Fatima Landaverde, owner of Rincon Chalateco, talks to Leslee Gutierrez, COPAL, and Fritz Ebinger, of the University of Minnesota Extension Clean Energy Resource Team at her restaurant in West St. Paul. Reasearchers are collecting data from Latino business owners to understand potential barriers to accessing energy efficiency benefits. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Fatima Landaverde is a busy woman. The 35-year-old owner of the Rincon Chalateco restaurant on the west side of St. Paul*, which serves the traditional cuisine of her native El Salvador, does just about everything–from cooking, cleaning, and ordering supplies, to managing her three employees.

The restaurant is painted blue and white, the colors of the El Salvador flag. It’s got about a dozen tables, a counter with a cash register, and a kitchen. At 10:30 on Friday morning, three groups of diners sat enjoying the food. 

So, when a couple of researchers came in to talk to Landaverde about her energy bills and needs, they had to wait a few minutes before she was free.

Leslee Gutiérrez, a climate justice organizer with the nonprofit immigrant advocacy group Communities Organizing Latino Power and Action (COPAL), and Fritz Ebinger, a member of the Clean Energy Resource Teams with University of Minnesota Extension, were in West St. Paul to find out whether Landaverde was aware of the various energy efficiency programs available to her.

The interview was part of a larger research effort that aims to help merchants like Landaverde access rebates on energy efficient equipment and identify the barriers to immigrant-run businesses taking advantage of benefits available to all ratepayers. The effort is funded by a 2021 grant from the Minnesota Department of Commerce to COPAL, the nonprofit Great Plains Institute, and University of Minnesota Extension.

“We want to see where they’re at with their understanding of the programs,” said Kris Acuña of the Great Plains Institute.

Identifying barriers

The coalition of nonprofits and the Clean Energy Resource Team have made stops in Latino communities across the state such as Willmar, Worthington, and the west side of St. Paul, with a trip scheduled to Austin at the end of September. The teams go door-to-door, asking small business owners about their energy bills and improvements they might want to make, and whether they are aware of potential rebates available for upgrading to more energy efficient equipment. The teams give business owners a $50 Visa gift card to compensate for their time. 

Business owners like Landaverde have a lot on their plates. It’s hard for her to find time to shop around for low-interest loans to pay for new technology, like an electric air-source heat pump, which could save money in the long run and lower her carbon footprint. 

Across Minnesota, various utilities, local governments, and nonprofit organizations offer incentives to urge residential and commercial customers to decrease their energy use through efficiency. The programs and offerings vary, from free LED lights to significant rebates on new appliances to low-interest loans that pay for new air conditioning and heating systems.

As part of Minnesota’s Conservation Improvement Program, utilities are required to invest ratepayer money in programs that cut emissions and lower costs for consumers. The programs are open to all ratepayers in the state, and getting immigrant business owners to understand that the programs aren’t handouts can be a big step toward getting them interested in tapping the funds, Ebinger said.

“These are not charity dollars, these are rate-payer dollars,” he said. 

Researchers are still collecting data, but have identified two barriers that keep immigrant business owners from accessing the programs, Ebinger said. The first applies to all small businesses owners, regardless of immgiration status—they’re busy, and thinking about getting a new energy efficient refrigerator that would qualify for a utility rebate and savings down the road isn’t front of mind. The second is language. While larger utilities like Xcel Energy have information in multiple languages, smaller municipal providers often do not. That can make it hard to get the word out about rebates.

Although many of the projects can have high upfront costs, service managers with utilities can tell people when an upgrade will pay for itself in energy bill savings, Ebinger said. He added that rebates come quickly after purchase.

Acuña is hopeful that the grant-funded study will give state regulators the information they need to funnel more funding into translation services at utilities, which could lead to more people and businesses taking advantage of available programs. 

Encouraging participation 

These rebates and incentives serve an important climate function by helping to decrease energy consumption. Emissions from commercial buildings rose 15 percent between 2005 and 2018, according to a 2021 report by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Making commercial spaces more energy efficient is a key part of Minnesota meeting its established climate goal of an 80 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2050. The state is currently well behind on those goals, the report found. 

But for most small business owners, the more practical reason to make upgrades is financial. 

“The one that appeals most to people is ‘this can save you money,’” Acuña said.

At a booth in the Rincon Chalateco restaurant, Gutiérrez and Ebinger ask Landaverde questions about her electricity bill and improvements she might want to make to her business in her native Spanish. 

Electricity is a significant business expense, Landaverde said. She explained that she manages her electricity bill the old-school way, by mail. When she does have questions, she calls Xcel Energy on the phone and talks to a representative in Spanish. But, she doesn’t know much about energy efficiency upgrades and reimbursement programs. She’s most interested in upgrading her heating and cooling system.

“I need many things but we need to do it step by step,” Landaverde said. 

Landaverde came to Minnesota from El Salvador in 2002, she told the researchers This is her second restaurant in the Twin Cities, and opening it has been a battle, in no small part due to the cost of electrical work. She first secured her space on Calle Cesar Chavez in late 2018, but found that she had to pay to redo faulty electrical work and the lighting.

By the time everything was ready, COVID-19 struck and the restaurant was temporarily closed. She finally reopened in June 2020. The Salvadoran community in Minnesota has grown since she arrived nearly 20 years ago, and with most of the restaurants on the west side of St. Paul serving Mexican fare, she said she has a stable base of customers looking for flavors from home.

Each business the researchers visit has unique needs, but most could do with extra savings. Landaverde listened closely and asked questions about making upgrades to her air conditioning. She received advice on hiring a technician for electrical work. 

At the end of the talk, Landaverde said she wanted to learn more about potential rebates and other savings. Gutierrez and Ebinger scribbled down the names of contacts and resources for programs on the back of a green envelope and handed it to her. 

*Correction: This story has been changed. Rincon Chalateco is located on the west side of St. Paul ( not in West St. Paul).

Andrew Hazzard is a staff reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew...