Conversation

Building solar block by block

A clean energy vision for North Minneapolis and beyond

Building grassroots
energy

 

In September of 2020, Kristel Porter, Founder and Executive Director of MN Renewable NOW, a nonprofit working to advance a renewable energy future in North Minneapolis and beyond, sat down virtually for a conversation with Marie Donahue, Sustainability Storyteller with CERTs.

Porter shares what inspires her to work on clean energy, how she and her team navigated challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic this year, and her grassroots vision to advance local renewable energy and address issues of climate change and racial inequities block by block.

 

Listen to the conversation or read it below.

Both the audio and write-up have been edited for length and clarity.

Subscribe on:   Apple Podcasts   Google Podcasts   Spotify Podcasts   More

How and where do we get our energy? How can we change that around? All of us turn on lights in our homes and expect things to work. We heat our homes. We get in our cars and we drive. We're all dependent on energy—all of us, everyone. I don't see that changing any time soon… So, how do we harness energy in a renewable way?

Kristel Porter, Founder and Executive Director, MN Renewable NOW

Marie Donahue: Welcome, and thank you for joining us today, Kristel! Could you share with us a bit about your background, your role at MN Renewable NOW, and what drew you to this work?

MRN+Thumbnail.pngKristel Porter: I am the founder of MN Renewable NOW. It started with a lot of conversation around my passion and my vocation—to get folks in my community and my network to start thinking about how we are going to get our energy moving forward. I founded MN Renewable NOW in 2018, in December, but the work has been going on for quite awhile, even before we became official.

At the time, I was an executive director of a neighborhood association in North Minneapolis. I spent so much of my time on environmental issues. A neighborhood association is a place-based organization; they focus on different issues that are important to the community at the time—anything that you could think of. I began to notice that a lot of the grants I was applying for were around environmental issues. I wrote these grants and was pouring my heart into them and the narratives. I was getting them funded.

So, I started to ask, “Am I in the right place?” I went to Augsburg College and the main theme of our program was, “What's your vocation? What's your calling?” Whenever I'm in a situation where we're talking about environmental issues, like climate change. My ears perk up, I get excited. I get inspired. I had to really start asking myself, “What is it that I need to be doing while I'm here on this planet? Why am I here? What's the purpose?” If this work always got me excited and always pushed me to keep going and to work harder, then that's what I need to be doing.
 

 

I chose to start the nonprofit MN Renewable NOW, even though I'd been doing the work for a very long time in my own personal life. I said, “I need to make this a job. I need to be able to focus 100% of my time.” So I organized it, put together a board, and here we are today.

I was inspired as a young child, too. My mom recently said, “Kristel, you were a little too independent when you were younger. I never knew where you were.” I was seven or eight years old on my bike. On these long bike ride trips and walks, I was always picking the nature trail. I would cut through the woods to get to where I wanted to go—instead of going around the street and following the path. I never spent time in or on manmade structures. I was always in nature. I developed this deep relationship and respect for all living things. It was a bit of a weird relationship, since I don't feel like this happened with my other six siblings. But because I was always in nature, I had this deep love for it. And then some of my favorite shows were ones like Captain Planet [laughing]. All of these things shaped me and molded me and inspired me to do the work that I am doing now.

Marie Donahue: To follow up on this, where did you then see energy as being an important part of the picture, and how did you make that pivot? 

Kristel Porter: The pivot to energy was—because I had this love for the environment—I started to understand that we had to do things to protect that. I developed this understanding about how all things are connected indirectly and directly.

When I first found out that we had a climate issue, it was when I watched An Inconvenient Truth. It blew my mind. It made me realize that this is something that really could be an issue. And then I did research on my own. I educated myself on these issues, and I started to realize that yes, this is a big issue. In my way and with my personality, if I see an issue, then I try to figure out what's the quickest way we can get to the solution. And what is the biggest issue within that issue? What’s causing it?

My first response to that was, “How and where do we get our energy? How can we change that around?” All of us turn on lights in our homes and expect things to work. We heat our homes. We get in our cars and we drive. We're all dependent on energy—all of us, everyone. I don't see that changing any time soon. Unless everybody just woke up tomorrow and was like, “All right, we're going to go back to living off the land and off the grid.” Which would be a dream for me [laughing]. I would be totally fine with that. But the majority of folks would be like, “No, that's not happening.”

So, how do we harness energy in a renewable way? That was my big thing. That was the biggest issue. I've done a lot of work around water conservation and soil, but energy is my biggest passion because that is the big issue that's increasing the pace of climate change. That's why I went into renewable energy work.

 

Cycle sisters color.jpg

Marie Donahue: With those big issues in mind, how are you feeling about the state of clean energy in Minnesota in these times? Thinking about climate, but also the public health crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and systemic racism too. Your organization is fairly new, and you're jumping right into navigating all of these issues. So, how do you feel given the weight of all of these things?

Kristel Porter: Well, I feel terrible about 2020, to be honest. I feel like we were robbed as a people. Especially when it comes to this year's legislative session. I was really excited. It was the end of February when I walked with about 15 youth to the Capitol, along with MNIPL (Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light) and Climate Generation, Will Steger’s group. We all did some amazing lobbying and met with legislators around the Minnesota Green New Deal.

Because of the situation with COVID—something I never thought I would see—a large number of legislators killed the possibility of that passing this year. They were worried about the financial status of our state. We didn't know what was going to come from this situation, how bad it was going to affect the economy, how bad it still is affecting the economy. But they didn't feel comfortable with letting this pass because of the unknown.

Yet, this Green New Deal was or would have been a good way to combat the issues that are going on right now. Programs to support job training for people of color, a fossil fuel facility construction moratorium—that is, a way to stop the building of new plants that required fossil fuel burning of any kind—and a greenhouse gas reduction strategy. It was pushing energy efficiency, incentivizing power storage, and electrifying all sectors of the economy that are powered by fossil fuels. It would have been so amazing for something like that to pass.

 

I think about my community and living in North Minneapolis. If you took an aerial shot of North Minneapolis, and you color-coded the Black residents in shades of red or blue—then the darker the shade of the red or the blue, the closer you get to manufacturing facilities. Such as the two roof shingle companies that are situated in North Minneapolis, in the Green Zone. So it's no surprise that North Minneapolis has the highest hospital rates for asthma, chronic bronchitis, and things like that.

When I think about that in relation to COVID-19, it’s also no surprise that Blacks have the highest rate of COVID-19 related deaths. It’s not surprising because it's not like North Minneapolis is unique to any other Black neighborhood in any other state. If you look at Black neighborhoods all over the country, they're usually situated near an incinerator, or industrial waste and manufacturing facilities. It was planned out—the city was planned out that way. It definitely makes me nervous, and it's very disheartening.

One of the things that was in this Green New Deal was not calling the HERC (Hennepin Energy Recovery Center)—which is the Hennepin County incinerator, where they burn trash in North Minneapolis for the entire Hennepin County—not to call energy from the HERC renewable energy. When you have something labeled as renewable energy, then there are subsidies connected to that. And there's even the feeling of, “Oh, wow, it's renewable!” But it's not. It just is not. Especially when you're talking about the effects that it's having on the community directly around it.

So, that would have been a nice win. But now I feel like we rewound 20 or 30 years this year, when it comes to forward momentum that we had going and when it came to addressing the climate change issue.

We're going to start doing the work that others are doing ourselves. Instead of waiting around for public dollars and funding to be available or waiting for our state legislature... we started partnering with the for-profit sector and investors to go ahead in doing the work to move our community into a renewable energy space.

Kristel Porter, Founder and Executive Director, MN Renewable NOW

Marie Donahue: It's hard to recognize just how much has shifted in these times. And yet, there are a lot of things that you've been active on since too. So, I'm curious, how did you adapt or shift in your approach to your work to move forward? Appreciating and holding all of that frustration you felt, too.

Kristel Porter: I would say, we're definitely spending less time in the streets and focusing on more online methods [laughing]. But, in the beginning of this pandemic, we really took to the streets in a special way. I was definitely down in the dumps about this year, since we were supposed to be throwing the first renewable energy and conservation fair that would ever have taken place in North Minneapolis. That was supposed to take place on April 4th of this year. We had many vendors and sponsors and were ready to roll. Then this thing hit, and it was very disheartening because I felt like this was a great opportunity to bring a lot of the movers and the shakers in that space to come to North Minneapolis and also for North Minneapolis residents to come and learn. There were a lot of people really excited about attending. But what we did was we went, “Okay, well, what can we do right now?” We don't have any of the funding coming in from this renewable energy fair and things are being held off. What can we do?

 

We co-started a group with many people all over the city of Minneapolis, called the Family of Trees. If we can't do too much right now, especially when it comes to public dollars because a lot of the funding pools were just frozen for a time, then what is a way that we can still do our part? We focused on mitigation, the sequestration of carbon out of the air through trees and planting trees. We threw a concert in my backyard. We set up a stage and did a whole concert on Earth Day. We had well-known artists perform, and in between songs, I did a teaching on how to stratify tree seeds. Then we gave away trees to the community. People would show up during this live concert and grab a tree to plant wherever. We were able to, as a group, plant about 3,000 trees in North Minneapolis this year. That was one amazing endeavor that we were able to do. But we had to shift our priorities.

We had a Renewable NOW leadership conference for youth planned this year that was obviously not going to happen either. Since we didn't have that, we started to think bigger. At first, we focused on ways that we could partner with others who were doing the work. But now, we've been able to start thinking about how we're going to start doing the work that others are doing ourselves. Instead of waiting around for public dollars and funding to be available or waiting for our state legislature to pass a Green New Deal, we started partnering with the for-profit sector and investors, to go ahead in doing the work to move our community into a renewable energy space.

Marie Donahue: Could you speak more specifically to what you're fundraising for and what you're interested in seeing happen on the ground? I was looking at your website and saw the Solstar Project being this vision for getting solar onto homes and making residential solar investments. I’m curious what the vision for that project is, the nuts and bolts of it, and to have you talk a bit more about that project.

 

Kristel Porter: There are a few different projects, some we've had to put off, like I said. The Renewable NOW Leadership Conference is one, which thanks to CERTs, we were going to be able to still put on, but we’re pushing that to spring of 2021 (Porter was a featured speaker at the virtual 13th Annual Metro CERT Resource Event, where she shared about MN Renewable NOW's work to support access to clean energy among Black residents in North Minneapolis, as communities across Minneapolis build back greener). We’ll need some time this school year to engage youth in order to get them there. We still don't know what that’s gonna look like. Right now, it's distance learning, but who knows what will happen in the second semester. Hopefully we can figure out a way to get the kids back in school!

Then, our Renewable NOW Energy Fair is going to be pushed to August of next year. We’re looking at outdoor spaces—North Commons Park and taking over the whole park. Having different demonstrations out there would actually be really good for solar demonstrations to have those outside. I'm really hopeful about that happening and being successful.

But the thing we're working on now—which doesn't require social distancing—is the Solstar Project. In this project, we’re building racial equity through renewable energy. When we talk about renewable energy, most people usually think solar panels, especially when it comes to people's ability to participate. They may envision a solar panel on their roof, or their garage, or somewhere, to generate electricity and lower their electric bill. The issue with this, if you talk to any solar installer or any company that's doing residential solar installations and ask them how many of their customers are people of color—they would probably say none or one.

It's not easy to get solar on your home. It can cost up to $30,000, you have to get financing. That's just not possible for many people in my community.

It's not easy to get solar on your home. It can cost up to $30,000, you have to get financing. That's just not possible for many people in my community.

Kristel Porter, Founder and Executive Director, MN Renewable NOW
 

We're already feeling the effects of gentrification, which is raising property values. We've seen our property taxes go up higher than ever before. We're just barely making it and struggling. Especially with COVID, we’re losing jobs. We’re trying to teach our kids at home. We're barely treading above water. And, so the idea of getting a $30,000 solar installation on our roof is just not even a thing we're going to be thinking about.

Even though we have these distractions of COVID-19 and riots going on in our community, the issue of climate change hasn't gone away, magically. It's still here, and it's actually getting worse. How are we going to be able to help these communities that have the lowest area median income in the entire state of Minnesota, get $38,000 installations on the roof? 

We got together with different folks, and we figured out a way. What we plan to do—we plan and we're doing it—is to get investments from different investors throughout the state of Minnesota. Anybody who wants to invest really, and to raise the money for this project.

We have a little over $300,000 already, and our goal is $750,000. Investors would invest and then get back 2.5 percent every year, at the end of every year. For six to seven years, we own the solar panels that are on top of those rooftops. Then after seven years of receiving all the tax credits and once all of the investors have been paid back, then we would pass the titles of the solar panels over to the property owner. We're also hoping to find a couple commercial properties in North Minneapolis, next to a lot of activity, such as bus lines or perhaps a corner store, so people can see these solar panels on top of the roof. 

We also put together an amazing crew—the Solar Dream Team is what I want to call them to figure out how we were gonna get all of this work done. We were determined to make sure that all of the moving pieces of this project were made up of North Minneapolis residents. The residential contractor is coming out of North Minneapolis.

People won’t just see the solar panels sitting on these roofs, but they’ll also see a group of men who look like the community installing them. I'm hoping that sparks conversation and gets people excited.

Kristel Porter, Founder and Executive Director, MN Renewable NOW
 

As black men, our solar installers are residents of North Minneapolis; they’re already doing work for other companies. They happen to be Black, even our solar assessor, the one who goes out and assesses the roofs, is a trained solar assessor and is Black man from North Minneapolis. 

People won’t just see the solar panels sitting on these roofs, but they’ll also see a group of men who look like the community installing them. I'm hoping that sparks conversation and gets people excited. Maybe it will inspire some youths walking by or residents who are walking by to think, “Hey, I wouldn't mind doing something like that.” And just learning. A lot of people have no idea how solar energy works, but they might be able to join the conversation. That’s really exciting.

We’re going to be releasing the application soon, too (now available here). People will be able to start applying for these installations on their roof. We can only do 24 to start because if we do more than 24, then we would have to be registered as a public utility company. Who knows, that might be something we'd end up doing in the future [laughing].

But for now, we want to keep it simple, as simple as it can be, to get these initial roofs covered. I do a lot of door knocking in North Minneapolis and lit dropping. It's funny because in my brain, I know that the average number of homes on each block in North Minneapolis is 22 homes. Essentially we're addressing the issue of climate change and racial inequities, block by block. One block at a time.

Of course, it's not going to be just one block at a time. It sounds like a beautiful picture to go one block. Then next block, and next block, and just get it done… But slowly, I hope to see these dots pop up on the map. My plan and hope is to make North Minneapolis a renewable energy Mecca—a model for the rest of the country. So people can see how your income, your race, where you are geographically located, or where you were born—these should not limit your ability to participate in this movement.

Essentially we're addressing the issue of climate change and racial inequities, block by block. One block at a time.

Kristel Porter, Founder and Executive Director, MN Renewable NOW

Marie Donahue: I'm curious at this stage, if there is anything else your team still needs or that you're looking for to help with this vision, and how are you ultimately thinking about measuring success for this project?

Kristel Porter: Obviously, more funding will still be needed. We have enough funding to start though, and that is what's really exciting. I really don't want to get too caught up in reaching that $750,000. I want to focus on what we have. We have $300,000. We have that amount. So let's do the engagement work, let's start the solar assessments, and let's start getting solar on these properties. Hopefully people will see that this work is happening, and they'll see that it's working, and more people will want to invest in the project. And we’ll finish and reach the end of this project. But this is just one project out of many that is going to happen. And like I said, 24 at a time, to get to that end. We would definitely need to fill in the gap when it comes to funding, but we also need to spread the word too. 

I'm not thinking about just us or our projects when it comes to this issue or addressing where we're going to get our energy. There is no room for competition. I don't have time for that. We need to be sharing our blueprints and our ideas in the work with anyone who is willing to listen, so that others can model or replicate it. I want people who are listening to this to go, “Wow, I could do that too,” and do it in their community too.

 

I feel like we can't really wait around for our government to take this issue seriously, as a whole. There's just too much division, and this issue is moving rapidly. It's getting worse every day. The only way that we're going to be able to let our leaders and our decision makers know how we feel is by moving without them. We're just going to show them what we want, and how can we get together as a people and address this issue together.

I'm hopeful that the people listening to this or who come across this online, think, “Wow, this is a great idea. I love this.” And shares this project with their friends, shares it with their family, shares it with the people in their network, who are really into this work and really passionate about this work. Hopefully then, we’ll see more projects like this popping up all over the place. And we can show the public utility company: This is what we want. This is what we're demanding. When it’s shared and other people see our project, they’ll want to see it happen and want to see it succeed. They’ll support it. And if they pull off a project like this that it will succeed, as well.

Marie Donahue: At the Clean Energy Resource Teams or CERTs, we work throughout the state of Minnesota. What would you like others working on renewable energy or those in communities across the state to learn or act on in terms of how to approach this work at a community level or in their neighborhoods?

Kristel Porter: We can't do this alone. Nobody can do this work alone. If you want to pull something like this off, it's really who you get to the table. We can't keep waiting around for some magical solar-wind-hydro fairy to come down from the sky and make everything better.

The power of this movement did not go away. It’s crazy because last fall was one of the most inspiring times of my life. Seeing high school students leave school and march to the Capitol and demanding our leaders start focusing on this issue. We're seeing these youth making statements and making these demands because they're the ones who are our future. You've got all these adults, who are making decisions for them and treating it, as if it's a game of chess. And you've got these young people who are saying, “Hey, wait a minute. You know, I have to live on this planet much longer than you, you know, and I might want to have a child. So what about them?”

 

img-4555.JPG

 

Then with the whole COVID-19 situation, the students were all divided. They were all sent home, told to stay inside, and their movement almost disappeared, but it didn't go away. It's still here.

We need to remind ourselves that climate change is only going to get worse, if we keep ignoring it and keep brushing it under the rug. I've spent time in organizations that focus on the democratic process, organizations that work on different issues, whether gender, racial, or economic issues, and they also focus on environmental issues. But for some reason, the person who directed environmental issues was always dismissed as the little step-sister, within organizations like these. The “green” person, the environmental person was always inside of a glass jar, screaming and pounding on it. Nobody hears them even within those spaces.

 

The crazy thing is this issue affects everybody on this planet. Every living thing, no matter what color you are, where you live geographically, we're all going to be affected by it. We all have to keep moving. If you are just as passionate about this issue, as I am, don't stop talking about it. Keep talking about it. Keep posting on your social media about it. Try to connect with people who are as passionate about it as you are. Who are actually up here doing the work. Try to get them together at the same table. You'd be surprised what you guys might come up with.

If you had asked me a year ago, was I going to be working on a project to retrofit 24 rooftops with solar in North Minneapolis? I would not have believed you. I was more focused on: Let's throw an energy fair. Let's do a youth conference. Let's get people to sign up for renewables and maybe connect them to a community solar project.

You'd be surprised by the people in your network. If you scroll through your phone or your email or your Facebook and see the people you're connected to, you'd be surprised what you might be able to accomplish. I really hope that people take away from this: the ability to dream and not be limited by what obstacles are in the way. Don't think about it. What can we do? What can we get done together?

If you had asked me a year ago, was I going to be working on a project to retrofit 24 rooftops with solar in North Minneapolis? I would not have believed you. I was more focused on: Let's throw an energy fair. Let's do a youth conference. Let's get people to sign up for renewables and maybe connect them to a community solar project.

Kristel Porter, Founder and Executive Director, MN Renewable NOW

Marie Donahue: What is next for you—you along with others, since it seems like that's a big part of your work? What is next on the horizon in this work?

Kristel PorterI would say next steps are to start considering how not to be limited by that 24 rooftops number. Let's move up to a 25 or more, and let's start our own public utility company. That would be really cool. Then trying to figure out who will run MN Renewable NOW [laughing], once I seek public office. Because as much as I want to push and do what we can do outside of the public realm, it would be really great to see some more public dollars trickle down to the little guys, so that we can get more work done.

Thinking on a bigger picture, how can we say: This is what we want. We're going to start our own public utility company. This is what we're going to do, if you're not going to listen to us. If you're not going to move fast enough, we're going to take matters into our own hands to change over the grid ourselves.

If anybody is listening to this, who is like, “Yeah, let's do that.” Give me a call, contact us on mnrenewablenow.org—find my number and email, and let's get it done.

More stories, delivered

Sign up for our email newsletter