Conversation

Planting seeds for community-led clean energy projects

Digging into CERTs seed grants

Exploring CERTs Seed
Grants

 

Recently, Statewide Director of the Clean Energy Resource Teams Lissa Pawlisch and co-director Joel Haskard sat down virtually for a conversation with CERTs sustainability storyteller Marie Donahue.

During the interview, Pawlisch and Haskard speak about CERTs ongoing seed grant program and how this unique opportunity helps launch community-led clean energy projects across the state. The podcast episode also features project highlights from CERT regional coordinators and other staff.

 

Listen to the conversation or read it below.

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

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When we first started doing seed grants, it was back in 2006 or 2007. I think the idea was: How do we start to get projects in every community actually moving and installed on the ground?

Lissa Pawlisch, Statewide Director of CERTs at the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships

Marie Donahue: Welcome to you both! As we get this conversation started, can each of you introduce yourselves to our guests and share briefly what your roles are with CERTs?

Lissa Pawlisch I serve as the Clean Energy Resource Teams Statewide Director. Joel and I are both based at the University of Minnesota Extension’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships. Now he wins because I got to say that first. It takes a bit of time, but I think of my role as being the prime cat herder—trying to keep all those plates spinning. I don't know how many bad analogies we can do, but that's how I would describe it. Trying to keep things moving.

Joel Haskard: I’m Joel Haskard, Co-Director of the Clean Energy Resource Teams. Thank you, Lissa, for going through the Russian dolls of who we are and who we work with there. I try to help, along with all the kinds of programming pieces, that we do as best as possible. I've had a focus on working with underserved and low-income communities recently, which has been a real joy to work on. It's a great job that allows me to travel the state and see all these wonderful projects that communities are doing across the state. Happy to be here.Lissa Pawlisch and Joel Haskard

Marie Donahue: It’s great to have you both here to talk more about CERTs and our main topic of conversation today: the CERTs seed grant program. We wanted to talk more about this opportunity, especially as this round’s deadline approaches, with applications due October 8th. So, could we start with an overview and what this seed grant program is all about: some of its history and goals, and what kinds of projects have come out of it over the years?

Lissa Pawlisch: When we first started doing seed grants, it was back in 2006 or 2007. I think the idea was: How do we start to get projects in every community actually moving and installed on the ground? When we started CERTs, we had this two-year community-engaged strategic planning cycle. That was really great in terms of building bridges and starting conversations, and all that. But once those plans were published, people were just ready for action. Put the planning [to work]. Let's get to projects, and the seed grants were a perfect way to start that.

I actually went back and read the RFP from our first round of seed grant funding. I was sort of startled honestly that the primary purpose, as it read at that point, was so similar to what it is today. In 2006 it said, “To encourage the implementation of at least one energy efficiency or renewable energy project in each CERT region, and to provide a forum for community education about energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies and their economic, ecological and community benefits.”

That's pretty darn close. We can go into the details of what it says now, but it's not so different. I think that that speaks to this ongoing goal of [how] we just want to see more projects getting going on the ground and more people working in communities in every community to be able to see that, “Hey, clean energy is something that we do here. This is something that's about us, and it's about our community.” I think that's been the primary purpose. Joel, what would you add?

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Photo: Lissa Pawlisch speaks during a clean energy-focused Power of Minnesota event in Mankato, Minnesota, in 2019.

Joel Haskard: Why does CERTs exist? It exists in state statute, and once there's state policy around clean energy, how do you actually get that translated into real projects across the state? Not just how policy comes out of Saint Paul, but we’re trying to make sure that projects are happening across the state. How do we get those moving? After that planning piece was done that Lissa mentioned, people were raring to go across the state. “Okay, we've figured out what is important to our region, what our assets are and how we can move forward? Let's get going!”

I remember, and maybe this is a tangent, but, Lissa, remember the meeting at Sunburg [Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg school district] where we brought the UMN [University of Minnesota] Prius, and everybody gathered around to see this bizarre new technology—the Toyota Prius. To me that was a fun little moment.

Lissa Pawlisch: It is sort of amazing because we started so long ago now, and the number of technologies that have changed is profound—that very first seed grant round we funded a bunch of wind-focused projects like small wind feasibility studies. Campuses thinking about what wind would look like in their area; a small wind development guide, so that people would have a sense for how you would do a community-based wind project. That's kind of fascinating now because now, the wind industry is a powerful, economic development engine, right? It's at a commercial scale, and there's still opportunity for the community to be a part of that process, but in a really different way than it was in 2007.

Why does CERTs exist? It exists in state statute, and once there's state policy around clean energy, how do you actually get that translated into real projects across the state? Not just how policy comes out of Saint Paul, but we’re trying to make sure that projects are happening across the state.

Joel Haskard, Co-Director of CERTs at the University of Minnesota Extension RSDP

Marie Donahue: I love hearing [about] that history and evolution of both projects and how [renewable energy] technology and the industry has evolved and changed—and how communities have been engaging with that over time from the ground up. We’ll get into more of that, I think, throughout this conversation.

Building on this context, could you each share more about a specific project that’s been supported or even a specific part or aspect of the seed grant program that really stands out to you?

Lissa Pawlisch: Well, one part that stands out to me continually about the seed grants is this whole idea of a seed, right? That [we’re] providing some initial bit of funding that allows a project to then go to some other funder and say, “Look, this group [CERTs] said we have a good project, can you help us leverage those dollars?” That has really been a strong aspect of a number of projects from the beginning. 

I looked back again at that very first round, and we funded a number of projects and had made this nice document that showed all of the dollars that had been leveraged. Even just the very first project listed was [one where] we put in $1,000 and they raised an additional $34,000. I think that's an interesting aspect, and it's what you would expect from seed grant funding.

The other thing I would say is that sometimes with seed grants—they fall apart. That's to be expected, and it's okay, right? That's why you're providing seed funding to help somebody explore an idea and sometimes that'll fall through.

The other thing that has stood out to me, is just the sheer number of schools that we have funded with seed grant projects. That very first round, we had three different schools in three different regions all across the state that got funded. One in Park Rapids, one [at] the North Shore Community School up in Duluth, and then one at the Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg. That has been a theme throughout. I think it's been a really fantastic part because it's also been a way to make sure that youth and young people can help shape their energy future. That they can see themselves in these clean energy projects. 

My very favorite quote ever—as a testimonial about a seed grant—was one from Chisago Lakes Middle School. They got a 2010 seed grant in the Metro. It was for a 10 kW solar photovoltaic system. We have these awesome pictures from the ribbon cutting. They've always been this great montage of, “Here are the young people, cutting the ribbon on their solar project.”

Their science teacher said it “wasn't just a seed grant—it was a hope grant.” That's testimonial gold, right there. I think that is the idea of the seed grant, right? It’s getting something going, something started. I love the idea of getting something started with young people, who then can be doing that work.

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Photo: Students at CERT seed grant project ribbon cutting for Chisago Lakes Middle School. Credit: CERTs.

It's also been a way to make sure that youth and young people can help shape their energy future. That they can see themselves in these clean energy projects.

Lissa Pawlisch, Statewide Director of CERTs at the University of Minnesota Extension RSDP

Joel Haskard: I'd like to add to that we had a seed grant way back in the day with [University of Minnesota] Crookston. They were looking at some of the dorms being LEED-certified. It was working with young people. That was one of the fantastic projects at the [University of Minnesota] Crookston Campus. The student who led on that project ended up being a Northwest CERT regional coordinator with us, [and] then has since worked at Ottertail Power and with Franklin Energy. So, I love that ripple effect of not only seeing projects with communities but then seeing some of these young folks go on and be professionals in this industry, as well.

Lissa Pawlisch: The other thing I was gonna say is that whole notion of ripple effects. It happens in a lot of different ways. I think of Chisago now, it’s like the solar capital of Minnesota. There's more solar development in Chisago County, and that's not because of this small seed grant, but I do think that there's this level of people starting to see something. It starts to become more familiar, and it starts to become more normal. It starts to become more of a fabric of what we do in our community. 

I think that is a sort of catalyst that can ripple. One project happened, then we did another one, and then we did another one, and now we're starting to see [renewable energy] all over the place. I think that's the value of giving a little bit of money to get something started because then it can just spread out from there.

Marie Donahue: Thank you both for sharing those projects. And I’ll mention to our listeners, we have a transcript of this conversation along with photos and links to more information on our Energy Stories page on the CERTs website.

I love that ripple effect of not only seeing projects with communities but then seeing some of these young folks go on and be professionals in this industry, as well.

Joel Haskard, Co-Director of CERTs at the University of Minnesota Extension RSDP

Marie Donahue: And now, let’s pause for a quick break from this conversation with Lissa and Joel to hear from other Clean Energy Resource Teams staff, as they share some of their favorite seed grant projects and what has made these projects a success.

Jason Walker (Southwest CERT Coordinator & Development Planner, Southwest Regional Development Commission): The Turner Hall gymnasium project, and I like that one because they are very good at getting the word out. They partnered with the local utility, it was in their newsletter, they were in the local newspapers. They put it on their social media, and they were really excited about it from beginning to end. It was an LED [lighting] project, but it was also a safety hazard. They were using a breaker box to turn the lights off and on. It was duct taped and had exposed wires, and everything else. So, it was a true fire hazard [before the project upgrades], and probably a safety hazard to the person turning the lights on and off. It would take 15 minutes for the lights to come on.

Now, it’s very bright LEDs. They run their gymnastics program out of there, so it’s being seen and used everyday there. It’s good for photos and videos for their families. They also have big events—they have corporate events, they have weddings, graduations. So, over time, they’re exposing [the new lights and project] to just about everybody in the community. They can highlight [this project to the community] and Turner Hall can then be advocates [for clean energy] to other people [and organizations] in the community. If they’re asked, “Hey, how did you get this [lighting project] done?” And then the ball can roll from there.

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Photo: Turner Hall gymnastics club. Credit: Turner Hall.

Shannon Stassen (Northwest Clean Energy & Resilient Communities Program Associate): The Headwaters Science Center LED lighting project, and the reason is they’ve added that [information about clean energy] to their display, and part of their experience there at the Headwaters Center. Also, it was a great partnership with Ottertail [Power Company], in fact Ottertail’s Roger did a ton of the work. So, I think, from all of those aspects, it touches a lot of our key points. They’re going to continue to highlight that forever at the Center. That’s the one I suggested. I’ve got some other ones, but that was the one I thought we should raise up in the Northwest.

Chris Meyer (Southeast CERT Coordinator): Over the years that I’ve been with CERTs, we’ve had some amazing projects in Southeast. So it is really hard to pick because I could tell you my six top favorites, right? But because this one really impressed me and the folks at the City of Lake Crystal impressed me, it is the one that I will share. It is a little older, this one goes back to 2016, but the City of Lake Crystal has 2,500 or so residents. Their utility customers number in about less than 200 or around 100 most of the time. They had some of the highest electric bills because they are a small municipal electric utility. They had some of the highest electricity rates in the state. When I met their city manager, he talked to me about when he took the job. He had worked in a small town in Wisconsin, he moved to the City of Lake Crystal, became the city manager, and suddenly he was [also] the utility manager. He didn’t know anything about that, and he’s taught himself overtime. He showed me some of the tools he uses on his desktop that he used to figure out how much electricity is being used right now, how close are we to our peak? It was fabulous, but at any rate, he said they were protesting outside of city hall because of the high price of the electricity rates, and it was killing the businesses in town.

So, he wrote a seed grant for a program called the “Beat the Peak” program. He actually got an intern. The idea was that they were going to do some load management. They had some devices they wanted customers to install to help the utility regulate their air conditioning units. So, he got an intern and they door-knocked every single door in the city. They had a very high acceptance rate in terms of the number of customers they have in their utility. And it was very successful. The idea was to get folks to agree to participate in this program, sign up for social media, to let the utility install this load management device, but then also when they got a notification that there was a peak, that they would all take action to cut their energy usage that day at their homes.

I thought for a tiny town taking advantage of resources and really committed to trying to serve their customers that this was a fabulous use of a CERTs seed grant. I was very excited to work with them and learn about their adventure in the process.

For a tiny town taking advantage of resources and really committed to trying to serve their customers, this was a fabulous use of a CERTs seed grant. I was very excited to work with them and learn about their adventure in the process.

Chris Meyer, Southeast CERT Coordinator at University of Minnesota Extension RSDP

Jacob Selseth (West Central CERT Coordinator): So, Andrew Schmidt is a private business owner in Winthrop, Minnesota, and he runs the local grocery store called Winthrop Market. He went ahead and applied for a seed grant for LEDs. And what’s nice about that is that it can really update the sales floor in the grocery store and make it a nice place for local folks to come and shop, and get their produce. He’s saving about $2,000 a year at his store, which can really help go to the bottom line to keep him in business and make [the store] more profitable. The town of 1,400 people have a nice local grocery store to buy their groceries, and a stronger sense of community.

WC-WinthropMarket_Photo_AfterStore.jpgPhoto: Winthrop Market sales floor with new LED lighting, supported by a West Central CERT seed grant, 2021. Credit: Andrew Schmidt, Winthrop Market.

Colby Abazs (Northeast CERT Coordinator): One that was shortly before I started [at CERTs] that popped up for me was the City of Mountain Iron. They did a comprehensive assessment of solar potential, done by the city. They looked at city buildings, how they could produce the most solar and where that would be most viable. They also looked at home rooftop and business rooftop solar potential, setting up potential for that. They also did a feasibility study for finding brownfields, so under-developed, not very pretty areas, that might be a good site for larger scale community solar or—what they ended up doing now is a utility-scale solar development.

So that’s what’s very exciting to me. This grant was back in 2018, and now they are currently this year working on installing a multiple megawatt solar array on one of those brown sites that they did the study for. For me, seeing that whole process, the small little bit to do this comprehensive study and now it’s getting taken someplace.

Diana McKeown (Metro CERT Director, Great Plains Institute): My project [highlight] is the HOURCAR Electric Vehicle Community Mobility project, which is now called the EV-Spot Network project. And it has so many of the things that we’re looking for. So, affordable access to community car sharing, we funded the deep engagement for underserved communities. They were focused on looking to engage [new communities] and surface barriers and needs in the communities that are underserved. They did that through 10 community organizations that formed a core partners council. The overall project is a really great partnership of the cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, and Xcel Energy and HOURCAR, and it’s to put 150 electric vehicle car sharing cars at 70 charging hubs. It’s innovative, focusing on underserved, it’s very community-based, it’s partnership in a lot of different ways. So, it’s very exciting on many different levels. It’s a great project.

Joel Haskard (CERTs Co-Director): I went back to 2008, and noted that we were working with a nonprofit at White Earth, on solar training with young people. I think that’s fantastic because that’s something we’ve continued to do over the years, whether it’s with solar thermal and solar PV, we’ve supported and been an ally in that work. And it’s great to see that back in 2008 we were doing it and we’re doing it now.

Similarly, looking back in our vault, I see that we were supporting, for example, there was an example of Two Harbors High School in 2008, putting up a solar array, and also combining that with public education for the community and also the students, faculty, and staff. And I think that’s something that continues to be a priority for us as we are looking at ways to support public schools as they are trying to get solar installed for both educational reasons and saving money on their electric bills. It’s great to see some of these through items all through the years.

Marie Donahue (CERTs Sustainability Storyteller): One that I was excited to get a front row seat on, in talking with Colby [in Northeast] was the through design LLC “Here Comes the Sun” workshops and the ways that project and some of the themes of community engagement and adapting through this challenging year—to really create still some really meaningful ways of reaching community and sharing how to engage folks in clean energy through creative ways.

The videos that came out of that project led by youth and just the enthusiasm and excitement that you can see at that grassroots level is really great.

Melissa Birch (Central CERT Coordinator): So I have two projects [to highlight] for similar reasons—one is the Leech Lake project, or well there are two of them [from Leech Lake] (including an earlier solar master plan), so I have three total that have really laid the groundwork for more work after the project for the same reason. The [other is the one with Community Grassroots Solutions (“Community Engagement for Energy Empowerment”) because it has laid the groundwork for more collaboration in the future.

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Photo: Joel Haskard and colleagues distribute energy efficiency kits to manufactured homes in 2021. Credit: CERTs.

Marie Donahue: Welcome back, and we hoped you enjoyed those additional perspectives highlighting inspiring CERT seed grant projects from across Minnesota! Now, Lissa and Joel, in terms of the nuts and bolts of how someone or a group of people would about submitting an idea—from brainstorming to the application process—what does the application and selection process look like for these seed grants?

Joel Haskard: First of all we’ll have a link to our website. We try to keep all the information right there for folks, so they can see the RFP and they can see the application, as well. That would be the first piece of the puzzle. Go check out the links, and make sure you see how to do the application and what we're asking for their request for proposal.

These are small seed grants, right? We want that snowball effect, we want that ripple effect that we were just talking about. So we've tried to keep the application pretty darn small and easy. I hope people will consider that when they're thinking about this—give it a shot, it's not that hard.

Things that are really exciting to us as we would love them, I mean—they [seed grant projects need to have some sort of community buy-in, and they need to be by the community, for the community. We've done a lot of things with schools, community centers, and city halls. Those kinds of projects are very exciting to us.

Lissa Pawlisch: The couple of things that I would add, are we try to make the process not painful. This time around, we reduce the application form to four pages. The first page is just your general contact information—that one I think you can get done in a relatively easy fashion. The second page is about the project details, so what is your idea? What are you trying to accomplish? That part can be tricky right because it's not just about putting the idea down but understanding what that idea is. Staff people are around to help you think about that and help shape it. The third page is about—as Joel mentioned—the community engagement collaboration. And the last page is about your budget.

We hope in four short pages, it can be a relatively painless process, and we really are committed—if anybody even wants to just talk about an idea, [they] should just call us. We're happy to talk through it with folks. We're even happy to help you fill out the application, If it feels like having the time to type it up is going to be a barrier and it would just be easier to get on the phone and talk through it with somebody, we're totally happy to do that.

So on the [application] review part, there are two other things I would just briefly mention. As Joel said, these are reviewed by regional steering committees. Those are people who live and work in your region. They are people who understand what's going on in the region. They’re clean energy champions and care a lot about getting stuff going. So they really want to fund everything. And that's probably the hardest part of that review process, but they're excited about projects that really are going to be able to have that benefit, be visible, and benefit that community.
They want to see stuff that is really going to benefit the applicant but also could be replicable. Increasingly, as a whole, we're talking about and have given a preference for underserved communities. That's again a focus this time around.

Because we want to see everyone in these projects, just like we want everyone to be able to see themselves in that clean energy work. Applications from women, Black, Indigenous, people of color, folks from really small communities, folks with disabilities, folks with low income. We want projects, led by, for, and benefiting all of those communities. So that everybody can feel like this is something for us and here we're demonstrating that, by getting the project actually up and running.

Joel Haskard: Our steering committees love this process. It's their favorite part of being a volunteer with the Clean Energy Resource Teams. I would say the most fun and also the most heartbreaking is that you know, we get so many interesting and fascinating projects coming in and we can't fund them all. But we do our best to fund as many as we can. If you've got an idea like Lissa mentioned, please, please connect with us, and we will do everything we can to help you flesh it out and get it submitted.

These are reviewed by regional steering committees. Those are people who live and work in your region. They are people who understand what's going on in the region. They’re clean energy champions and care a lot about getting stuff going.

Lissa Pawlisch, Statewide Director of CERTs at the University of Minnesota Extension RSDP

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Photo: Joel Haskard speaks at an electric vehicle workshop in Moorhead, Minnesota, in 2019. Credit: CERTs.

Marie Donahue: Could I now have you share the impact of this program across the state in communities—both the quantitative “by the numbers” and qualitative impacts of these grants over time?

Joel Haskard: Well, we've awarded over $1.3 million in seed grants to 393 energy projects, since 2006. Through those seed grants and other programs, we've helped save over 545 billion BTU, which is great to talk about because man that number is huge. And avoided $6.3 million in energy costs since 2010. We've awarded seed grants to seven of the 11 tribal nations, and I'm hoping we can fill out all 11 sometime soon.

But Marie, you asked about qualitatively [and] one of the key pieces about our theory of change is that it's crucial that communities see themselves in the clean energy world, and they see themselves as part of the solution. That they get to kick the tires on projects.

Minnesota has fantastic policies and we're really blessed in that way, but it's also really crucial to then use that basic platform to get projects done, to get projects implemented. Our hope is that the seed grants have that ripple effect, that snowball effect, and broaden out. If you check out the map of where we've awarded seed grants, it's really broadly across the state, and I hope that people realize that's a crucial part of this thing. That communities big and small and folks that might not see themselves as being part of the solution for the clean energy economy are in fact part of the solution for the clean energy economy. We need their involvement, and we hope that we're a small piece of that.

Marie Donahue: Great, thanks for covering that Joel, and we’ll link to that map of projects on the show page. Now, Lissa, I’m curious, especially in light of what communities have been navigating over the past year with the COVID-19 pandemic, to dig into what has changed and whether there is anything new that the program is focusing on that our listeners should keep in mind?

Lissa Pawlisch: Here's what I would say are some things that are new this year. So we referenced that in 2006 and 2007, it was for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. That continues to be a focus. I want to also say conservation because when engaging a community, you think about what are the behavioral things that we can do. 

This year, we also specifically call out electric vehicle-related projects, the charging infrastructure and/or the community engagement of people participating in ride and drives, understanding what their vehicle options are. Maybe doing some planning around where we are going to put that infrastructure.

We've also specifically called out energy storage for the first time. We funded a couple of energy storage projects in the past, and this time it felt like it was really important. We're really turning the corner on energy storage. That's becoming a more viable option in and for and with community. We want to make sure that people can see those kinds of projects that they might explore in the RFP, so those things are specifically called out. That's probably the biggest top line change to the RFP this year.

The application form, it's shorter—only four pages. We really think that's a good thing. I boil it down to: Need not be an energy nerd to apply! By which I mean, for example, we are no longer requiring that people try to estimate those BTU savings on their application form. We have folks who can do that. If we have a sense of what your project is, we can then back into those numbers and work with you, and whomever you're working with—at your utility, a consultant, whomever to make sure that we get accurate numbers on that. That was a barrier for folks. They felt like, “I'm not an energy person, I want to adopt clean energy, but I don't want to have to become an expert in clean energy to apply.” So, that's a change.

We have always been labor-only on seed grants. [But] this year, we're also allowing applicants to apply for funding for materials and supplies. We have lots of robust definitions about what that is on the website and an FAQ and also in the RFP itself. It really spells out what is eligible and what is not. We are again really centering underserved communities, but we have a definition of that in the RFP. Last time we asked folks to help us define that by articulating for themselves what does that mean to them, and we use that feedback to then help create that definition and center that this time around.

Finally, staff are available to help and that's not really a change. That's always been true, but we're really trying to emphasize—wherever you are in the process we are available to help you. We are not part of the group that reviews the projects. That's the steering committee's job, so we have staff who can help you with that process to help you make sure that you are feeling confident going in at whatever point you are in your project application.

We want to see everyone in these projects, just like we want everyone to be able to see themselves in that clean energy work. Applications from women, Black, Indigenous, people of color, folks from really small communities, folks with disabilities, folks with low income. We want projects, led by, for, and benefiting all of those communities.

Lissa Pawlisch, Statewide Director of CERTs at the University of Minnesota Extension RSDP

Marie Donahue: And that staff includes our statewide staff and regional coordinators, correct? So, there are different ways folks can reach out if they have questions.

Lissa Pawlisch: Absolutely, Marie. What we're trying to reinforce is that any staff person that you feel comfortable picking up the phone and calling or sending an email to—do it, and they'll help you, and if they don't know the answer right off the top of their head, though they'll get it for you. For a lot of folks, starting with our regional coordinators, is a perfect place to start. They understand what their regional steering committees priorities are. They can really help you understand that and help you frame your application with that understanding. But all of our team, if you go to the CERTs staff page on our website—any person you see there, you can reach out to them and they'll help you with the process.

We have staff who can help you with that process to help you make sure that you are feeling confident going in at whatever point you are in your project application.

Lissa Pawlisch, Statewide Director of CERTs at the University of Minnesota Extension RSDP

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Photo: Over 100 people gathered in Mankato to listen to local speakers, watch The Power of Minnesota, and discuss clean energy opportunities in March 2019. Credit: CERTs.

Marie Donahue: In reflecting on the past seed grant cycle during the COVID-19 pandemic and as we proceed into whatever the future holds, is there anything else you’d add about what we’ve learned?

Joel Haskard: Broadly speaking, a lot of our bread and butter for the way we do work is we are out in the communities, working with communities and having face to face interactions with communities. So as with everybody, we have had to radically alter how we've been doing things for the last year. When we knew the seed grants were coming up,  it made us look again at our application process and see if there was anything else we could do to make it easier for folks to apply. In general, COVID-19 gave us a chance to reevaluate the application process and try to make it even easier for folks who we weren't able to see face to face.

Lissa Pawlisch: Absolutely, I think the other thing that I would just stress is that I think COVID reinforces the importance of needing to be flexible with applicants. Not surprisingly, people had projects that did not go according to plan, and when the shutdown happened, we knew right away that some folks would just not be able to do the work plan as they had planned it out and we reached out to folks early on to say, “We understand that things are going to need to change.” We extended our interim report deadline, we gave people more time and we really tried to help people make some adjustments. That's something I just want to stress to potential applicants, we understand that projects change.

A lot of projects include some sort of community engagement component, because that is so essential to our entire process. There were people who had events coming up the third week of March that then cancelled those events, and there was a lot of really interesting creativity. There was a project in Duluth from through design, where they pivoted to doing all sorts of fantastic video content as a different way to do outreach and engagement and to get other people involved in the storytelling, which is part of what they were trying to do, initially, but put other voices forward so that people can see again themselves in this work. So I think that there was a ton of creativity and I think that's always what we're hoping for.

We have all been thrown into this place of really trying to reimagine, how do we do this work and how do we do this work in lots of different ways and think about community engagement in lots of different ways.
 

We need all people in all communities to be involved in the clean energy economy, and I think that it's crucial that people see themselves as part of this changing economy with clean energy and its roles in helping and protecting the environment. 

Joel Haskard, Co-Director of CERTs at the University of Minnesota Extension RSDP

Marie Donahue: The word “hope” has come up a lot in the conversation today, and, as we wrap up, what are each of you hoping for with this round of seed grants, as communities and Minnesota move forward?

Joel Haskard: Well, we need all people in all communities to be involved in the clean energy economy, and I think that it's crucial that people see themselves as part of this changing economy with clean energy and its roles in helping and protecting the environment. This is a fantastic opportunity for folks to be involved in ways that they didn't realize, you know—like they didn't realize that somebody would care or support their little community project. It's a delight to work with them to lift up those stories and to lift up those communities and show that in fact it is important, what they're doing.

We want to support them on that first step, and then we hope that there'll be a step, two and three and four and five and it'll just keep on going. It's called a seed grant. We're planting a seed, right? So that ripple effect is crucial and very hopeful in my mind, for how to move forward for the state and country. That's when the violin music starts.

Lissa Pawlisch: It’s cheesy, you know, it's a hope grant, but I do really think that Joel is right. Sometimes people feel like, “Well I don't know, should I apply?” And I would say, “YES! Please, please, please, please apply.” At least reach out and talk to us about applying, but we hope you will apply. Because all of the things that we aspire to do around clean energy have to start with someone taking action, in their business, in their community, in their local government, with their utility, for their community organization, with their neighbors, right?
 

CERTs-PowerFest2021.jpg

Photo: A crowd of community members at #PowerFest2021 in Northside Minneapolis with MN Renewable Now, Minneapolis Climate Action, Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light, Unidos MN, Community Power and more. Credit: CERTs.

Marie Donahue: And my final question today is: what's one word you'd want to leave our listeners with that you associate with seed grants and why?

Joel Haskard: I would say “grassroots” and making sure that resiliency and entrepreneurship and job creation and savings—that those are felt throughout the state and communities, big and small.

Lissa Pawlisch: Here's my one word, it's a hyphenated word: "community-driven." It's cheating, I know, I'm sorry, but these are community-based clean energy projects that we're trying to spur. I think reminding folks that there is something that you think would really benefit your community. That's the kind of stuff we want to see, and we want to see that engagement, we want to see that broader benefit, we want to be able to see people coming together around clean energy. So, community-driven and then the final word I'll leave you with is: apply.
 

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