A new, diverse coalition is launching a campaign aimed at a growing source of polluting greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota: homes.
Minnesota is making progress in lowering greenhouse gas emissions, with significant reductions in the electrical generation sector in recent years. However, emissions from residential buildings are up 14 percent from 2005 baseline levels, according to a 2023 state report.
Clean Heat Minnesota, a coalition of energy experts, consumer rights groups, and community service organizations, wants to change that. The group aims to help Minnesotans improve indoor air quality and lower emissions by transitioning to energy efficient electric appliances for heating and cooking.
“We all benefit from clean, modern energy and heating. It costs less. It’s better for health and safety,” said Carolina Ortiz, associate executive director of the Latin American immigrant advocacy group COPAL, Comunidades Organizando el Poder y la Acción Latina.
COPAL is joining with nonprofits Fresh Energy, which promotes clean energy policy, and the Citizens Utility Board, a consumer advocacy group, to lead the Clean Heat Minnesota coalition. The city of St. Paul, the American Indian Community Housing Organization, and Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light are among the more than 30 members of the coalition.
“The big picture goal here is decarbonizing heating, getting to clean heat by 2050, and making that as equitable as possible,” said Annie Levenson-Falk, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board.
Federal, state, and local policies offer new opportunities to decarbonize the building sector. Building emissions can be tackled through moves like improving insulation and weatherization to be more energy efficient, or through major appliance changes, like switching to electrically powered heat pumps or changing from gas stoves to induction cooktops.
But navigating those tax credits, rebates, and utility programs isn’t simple. Clean Heat Minnesota hopes that energy experts and community organizations can help people access those benefits no matter where they live or what language they speak at home.
“This is a very important energy transition to get right in terms of meeting our climate goals, but also in terms of meeting people’s ability to participate,” said Margaret Cherne-Hendrick, senior lead of innovation and impact at Fresh Energy.
Less pollution, more savings
Minnesota aims to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions, the primary driver of climate change, by 2050. Reaching net zero emissions by 2050 worldwide is needed to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, seen as critical to keeping a more stable climate, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
A 2007 state law established emission reduction targets based on 2005 baseline levels. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency announced this year that the state is on track to meet a benchmark in that law for the first time, with the target of a 25 percent emissions reduction by 2025 well within reach.
Most emission reductions are in the energy sector, which is rapidly improving as coal-powered energy is phased out and more renewable sources like wind and solar are installed. Energy production emissions are down 54 percent from 2005 levels.
Transportation is now the state’s largest emission source. Emissions have dropped 18 percent, but it is unclear whether that will continue because much of the reduction was attributed to lower plane and vehicle travel during the pandemic. State leaders hope increasing electric vehicle rates and investments in public transportation will help maintain lower transportation emissions.
But homes continue to pollute more. Most residential buildings in Minnesota are heated with natural gas, a polluting fossil fuel. Cooking with gas also generates emissions and harmful pollutants such as carbon monoxide and formaldehyde, which can cause respiratory issues. A 2022 study attributes nearly 13 percent of childhood asthma cases in the United States to gas stove use at home. About 38 percent of Americans cook with natural gas at home, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Many people have a preference and cultural tradition of cooking with gas heat, Ortiz said. The coalition wants to help people work through those concerns, and take advantage of opportunities to create cleaner, healthier homes.
“We know indoor air pollution from combusting fossil fuels threatens our health and well being, and we believe, regardless of income, families should enjoy lower energy bills,” said St. Paul City Council Member Mitra Jalali.
There is also a more efficient and climate-friendly option for heating and cooling. Electric heat pumps use electricity to either warm or cool outside air and pump it into a home. The technology works increasingly well in cold climates like Minnesota. Homeowners can get up to a $2,000 tax credit for heat pumps from the federal government.
Federal incentives are also available for those transitioning to induction stoves, with rebates up to $840 per household.
Clean Heat Minnesota wants to collaborate with cultural groups like COPAL who can help reduce language barriers for Minnesotans seeking home improvements that will lower emissions, Ortiz said.
Groups like Fresh Energy and Citizens Utility Board can help people understand which programs to use to replace a gas furnace with an electric heat pump, and organizations like COPAL can ensure that information is translated and easily available.
Today, people speaking any language at home have to check in with various federal, state, and utility websites to learn about potential tax credits, rebates, or other incentives. The coalition hopes to build a go-to resource for Minnesotans looking for those resources.
“There’s no single place that is a go-to place to navigate everything,” Levenson-Falk said.
The coalition also hopes to influence decisions of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, a governor-appointed board that regulates electric and gas utility companies. The commission has a docket mapping out the future of natural gas in Minnesota, as ordered by a 2021 state law.
The Public Utilities Commision is typically the realm of lawyers, lobbyists, and technical experts. Clean Heat Minnesota hopes to mimic the strategy used by the Just Solar Coalition to bring the voices of diverse, working class residents to the table in Xcel Energy’s rate increase case.
“A lot of this campaign is meant to demystify that process,” Cherne-Hendrick said.