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A pioneer in Minnesota’s solar industry is attempting to replicate a green economic justice blueprint in the state’s largest African American community.
Ralph Jacobson founded the solar firm Impact Power Solutions (IPS) in 1991 and was its CEO until 2019, when he shifted into a role focused on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. Jacobson, who is White, has been working with the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians for a few years on a crowdfunded solar, microgrid and jobs training project in northern Minnesota.
The SolStar Rooftop Solar Project will attempt a similar model in North Minneapolis, where Jacobson has partnered with multiple Black entrepreneurs on a plan to install solar on two dozen residential rooftops this year while also training neighborhood residents for clean energy industry jobs.
Jacobson began meeting with North Side leaders last year, telling about his success with the Red Lake Nation and suggesting the same strategy could work in North Minneapolis. He quickly realized it would not be an easy pitch in part due to gentrification fears and residents’ long history of being ripped off by businesses promising riches.
“There’s a lot of skepticism in the Black community because they have been prey to scams,” Jacobson said. “People are skeptical, and so they’re gonna wait and see what happens to somebody else before they get involved with this.”
Jacobson sought out partners who knew the neighborhood and had the right blend of skills to make SolStar a success. Among the first was Kristel Porter, a well-known community organizer and candidate for a North Side City Council seat. (Porter is also a board member of Fresh Energy, which publishes the Energy News Network.)
“We would really like to address racial equity through renewable energy,” Porter said. “That’s key. I want to make sure BIPOC people have access to it.”
Porter is the founder of a group called MN Renewable Now, which promotes city and utility clean energy programs to area residents. She is now taking the lead on recruiting homeowners to SolStar, and her prior experience reveals that the neighborhood has begun to embrace clean energy.
MN Renewable Now has spoken to neighborhood associations, knocked on doors, tabled at food shelves, and caught people outside grocery stores to advertise its events. As a result, more than 150 North Side residents signed up for an Xcel Energy wind power program, 37 subscribed to community solar gardens and 70 signed up for home energy efficiency audits.
“A lot of people that we ran into wanted solar on their roofs and they want the equity of owning solar,” Porter said. “But they couldn’t get the financing.”
After joining SolStar, Porter and Jacobson decided to recruit homeowners living in the geographical boundary of the 55411 zip code. She chose the area because of its high concentration of low-income BIPOC residents and its designation as one of the city’s Green Zones, which brings with it city money for solar and efficiency projects. Porter and her team quickly found more than two dozen homeowners interested in having solar installed on their roofs.
Jacobson tapped Blaine Williams, a Black solar assessor, to manage the program and check out potential participants’ rooftops to ensure they could support solar panels. Williams had spoken to Jacobson several times about working for IPS, but the timing and opportunity never matched. After losing his insurance industry job last year, he received an offer to help lead the SolStar initiative.
The North Side native, who now lives in a nearby suburb, sees the project as good news for the neighborhood. “North Minneapolis is kind of last on a lot of lists, you know, unless it’s negative publicity in the news, like crime and stuff,” he said. “So, to be the first in something is really unique.”
Jacobson connected Williams with solar assessment training, and Williams put it to work studying the rooftops of homeowners Porter recruited. He has found nearly all of them, so far, can handle solar panels. The experience with SolStar, he believes, will lead to employment in the solar industry after he suffered a challenging year without much work.
The project “really supported me rolling those dice so hard,” he said. “I went from being unstable to really stable to potentially having no income for a year to this position with SolStar. Things are going so well I can’t imagine this will be the end of it.”
Looking for potential training partners, Jacobson reached out to Joaquin “JT” Thomas, a Black master electrician and president of S3 Solar Service Solutions. He and his partner, David Rawlings, have an on-the-job training program that it will use for SolStar recruits referred through a city of Minneapolis workforce training program focused on emerging employment markets.
Clean energy and the promise of a green economy remain an abstract concept to some in the neighborhood, Thomas said, but SolStar could help people see prospects beyond saving money on utility bills. SolStar is a “start — a small start — but a start,” he said. “This is about getting people trained and giving people opportunities to work. At its finest, this is the green economy in action.”
The financing came together with assistance from a former state legislator and Minneapolis attorney Jeremy Kalin of Avisen Legal PA. Kalin has studied the problem of providing solar in low-income neighborhoods where low credit scores, fixed incomes, and sparse credit histories create financing barriers. During his tenure on a White House clean energy task force during the Obama administration, he learned how Baltimore and Philadelphia created solar programs serving moderate- and low-income residents.
Kalin and Jacobson plan to use incentives from Xcel Energy’s Solar Rewards program along with the city’s neighborhood revitalization fund and Green Cost Share initiatives to pay for a portion of SolStar. He said the rest will come from socially minded investors who can take advantage of the solar tax credits to reduce their tax liabilities.
SolStar plans to offer 2.5% interest payments to investors. Homeowners in the program will receive at least a 20% reduction on their energy bills and a chance to fully own their solar installations after six years, he said. Tax benefits run out the seventh year of solar projects, Kalin said.
SolStar is limited to 24 homeowners because state law requires entities selling power to more than that number of customers open to regulation by the Public Utilities Commission. Should Jacobson and his team continue SolStar in the future, each project will be confined to 24 customers, Kalin said.
Investors still need to be recruited, though Jacobson seems confident. More training is needed, and government funding details have to be ironed out. But he and his team believe as the details are finalized, the $500,000 project should start sometime this year.
For Jacobson, SolStar represents another chance to refine his public-private partnership investment model and provide a blueprint to other entrepreneurs and agencies. As the green economy continues to grow, the industry needs to train a more diverse population to ensure greater equity and opportunity, he said.
“Black and Native communities have not been the beneficiaries of equal opportunity,” Jacobson said. “Systemic racism has dramatically stunted the opportunity for a generation of wealth in these communities. I look at projects like these as investment-grade reparations for that. It’s a worthy investment; it’s not a donation.”