Broken windows along Lake Street in Minneapolis last May.
Broken windows along Lake Street in Minneapolis last May. Credit: Lorie Shaull / Creative Commons

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The future of Minneapolis’ Lake Street will be powered in part by solar.

As business and building owners rebuild in the wake of last year’s civil unrest after the police killing of George Floyd, dozens are seeking public funding for solar projects, including some designed to incorporate racial equity goals.

Thirty-four property owners have been awarded money for solar installations through the city’s Green Cost Share program. Another dozen program applicants are receiving money for energy efficiency upgrades.

The Green Cost Share program is part of a suite of subsidy programs that city leaders have targeted toward neighborhoods damaged by riots, fire and looting last year. The money isn’t exclusive to the Lake Street corridor but targets areas with high percentages of Black, Indigenous, people of color and low-income residents.

City officials acknowledged that the $560,000 awarded through the program is small compared to the need — it received $3.5 million in applications.

“I think we’re pleased with the areas we’ve hit, but there’s a lot of work to do,” said Patrick Hanlon, director of environmental programs for the city.

One of the solar applicants, Lake Street Solar, is a new company started by Amber Naqvi, a Pakistani immigrant who also owns the software firm Solar Informatics. He has lined up 12 projects totaling around 400 kilowatts on low-income housing.

Lake Street Solar plans to own the installations and sell the power back to tenants at a reduced cost. To offer clients a deal, the company plans to use the cost-share incentives and Xcel’s Solar Rewards, which has a carve-out for low-income projects. 

Installers hired by Lake Street Solar must employ an intern of color, whose salary Naqvi will pay. As part of his strategy, he will turn over the installations to property owners after several years, giving them a chance to own their energy.

“Whether it’s people doing the work or the technology, the solar industry is pretty White,” he said. “One of my objectives is to make that change a bit, make it accessible to rental properties for underserved communities on Lake Street. … This is the purpose: to benefit us, and them, and the environment.”

Utilities Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy have offered to double or triple utility rebates on energy-efficient appliances for affected businesses. They also offered free installation and engineering services. Community and business groups have also offered assistance, and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s Energy Smart program helped the city match businesses with funding pools.

CenterPoint Energy said 42 businesses enrolled in its Rebuild program, and nine triple rebates have been issued, with the largest amount, $36,000, given to a laundromat. The total emission savings from its rebates equaled the energy consumption of 51 homes, CenterPoint spokesperson Ross Corson said.

The utility worked with nonprofits, contractors and others to spread the word and offered marketing in several languages. “We definitely hear interest from customers about their desire to make their buildings and businesses more energy-efficient,” he said. “However, due to the economic impact of the pandemic and other factors, many just aren’t ready to invest in energy efficiency at this time.”

Xcel Energy gave rebates and energy assessments to more than 75 businesses. About a third of those suffered extensive or total damage, said John Marshall, Xcel’s director of community relations. The company launched the rebuilding program just two days after the unrest ended and it had little idea of how businesses would receive it. “We had no idea what the expectations or demand would be,” he said. “Overall, we think it’s been successful.”

The Lake Street Council serves a six-mile corridor of Minneapolis stretching from suburban St. Louis Park to the Mississippi River. After raising $12 million after the unrest, the council distributed half of it to more than 350 businesses for rebuilding. The council and its partners conducted more than 200 energy audits of companies as part of its response.

“I think that we’re facing the same issues we’ve always faced, but they are more entrenched and deeper and more difficult than ever, and that’s largely capacity, awareness and cash,” said Matt Kazinka, the Lake Street Council’s senior strategic initiatives manager. “Those are issues that we wrestled with in the world of energy efficiency outreach before COVID.”

Many businesses are family operated and may not have knowledge of building and mechanical systems or city and utility programs that could support efficiency and solar investments, Kazinka said. They may have taken out loans to survive and have little capital left for anything else.

“I think there’s still a tough nut to crack around financing and how you make new equipment accessible from the start without requiring a bunch of upfront cash,” Kazinka said.

Kevin Zickert, a program coordinator with the chamber’s Energy Smart initiative, said the first several months after George Floyd’s death, business owners needed time to heal and deal with insurance issues. In the last few months, however, more owners have expressed interest in efficiency initiatives.

“It’s been slow, honestly, but largely encouraging,” he said. “Folks are in a position where they’re working with contractors and evaluating bids for new equipment. So it’s starting to ramp up and get busy. And folks are really excited that there is assistance.”

More funding may be coming for hurting businesses. For example, the Minneapolis Foundation Restore-Rebuild-Reimagine Fund has raised around half of its $20 million goal to help merchants damaged by riots in St. Paul and Minneapolis on the North Side, Lake Street and West Broadway. Whether sustainability will carry any emphasis in the program remains unclear, but Mortenson, one of the nation’s leading wind and solar installers, is among the companies active in the initiative.

East Lake Street businesses and neighbors have come together to plan a future that will include sustainability, transit-friendly and bike-friendly streets, and affordable housing. 

Taylor Cooper, a project manager for the community development corporation Seward Redesign, participates in an initiative called Longfellow Rising, which works with the community and businesses on a vision for the area around Minnehaha and Lake. She said members often express a desire for sustainable buildings and clean energy.

Migizi, a Native American youth development nonprofit, bought an East Lake Street building last year after its previous office was destroyed. The group is planning to renovate the space with energy efficiency and solar as priorities. However, it needs additional funding to replace the HVAC system, add insulation and perhaps install solar. 

“It’s been really, really slow,” said Migizi Executive Director Kelly Drummer. 

Migizi hopes to move into its new offices by the end of the year. The work of the 10-person staff remains vital as the community rebuilds, and the students it trains could someday be on crews installing solar panels and air source heat pumps. Drummer is optimistic despite the slow pace.

“We’re very excited after a year of complete hell,” she said.

Frank Jossi

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College.