A new rooftop solar array on a south Minneapolis apartment building run by Beacon Interfaith Housing Cooperative is bringing energy savings to residents. Credit: Image courtesy of Cooperative Energy Futures

Jimmy Fox hadn’t thought much about rooftop solar. After all, he isn’t a homeowner, or even a single-family-home resident. 

Fox lives in a brownstone apartment in south Minneapolis’ Stevens Square neighborhood. His building is owned by Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, an affordable-housing nonprofit with around 700 units across 19 properties in Minnesota.

Fox’s building may be old, but its roof is state-of-the-art, with a brand-new 20-kilowatt solar array that powers 12 units in the building, including his. 

That’s good for Fox, who said his monthly energy bills can approach $200. The new panels, activated in May, should bring about at least a 35 percent savings in the summer months. 

“I’m trying to see if I can get that bill down,” Fox said. 

Beacon and Cooperative Energy Futures have partnered to install five solar arrays at multifamily affordable-housing buildings in Minneapolis. The arrays operate like traditional rooftop solar on a single-family home. Panels on the roof are wired directly to meters of specific units, bringing savings and greenhouse gas reductions.

Beacon Interfaith Housing Cooperative and Cooperative Energy Futures have collaborated to install rooftop solar on five affordable buildings in Minneapolis. Credit: Image courtesy of Cooperative Energy Futures

The partnership is pioneering a movement to allow low-income residents—who often live in old housing with steep electric bills—to participate in and benefit from the green energy movement.

Fox ended up in the program unintentionally, but is happy to be involved. He moved into the building in the past year, and the previous resident of his unit actually signed up. That’s another perk of the project—the benefits are passed to the next resident automatically. 

In May, Fox joined fellow residents and representatives of the local power organization Cooperative Energy Futures at a small celebration for the new solar installation. The gathering featured tea, sambusas, and drone videos showing the array from above.

Said Fox: “It’s beautiful. Wow.”

“Perfect sense”

The two organizations were connected through Kevin Walker, Beacon vice president of housing, who once worked in cooperative housing in southern Minnesota. Walker became aware of Cooperative Energy Futures when it was signing up low-income residents for community solar gardens. 

When Walker joined Beacon in 2018, he began working with Cooperative Energy Futures general manager Timothy DenHerder-Thomas. Their partnership resulted in 40 affordable-housing unit residents being subscribed to the community solar garden on downtown Minneapolis’ Ramp A parking garage. 

Representatives from Cooperative Energy Futues, Community Power, and Go Solar Construction talk with residents about new solar arrays at affordable housing in Minneapolis. Credit: Image courtesy of Cooperative Energy Futures

Community solar gardens give subscribers the benefits of solar power without a rooftop installation. Cooperative Energy Futures members are subscribers, and see their power bill reduced by about 20 percent. The firm typically builds rooftop arrays on larger warehouse-type structures, and partners with Go Solar Construction, a Black-owned firm based in Bloomington, to do the installations. 

The projects with Beacon are a different model. The buildings and arrays are relatively small, between 10 and 50 kilowatts. Unlike the community solar subscription model, these panels provide direct benefits to just the residents of the building. 

Cooperative Energy Futures is using an Xcel Energy solar rewards program that offers benefits to low-income residents. It covers lots of the start-up costs, DenHerder-Thomas said. The project also took advantage of the city of Minneapolis’ Green Cost Share grant program. All told, this means Beacon residents don’t have to pay up front; they simply benefit. 

The direct nature of the rooftop installations means that getting the projects connected to the larger power grid is a simple, quick process, unlike the delays experienced by community solar projects. 

“We’re really excited about it. It’s one of those things that really just makes perfect sense,” DenHerder-Thomas said. 

Spreading benefits

Beacon made the decision to add these rooftop arrays, and the firm knows that solar will benefit residents. But it still took the time to engage residents about the arrays and sign up people who took a genuine interest. 

Several of the buildings have immigrant occupants, so the group provided staff members who spoke Spanish and Somali to answer questions. To inform residents, Beacon partnered with Community Power, a nonprofit that promotes a clean energy system overseen by citizens who want to be decision makers, not just consumers. The group talked with people in the building about their power bills, and passed out some basic tools to boost efficiency, such as LED light bulbs. 

People are deeply curious when it comes to solar, according to Community Power’s Alice Madden. They’re interested in how it works, and how it might affect their monthly bills. 

“We just want people to feel connected to this transition that’s happening and feel some benefits,” Madden said. 

“We just want people to feel connected to this transition that’s happening and feel some benefits.”

Alice Madden of Community Power, about solar power and its benefits to affordable-housing residents

For installations on Beacon properties, 75 percent of the benefits go directly to residents and 25 percent go to the nonprofit, money that helps offset its power bills on other properties, Walker said.

Now, Beacon is looking at expanding the initiative to buildings in St. Paul, he said. 

“It’s been a good experiment,” Walker said. 

Between partnerships with Beacon and a second housing nonprofit, Project for Pride in Living, Cooperative Energy Futures expects to have 12 solar installations hooked up by the end of the year. 

“We think it’s an incredible model,” DenHerder-Thomas said.

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...