Ken Rance in the Sabathani Community Center's boiler room, home to "Thelma and Louise," the center's decades-old gas boilers.
Ken Rance in the Sabathani Community Center's boiler room, home to "Thelma and Louise," the center's decades-old gas boilers. Credit: Courtesy

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Six blocks from George Floyd Square in the heart of South Minneapolis, the Sabathani Community Center is a pillar of its culturally diverse neighborhood. One of Minnesota’s oldest African American-founded nonprofits, the center offers everything from a food shelf and clothing closet to senior housing and small-business office space.

Soon, Sabathani will add “resilience hub” to that list, too, providing food, shelter, cooling, and electricity in the event of power outages, heat waves, and other emergencies that are likely to increase with climate change. 

The community center is one of three sites selected for Xcel Energy’s Resilient Minneapolis Project. State regulators approved the $9 million project last month as part of a broader grid modernization plan. The company will partner with BIPOC-led organizations to develop solar, battery energy storage systems, and microgrid technology at each location.

“These sites will be our first response centers in emergencies,” said Kim Havey, sustainability director for the city of Minneapolis. “They will act as safe spaces from the weather and provide services such as food distribution, communications, energy and acting as a triage center for community members seeking support.”

The other partners include the Minneapolis American Indian Center and Renewable Energy Partners, a Black-owned clean energy developer that also runs a green jobs training center in North Minneapolis. All three were chosen in large part because of their ability to serve disadvantaged residents who are most vulnerable to risks from climate change.

The resiliency hub concept emerged in the U.S. about a decade ago. Baltimore established the nation’s first resiliency hubs in 2014. The city, in collaboration with civic groups, established seven centers where residents can take refuge when their air conditioning falters during blackouts or when other climate disasters occur. More than 40 cities are now studying resilience hubs, with Minneapolis being among the leaders in locating sites and moving forward with projects. 

Renewable Energy Partners founder Jamez Staples said the origin of the pilot began several years ago when he and several nonprofit and government officials attended a microgrid boot camp at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado. The project they developed in Colorado looks a lot like the Resilient Minneapolis Project, he said.

The project was a rare combination of nonprofits, climate activists, the city and the region’s major utility working on a resiliency project. 

“This could be a national model,” Sabathani chief operating officer Ken Rance said last month. (Rance has since moved on to a new job out of state.) The project creates an opportunity to reduce energy bills, train a diverse workforce, and positively impact the environment. Sabathani will install a 240-kilowatt solar array and a 1-megawatt-hour battery storage device.

Hosting institutions will pay for their solar installation and Xcel will pay for and own the batteries, which the utility will be able to discharge during periods of peak demand on the grid.  

Should a disaster occur, the Sabathani microgrid will play an essential role in giving neighborhood shelter and keeping the food shelf’s refrigerators functioning, Rance said.

The project adds to a building overhaul Sabathani did with the Center for Energy and Environment that brought in LED lighting, smart thermostats and software that can control 84 air conditioning units from a smartphone interface. Next will be a geothermal system that uses aquifers for heating and cooling, Rance said.

Sabathani Community Center in South Minneapolis. Credit: Courtesy

“I think there’s this misconception that Black people don’t care about the environment, but that’s not true,” Rance said. “They are the most impacted by climate change. Our building will allow them to talk about environmental justice and see that clean energy is a pathway to a good career.”

Once a new roof is installed, the center will study whether to add community solar as part of the Resilient Minneapolis Project. Rance was also working on offering green jobs training at Sabathani with the help of Staples, who runs a North Side training center and will develop that neighborhood’s resiliency hub.

The Regional Apprenticeship Training Center in North Minneapolis already features a microgrid and a pilot project involving a virtual power plant. The Resilient Minneapolis Project will install 1.1 MW of solar panels on three Minneapolis Public School buildings on the North Side and a 3-megawatt-hour battery on one building.

Staples said financing for solar had not been established, nor had a decision been made on whether to develop it as a community solar garden. Renewable Energy Partners has an agreement to install solar at Sabathani and Staples hopes to work on the Minneapolis American Indian Center solar project.

After a recent heat wave in Minneapolis, Staples said neighborhood microgrids in the future would be called on to contribute electricity during summer peak times as the demand for air conditioning escalates. “Ultimately, the microgrids would help feed the grid on hot summer days and if the power does go out people will have a place to go,” he said.

Minneapolis American Indian Center Executive Director Mary LaGarde said the resiliency projects fit into its $30 million capital renovation and expansion campaign. The center will install a 200-kilowatt solar array as part of its renovation and addition and combine it with 1 MW hour of battery storage and a natural gas/diesel backup generator.

“With this, we will be able to add that [resiliency] to our project,” LaGarde said. “Our goal is to create a Minneapolis American Indian Center that will be here for generations. And with the Resilient Minneapolis Project, gets us closer to that reality.”

The Indian center offers a federal workforce training program and LaGarde hopes to begin a solar training initiative through Renewable Energy Partners. “We want to be able to cultivate that relationship so that our community members learn the trade and can work on our building,” she said.

Commissioner Joe Sullivan led much of the discussion at the Public Utilities Commission. “I think the most interesting and exciting thing about it is that Xcel is going to get a lot of experience working with microgrids and seeing how they work,” he said. “Right now, there are a lot of organizations, universities and businesses and entities that are interested in microgrids. So having Xcel get experience is going to be helpful for those entities in learning how they can integrate their [microgrid] systems into the larger system.”

Sullivan sees the resilient project as a pilot in which Xcel will share the findings with other organizations because ratepayers will absorb the cost. While applauding the project’s decision to locate microgrids in low-income communities, Sullivan emphasized that the approval was based more on learning how microgrids will operate in Xcel’s footprint.

The Minnesota Department of Commerce and a consultant for the state, Synapse Energy Economics, criticized the project. They argued before regulators that the equity goals were poorly defined and unquantifiable. They said the utility failed to show whether alternative technologies or other uses of the money could have delivered more benefits.

“The lack of metrics for the claimed difficult-to-quantify benefits and the complete lack of consideration of alternatives means that it is impossible to objectively determine if the RMP is reasonably likely to be in the public interest,” Synapse wrote in an April 2022 filing to state utility regulators. Answering that criticism, Public Utilities  Commissioner Joe Sullivan asked for several metrics to be included in Xcel’s reporting on the program before regulators approved it. 

The report went on to note the project may help Xcel learn about integrating batteries and microgrids on its system, but given the poor cost-benefit ratio it’s unlikely to replicate similar projects elsewhere. The projects are expected to be online by summer 2023.

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. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.