New washing machines are covered in tarps and plastic as they await installation.
Expanded energy efficiency upgrade rebates allowed HD Laundry to rebuild with greener machines and cleaning processes. Credit: Ben Hovland / Sahan Journal

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit news organization that covers Minnesota’s immigrants and communities of color.

Timing wasn’t on Dawit Assefa’s side last year. 

Assefa immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia 20 years ago. He started his first laundromat in Rosemount in 2011, and opened HD Laundry along East Lake Street in south Minneapolis in December 2019, just months before the coronavirus pandemic took hold. A few months later, police officers killed George Floyd, sparking civil unrest along Lake Street. 

Looters tore through HD Laundry on the first night of unrest. Machines were smashed in pursuit of coins and windows were shattered, Assefa recalled. The damage was substantial, but when he surveyed the laundromat the next morning, he figured it was salvageable. 

But that night the strip mall that houses HD Laundry went up in flames.

“The next day everything was gone,” Assefa said. 

Today, HD Laundry is preparing to reopen with a new, state-of-the-art clothes-cleaning system that will dramatically reduce the laundromat’s carbon footprint and provide a higher quality of service to customers. Assefa is one of several merchants building back greener with expanded energy-efficiency upgrade rebates offered to businesses harmed by last summer’s civil unrest. 

The upgrades at HD Laundry are massive, but many businesses, like an immigrant-owned restaurant mini-chain called Hamburguesas El Gordo, used the program on smaller improvements that bring sizable benefits.

Extra savings for rebuilding

Utilities consistently offer rebates to any household or business that purchases appliances or equipment that is deemed high efficiency by the providers through what is known in Minnesota as the Conversation Improvement Program. Both major utility providers in the Twin Cities, CenterPoint and Xcel Energy, increased the size of those rebates for businesses affected by last summer’s unrest. But the July 1 application deadline for both programs is rapidly approaching. 

Many businesses damaged in Minneapolis and St. Paul last summer are owned by immigrants, and the utilities have information sheets about their programs in HmongSpanish, and Somali. Both companies are using the Star Tribune’s list of damaged properties to determine who qualifies. 

CenterPoint is offering triple rebates on energy-efficiency upgrades for customers who suffered damages. Because CenterPoint is a natural gas provider, many upgrades have gone to kitchen equipment. A restaurant adding a high-efficiency oven could save about $6,000 through the rebate, spokesperson Ross Corson said, and more over time as gas bills decline. 

“You’re talking about potentially thousands of dollars depending on the equipment,” Corson said. 

CenterPoint, which provides natural gas to Minneapolis and the west metro suburbs, has enrolled 42 businesses in its Rebuild program, Corson said. The utility provider estimates the energy savings through the program will result in an annual avoidance of 423 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions — that is, about the emissions created to power 50 average homes for a year

John Marshall, Xcel Energy’s director of community relations for Minnesota and the Dakotas, said 75 customers have enrolled in the Special Recovery rebate program, which offers double the standard rebate rate for businesses damaged in the unrest. 

Both utilities launched their enhanced rebate programs for damaged properties last summer, but opted to extend the application deadline until July 1.

“We realized it was taking business owners a lot longer to figure out what their needs will be,” Marshall said. 

Utilities partnered with community groups like the Lake Street Council and West Broadway Business and Area Coalition to spread the word about the program. Upgrades can range from a new air conditioner for a retail shop, a new oven or walk in cooler for a restaurant, or smaller improvements like LED lighting. 

Both firms said business owners should submit an application if they are considering any upgrades, and that rebates will be offered to applicants buying approved supplies by the end of the year. There is no fee to apply and applying doesn’t commit a business to installing upgraded features, it merely qualifies those shops for larger rebates if they do.

‘Beneficial for customers and the environment” 

HD Laundry will receive a $36,000 rebate from CenterPoint, the largest allocation in the program thus far. That money is going to a new laundry technology called an ozone system. 

The technology uses electricity and oxygen to replace standard washing chemicals by creating ozone, which dissolves into water and is absorbed into the drum. This eliminates the need for hot water and better sanitizes the machine. Bacteria tends to grow in standard washing machines, but the ozone system remains more sanitary, Assefa said, which should mean cleaner clothes for customers. 

Because water doesn’t need to be heated, the energy savings through the system are substantial. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s Energy Smart program estimates the new technology could save HD Laundry about $3,600 annually in energy bills. Cold water is also gentler on clothing. 

The system decreases chemical use and speeds the wash cycle time. Assefa’s new dryers will be faster too, due to a high spin rate. 

“It’s beneficial for the environment and beneficial for the customers,” Assefa said. 

HD Laundry mostly serves immigrant customers, Assefa said. Many are African American, Latino, Somali, or Ethiopian. 

The ozone cleaning method is such a departure from traditional laundromat services that Assefa is trying to find signs in multiple languages to make sure his customers know how to use the machines when he reopens. Finding a Spanish sign should be easy, he said, but he’s still looking into a Somali translation. 

His new large laundry machines were bought with immigrant customers in mind. Many Somali families have large rugs, Assefa said, and these customers used to struggle to fit the items into the 80-pound drums. But the new, 125-pound machines will be able to accommodate the rugs and clean them using less energy than HD Laundry’s older, smaller models. 

“I like to be as efficient as we can be,” Assefa said.

‘A big difference’

Most upgrades through the rebate programs are smaller scale. For Hamburguesas El Gordo, free energy audits have helped save costs and lower energy use. 

Claudia Gutierrez came to Minnesota from Mexico in 1999. In 2015, she and her husband launched a business selling Mexican-style street burgers out of their old mobile home in Little Canada. Today, Hamburguesas El Gordo operates four locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the latest of which opened last fall on Payne Avenue in East St. Paul. 

When many restaurants were struggling at the start of the pandemic, Hamburguesas El Gordo saw its takeout business surge. The bump in business allowed Gutierrez to invest in a new air conditioning system for the south Minneapolis location on Cedar Avenue. That building is old and the electricity bill was pricey. 

Vandals inflicted serious damage on the Minneapolis location during civil unrest last May. The restaurant on Victoria Avenue in St. Paul also sustained minor damage to its windows. 

That damage made Hamburguesas El Gordo eligible for Xcel Energy’s recovery rebate program, which Gutierrez used to get free energy efficiency audits on her restaurant buildings. She also discovered the restaurant was eligible for a rebate on its new air conditioning system. 

The energy audits led to the restaurant swapping out its old lighting for efficient LED bulbs, and adding sensor systems to lighting that prevent waste. That change has saved the restaurant about $100 monthly.

“I see a big difference on the electricity bill now,” Gutierrez said.  

She said the restaurant is considering adding a new, energy-efficient walk-in cooler, which would also qualify for the extra rebate.