cities across America. Remember to check for local recycling and organics recycling rules when traveling or visiting family. Following the city or county rules goes a long way in increasing recycling efficiency. If you don’t feel comfortable throwing things out that you could otherwise recycle (or compost!) at home, consider bringing a paper bag along to bring them home with you.
Take a moment and reflect. Now that it’s almost March, how are you doing on your New Year’s resolutions? Are you sticking to them? Did you forget about them? Or have they simply fallen by the wayside? If you’ve fallen off track (or even if you haven’t), try picking up two or three of the following tips to reduce your environmental impact in the new year. You might surprise yourself with how much better you feel both physically and emotionally; when we take care of the environment, she takes care of us.