This blog post was authored by Nicholai Jost-Epp, summer 2023 intern with the Just Solar Coalition
North Minneapolis Community Solar and Environmental Justice Cohort at Second Chance Community Solar Garden
The Just Solar Coalition believes that as individuals, communities, and cities working together, we can create a clean, equitable energy infrastructure that everyone can be a part of. Minneapolis Climate Action lives and breathes this spirit, bringing in artists, leaders, and community members together to build community-centered solar energy.
Kyle Samejima is the Executive Director of Programs and Engagement at Minneapolis Climate Action (MCA). Her organization has spearheaded the development of two equitable community solar gardens in Minneapolis, in partnership with Renewable Energy Partners, with more on the way.
“Community solar garden” is a development model for solar energy that aims to bring benefits of solar energy to those who have been left out by traditional rooftop solar development—people who rent, homeowners who have shaded roofs or who can’t afford the up-front cost of putting solar on their own home, or simply those who don’t have the time or wherewithal to install and maintain their own panels. These people can “subscribe” to a larger remote solar array—a “community solar garden”—that provides electricity to the grid, and be compensated by a utility with a credit on their electric bill for the electricity the solar garden generates. MCA developed a barrier-free model for participation that requires no money up front, and they don’t check credit scores or have a minimum income requirement.
Community solar gardens, or CSGs, are the bread and butter of the Just Solar Coalition because of their ability to benefit these people who have been left out of Minnesota’s solar energy revolution. (Read more about CSGs and the Just Solar Coalition’s work promoting equitable CSG development and policy here!)
Kyle came into MCA as it was expanding its scope from a neighborhood-level organization to a focus on the entire city. While Kyle “inherited” the organization’s work on CSGs, she was immediately drawn to focusing on bringing justice and equity into solar energy development. “I felt really strongly that justice has to be a part of this, or else we’re just perpetuating a toxic, harmful system,” she said.
Over the course of 8 years, MCA has worked with several partners to develop two CSGs—one on North High School in North Minneapolis and one on the Emerge Second Chance Recycling Facility in Southeast—allowing hundreds of low- to moderate-income households to get bill credits from Xcel energy to lower the cost of their electricity. High electricity bills are a significant contributor to energy insecurity, the inability of a household to meet their energy needs.
In the process of developing these CSGs, MCA focused on outreach, education, and organizing—explaining the “‘why’s’ and ‘how’s’” of community solar. In line with the Just Solar Coalition’s aim to “educate and inspire,” they began reaching out to community-based organizations to begin the conversation about community solar, centering the conversation on energy democracy and energy justice. “It really started with being in community a lot—like going to community events; getting to know people, building trust,” Kyle said. “We started out just going to Open Streets, and [other] community events; getting our name out there.”
Throughout this process, MCA built deep collaborative relationships, said Kyle: “Really, the most powerful thing is partnering with organizations that are already trusted and embedded in the community—that was a huge help and really crucial,” she said. In North Minneapolis, MCA partnered with MN Renewable Now, another Just Solar Coalition member, as well as the other Northside organizations to recruit and train an Environmental Justice Cohort composed of community members. The Cohort, which was compensated for their time, worked with MCA to explore how best to approach CSG outreach in community- and culture-informed ways.
In addition to the connections built with other community-based organizations, working on community solar is what got MCA connected with the Just Solar Coalition. The Coalition provided a space for Kyle to learn from other groups committed to equity and justice in the renewable energy transition. “It was a role of the Just Solar Coalition in going to those meetings when I was new in this space to really learn from other organizations,” she said. “What they were doing and valuing, the language they used, the actions they took, the approaches they took. That was really helpful for me, it certainly helped deepen my knowledge and commitment to the justice piece of this work”
One of these organizations in the coalition Kyle learned from was Cooperative Energy Futures (CEF), the first member-owned co-op solar developer in Minnesota. CEF is a pioneer in the solar industry with their development model that is accessible to everyone regardless of their credit score or whether they rent or own their home, requires no up-front payments, and returns profit to member-owners through dividends and equity stake—thoroughly embodying Just Solar Coalition’s values of making solar energy 100% accessible to everyone, using renewable energy to build community wealth, and democratizing control of the energy system. “One of our main goals and visions is to teach people about the agency that they have by owning their own power and controlling their own power,” said Pouya Najmaie, policy and regulatory director at CEF. CEF has already developed seven CSGs around the state using this model, with six more currently in the development stage.
Even just connecting and being in community with the rest of the Just Solar Coalition is one of the most rewarding parts of working in this space, Kyle says.
Along with these connections that are formed in climate justice work, Kyle says that the use of art and poetry is also a critical uplifting piece of the work. With climate change, the reality of the crisis and the grief and pain it will cause—and is already causing—can be overwhelming. “The mind can go numb, the heart can block it out because it’s painful. Art can be this way to connect and get energy flowing that’s bigger than the problem,” she said. In their outreach, MCA has partnered with three poets--Brandyn Tulloch, Isabel Lopez, and Elijah Easley—using spoken word poetry to illuminate the moral and spiritual need for local solutions to climate and inspire action. Kyle is actively working on partnerships with more artists for future outreach on climate. “There’s so much more to be done with art around these topics—there’s got to be ways to have joy doing this work,” she said.
In their ongoing work on energy democracy organizing, MCA is partnering with the Central Area Neighborhood Development Organization (CANDO) in a collaboration called “Southside Goes Green” to hold community conversations on energy democracy and environmental justice with residents of the Central and Bryant neighborhoods in South Minneapolis. Through Southside Goes Green, CANDO and MCA have held three events on energy democracy and community solar for Central and Bryant residents, one in Spanish, one in Somali, and one in English. Ultimately, Kyle hopes to develop a “flow” with Southside Goes Green that will eventually lead to the development of a CSG specifically for the Southside.
CANDO does a lot of food justice work, which Kyle says aligns with MCA’s work on energy democracy. CANDO’s “Plant, Grow, Share” initiative empowers community members by providing them the education and resources to grow their own food in gardens and urban farms. Ultimately, the food sovereignty and energy democracy movements have similar visions: the empowerment of communities to meet their own basic needs with their own means.
“The food system work is entrenched right now in so many communities, and we have a lot to learn from that transition for the energy realm,” explained Kyle. Across Minneapolis, urban gardeners and farmers are feeding themselves and their communities, alleviating the effects of food deserts and the economic strains of buying groceries. One can imagine a sea of rooftop solar and community solar gardens accompanying the community gardens and farms, providing affordable electricity to communities and reducing reliance on our profit-driven utility system.
With MCA’s community education on CSGs, Kyle stressed the importance of keeping this big picture in mind: that CSGs are a tool to help achieve a broader vision of changing our energy system to embody justice and democracy. “[We frame it] not just as “get a bill credit”, but these deeper issues of energy autonomy, independence, and collective sharing of a resource,” she says, “and combining that outreach with the bigger picture of environmental justice and energy democracy to really open up that conversation for people to think about the fact they don’t have choices right now, like they could, and Xcel Energy is actively pushing back against those choices.”
This is the vision of the Just Solar Coalition: while corporate monopolies like Xcel rely on selling electricity to a captive market of ratepayers, who have no other choice, to make money, we can become more than just passive consumers of electricity. With tools like CSGs, we can take back power over our own power and more autonomy over our lives. When we no longer have to rely on corporations to provide us with life-sustaining services like energy or food, and start talking with our neighbors about forming a community garden or a community solar carden, we start to reform our relationships with each other and with the earth.
Visit Minneapolis Climate Action and Cooperative Energy Future’s websites to learn more and find out how you can be a part of making this vision a reality.