The sun rises over University Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Saturday, March 20, 2021. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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The nation’s leading renewable energy lab is developing a model to help businesses in three diverse Twin Cities business districts plug into solar power. 

The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory selected the Twin Cities for its Solar Energy Innovation Network, a program that aims to address barriers to solar power nationwide. The project is working with local groups to develop models that can help business owners along Lake Street, West Broadway Avenue, and University Avenue to install solar power. 

The Lake Street Council, a nonprofit that promotes business along the south Minneapolis corridor, partnered with two other groups, the Neighborhood Development Center and the Northside Economic Opportunity Network, to apply for the program. The three groups were awarded funding to gauge interest in solar power among business owners in the corridors. 

Although the project is not supporting direct construction or financing of new projects, the goal is to create models that will support a spurt of solar installations in the areas. The project envisions a future in which megawatts of solar power could be spread across the roofs of corner stores and family-run restaurants in small, 15 to 30-kilowatt installations—enough to power most small businesses. Commercial roofs are flatter than most homes, and typically can hold larger panels. 

Today, commercial buildings are a major source of emissions in Minnesota, accounting for 39 percent of emissions in cities, according to a 2020 state report. But unused commercial rooftop space in the United States has the potential to double the nation’s solar capacity and power 128 million homes, a 2020 report by energy research firm Wood McKenzie found. 

Researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory are mapping out solar-power potential along Lake Street, West Broadway, and University Avenue and exploring the best financing options for small businesses. 

“The ultimate goal is to develop models that overcome the significant barriers for equitable access for communities that have been historically marginalized,” said Diana McKeown of Great Plains Institute, a Minnesota energy nonprofit.

The Great Plains Institute received one of the first rounds of the Solar Energy Innovation Network to study the use of solar power to support electric vehicle charging*. The group recruited a frequent partner, the Lake Street Council, to apply for the program in 2022. The Lake Street Council’s bid was one of eight selected among multiple applicants.

Sara Farrar, project leader for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, described historical and institutional barriers to equity and environmental justice. “This program certainly cannot solve those,” she said. “But we do want to discover and try new ideas.”

The project is ongoing and will publish reports in the fall, Farrar said. She hopes those reports will help jumpstart solar installations in similar business districts nationwide. 

Building trust

The organizations that were selected went door-to-door, talking with shopkeepers about their knowledge of and interest in solar power. Businesses owners were paid for their time through the federal grant. 

Earlsworth “Baba” Letang is the community engagement director for the Neighborhood Development Center, a nonprofit headquartered in the St. Paul Midway area. Letang grew up on the Caribbean island of Dominica, and spent 16 years managing the Midtown Global Market on Lake Street. He’s spent his career working with immigrant business owners and believes successful relationships are forged by following through on promises. 

“Usually trust is developed by results,” Letang said. 

Letang and his staff went along University Avenue in St. Paul, talking about solar to dozens of small business owners. Some told him they wanted to cut their emissions, others said “show me the money.” All were aware of solar, and just about everyone was interested in learning more, he said. 

Immigrant business owners make decisions based on information like everyone else, Letang said. If they see a friend or neighbor installing solar on their roof, they’re more likely to look into it. 

Many business owners have said they want referrals to dependable solar companies, Letang said. While some expressed interest in working with solar installers from communities of color, many just want someone who has done reliable work in the area. 

High potential 

Research by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory shows that the Minnesota business corridors selected for the program are highly suitable for rooftop solar. These areas may suffer from a lack of tree canopy and wide expanses of concrete. But these drawbacks also make the neighborhoods suitable for sun-powered electricity, the lab found.  

“The technical potential is promising, and now it’s about being able to do the educational element on the financing,” Farrar said. 

The Neighborhood Development Center works to create more economically independent communities, Letang said, which makes promoting solar power a logical fit. During engagement work on University Avenue, Letang said, he heard from multiple merchants who want to use solar to reduce their energy bills so they can invest that money elsewhere. Many business owners also expressed a desire to reduce their carbon footprint, he said. 

The challenge, Farrar said, is to make solar power economically viable for small businesses run by immigrants and people of color. The project will not fund the installation of solar panels, but plans to provide business owners with a list of options for installers based on their financial situation and their building’s solar potential. 

There are a variety of options for businesses looking to add rooftop solar, Farrar said. The newly passed federal Inflation Reduction Act is expanding tax credits that function as rebates for installing solar panels. While those rebates aren’t instant, Farrar said the program will present options to business owners to install solar with no upfront costs. 

Local options like the city of Minneapolis Green Cost Share program can also help finance projects. In the long term, installing rooftop solar is a reliable positive investment for businesses, she said. 

For businesses that own their buildings, the potential for economic benefit is high, Farrar said. (It will be harder to find good options for merchants who lease space.) Rooftop solar produces power that goes into the grid, and utility providers reimburse the owners of solar panels with credits for the power produced. That usually results in power bills with no amount due, and occasional profits.

Energy consumption varies greatly between types of business, and is dependent on the size and energy efficiency of buildings. A commercial installation of 20 kilowatts would produce around 20,000 watts of power.

Cutting out a utility bill can be a significant step for small businesses, according to Matt Kazinka with the Lake Street Council. The council sees an opportunity to get neighborhood businesses plugged in as solar costs continue to decline nationally and as the bevvy of new tax credits (coming from Inflation Reduction Act) roll out. 

“I think it would be really powerful to have that opportunity be truly accessible for everyone, and in particular these businesses. They’re so important to the community,” Kazinka said. 

A secondary but significant goal of the program is to make solar power visible throughout those communities. 

“We want people not just to install solar panels, but for people in those neighborhoods to get excited about solar energy,” Letang said. 

*Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the Great Plains Institute’s history with the Solar Energy Innovation Network. The group previously participated in the program.

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...