Ideas & Insights / All Grantee Impact Stories / Ideas & Insights Grantee Impact Story

Sunlit Equity: Minnesota's Landmark Solar Justice Mandate

George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, didn’t just shine a light on police brutality and racial injustice; it also exposed the longstanding economic inequalities that plague low- and middle-income neighborhoods.

So it matters that the vast majority of residents of the Powderhorn Park community of Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, could benefit from a landmark solar energy law that proponents have hailed as a new stage of energy democracy.

Community solar in Minnesota allows consumers to purchase “subscriptions” to a remote solar facility and receive credit on their electric bills for the energy it produces. Because it does not require rooftop installation or any upfront costs, it can support the transition to clean energy for people who cannot or do not want to install solar panels at their own homes.

Executive Director of the Powderhorn Park neighborhood association Tabitha Mongtomery views the law, signed by the governor in May, as a victory for equity.

Low- and middle-income families often face limited access to affordable clean energy options, resulting in higher energy costs and an additional burden on already stretched budgets.

These disparities exacerbate existing social and economic inequities, contributing to an environment where systemic injustice and violence can flourish.

“I remember the weight of the moment, and the urgent need to steady hearts and minds,” Montgomery recalled of the days after Floyd’s murder.

“I remember being overwhelmed by the feeling that this was a moment of historical importance.

“I remember being amongst the flowers, the drawings, the clothing, and the art pieces that were constructed to memorialize not only the man, but this idea—not again.”

She believes the solar law is among the changes that can “have a positive impact over time” in Powderhorn Park and other neighborhoods.

a rooftop solar garden
A rooftop solar garden in Minneapolis serving some 30 households. (Photo courtesy of John Farrell)

Planting seeds that create hope for lasting change requires innovative solutions to empower communities and foster economic equity, Montgomery noted.

“It may even help build generational wealth,” she said.

Still, she sees a lot of work ahead.

“Creating the policy isn’t enough. We have to understand the cost of having it integrated into and adopted by the community. Otherwise, we could look back in five or ten years and regret that we haven’t seen the change.”

man standing at a podium with microphone in hand speaking to a group of people
Pouya Najmaie, Policy Director for Cooperative Energy Futures, speaks at a celebration gathering after the community solar legislation was signed into law in May. (Photo courtesy of Diana Mckeown)

Incentives Plus Mandates to Drive Solar Power Access

To avoid the outcome that worries Montgomery, the law provides both incentives to solar businesses and mandates for reaching low- and moderate-income families.

Pouya Najmaie, another Powderhorn Park resident who also co-founded the Powderhorn Safety Collective after Floyd’s murder, is policy director for Cooperative Energy Futures, an organization formed to help communities create wealth through clean, locally owned energy solutions.

His solar cooperative plans to increase its outreach and focus on signing up low- and moderate-income households. “This is our mission, of course, but the law also makes it more profitable,” he said.

Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), a grantee of The Rockefeller Foundation through the 30 Million Solar Homes Coalition, acted as the convenor in connecting disparate efforts and organizations, including Najmaie’s. It coordinated outreach and public education while leveraging collective strength and resources.

Founded in 1974, ILSR works to build local power to take on corporate control. The nonprofit notes that nationally, Black and Brown households are underrepresented among solar adopters, and the median solar adopter’s income was about $110,000 per year in 2021, compared to a U.S. median of about $63,000 for all household accounting.

“Solar is the centerpiece of a redesigned, transformed, and more resilient energy system,” said John Farrell, ILSR co-director who also directs the Energy Democracy Initiative. “We want communities to have more decision-making power over their energy future.”

“Following the impactful work of the 30 Million Solar Homes Coalition at the federal level, the Coalition worked to develop community access to solar power at the state level,” said Rachel Isacoff, Manager, Economic Policy and Energy Justice for The Rockefeller Foundation.

  • Because of the window of opportunity, we were thrilled that they were able to build on the groundwork of their partners in Minnesota and drive a justice-centered agenda that advances equitable access to local solar.
    Rachel Isacoff
    Director, Economic Policy and Energy Justice, The Rockefeller Foundation.

2030 Target: Solar Savings for 5,000 Lower-Income Households

Renewable resources, including wind, solar, hydropower, and biomass, generate the largest share of Minnesota’s electricity. In 2021, renewables accounted for 29 percent of total in-state electricity net generation, followed by coal at 26 percent, nuclear power at 24 percent, and natural gas at 21 percent. That year, the state ranked 9th in the nation for installed solar capacity.

Under the new community solar law:

  • Providers receive more money for the electricity they provide to the grid for signing up low- and medium-income customers. They are required to provide at least 30 percent of their capacity to low- and medium-income households, and 55 percent of their capacity to those households combined with affordable housing and public interest groups like libraries or schools.
  • Permissible solar garden sites can now produce 5 megawatts, serving about 1,000 homes—up from a prior restriction of 1 megawatt.
  • The new law also reverses a requirement that solar customers were subscribed to community solar garden facilities in their same county or an adjacent one, leaving many rural residents in “solar deserts.” That restriction has been removed.
  • The May law enhances a law enacted in February that requires the state’s power utilities to use 100 percent clean energy by 2040, joining ten other states with commitments to clean or renewable energy. Together these states account for more than one-fourth of the U.S. energy consumption.

The anticipated impact? The community solar program improvements are expected to give nearly 5,000 low-income households access to bill savings by 2030 as part of 500 megawatts of new capacity, ILSR projects. New funding for rooftop solar incentives also could support 500 low-income solar projects.

About 9 percent of the state’s population of 5.7 million live below the poverty line, with the rates higher for the state’s Black and Native American populations.

“A key barrier to community solar is financing,” Farrell said. “But all of us together can create an energy system that is fair and cheaper for everyone. If we center energy justice, we can make sure investments focus on those traditionally left behind.”

  • Community solar garden in Scandia, Minnesota, generates 3,384 megawatt hours, serving over 500 households. (Photo courtesy of John Farrell)

The Minnesota Roadmap

Farrell’s hope is that more states will follow with urgency, enacting ambitious climate legislation. Here is a look at Minnesota’s roadmap.

  1. Keep the advocacy going day-in and day-out, even when you are not anticipating success with proposed legislation. Many groups in Minnesota had actively worked in the clean energy space for years, so when a political feasible moment arrived, “we were not working from scratch,” Farrell said.
  2. Remain alert for opportunities. In Minnesota’s 2022 elections, Democrats maintained control of the governorship and the House of Representatives, and gained control of the state Senate, creating a trifecta in the state. ILSR and other advocates leapt into action.
  3. Put one organization in a project-management role. To help policies get over the finish line, ILSR took on the role of convening the network and keeping track of the various policy threads.
  4. Don’t require that every organization agrees to every proposed policy. “We settled on consensus-based approaches,” Farrell said. “As many groups who want to can sign on to a particular proposal. If you don’t want to sign on, you can skip it. Your only commitment is to be part of the conversation and to be transparent about your positions.”
  5. Include specific midway targets where possible to help meet long-term goals. In Minnesota, for instance, under the February law, utilities must be 80 percent carbon-free by 2030 and 90 percent by 2035. The law also requires 55 percent of the energy sold to Minnesota customers come from renewable energy sources by 2035.
  6. Include policies that prioritize a just energy transition. And if the moment is right, don’t take a moderate path but go for exactly what you want, leaning on the efforts of a strong whip and assistant whip, Najmaie said. He also noted that the Minnesota legislature was supported by a new crop of freshmen legislators who also were extremely motivated and jumped into action. “It was amazing to be around that kind of progress.”

Our Cheapest, Cleanest Option

Farrell, a Minneapolis native, has felt the consequences of carbon-caused global warming in his beloved city over his 44 years.

“When I was a kid, I played outside over Christmas break when it was negative 25 degrees,” he recalled. “It almost never gets that cold here anymore.”

Also in those days, the city’s elm and ash trees “created these tunnels over the streets. But very few streets have that canopy anymore. Pests that used to be killed by the cold now kill those trees.”

He’s concerned, but optimistic.

John Farrell stands in front of solar panel after the passing of a landmark community solar law in Minnesota
John Farrell stands in front of solar panel after the passing of a landmark community solar law in Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of John Farrell)

“Clean energy is the cheapest thing we’ve got,” he said. “You don’t have to care about the climate to want it. Our job is not to get people to do the right thing for the right reason. As long as they do the right thing, it can be for any reason at all.”