Conversation

Reshuffling the deck with clean energy

Increasing access to clean energy jobs & training opportunities

Clean energy training in
North Minneapolis

 

In August of 2020, Jamez Staples, president of Renewable Energy Partners, a clean energy training and construction services company based in North Minneapolis, sat down virtually for a conversation with Marie Donahue, Sustainability Storyteller with CERTs.

Staples describes the challenges and opportunities in the development of a clean energy workforce training center that empowers both youth and adults from North Minneapolis to engage and have access to opportunities in clean energy. He emphasizes the need to prioritize equity in decision-making and to include those who have “been traditionally left behind” when forming partnerships and building projects—from electric vehicle charging to microgrids and beyond.

 

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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I think clean energy is a unique opportunity for a reshuffling of the deck. As we look at the existing systems, I think this is a prime example of what could be—a demonstration of other systems. We know we need change. We know that we need to make the modification and the transition to a cleaner energy future.

Jamez Staples, President, Renewable Energy Partners

Marie Donahue: To start, I’m curious how you’re feeling about the state of clean energy and what you’re seeing in your work, for example, advocating for more accessible workforce training opportunities in the sector—particularly as we confront the public health crises of the COVID pandemic and systemic racism throughout our communities?

Jamez Staples: So how I feel and what I'm seeing and what I'm thinking about clean energy. I think clean energy is a unique opportunity for a reshuffling of the deck. As we look at the existing systems, I think this is a prime example of what could be—a demonstration of other systems. We know we need change. We know that we need to make the modification and the transition to a cleaner energy future, no different than we need a lot of other things, right. We need to address systemic racism. We need to address the issue of you know the police reform and all these other things. And I think that clean energy, as the economic piece, is critical. One of many financial stacks, or could be a piece of the capital stack of the deal. That is ultimately the first part that we could change.

As we know that the Minnesota public utility commission has made an ask of utilities to consider advancing some of their clean energy projects as a mechanism to create economic opportunities. I think if we can do that and with maximum participation and engagement of people of color, I think that it will create a financial model that people will benefit from.

 

Environmental justice communities are the ones that should benefit the most from the clean energy transition. If you ask me it’s no different than when we talk about energy or an electric vehicle transition, People who have cars and are of low-income status, they’re probably the ones driving the most inefficient cars. So if we could find a way to get them some of the smaller, low-cost electric vehicles, right, while building out that infrastructure, that could be the “fuel,” right? That could help them make the transition.

As we start to develop that infrastructure, there are jobs that will be created. Workforce training is absolutely critical to move this agenda forward. If we can make sure that these folks, I mean, everybody has access to training and to actively participate. First, that they're even engaged in what's happening. I think that's going to be critical. Then to show there are ways that they can actively participate. There's two drop downs that come as a result of that. That is the dropdown of requiring a workforce for the adoption of EV charging, which ultimately connects back at the bottom to addressing climate change. So, it can be a vertically integrated strategy if we were to do it well.

I came to this work because I wanted to create economic opportunity for people who have traditionally been left behind. And that in itself was a mountain to climb because it wasn't like I had a background in it…But I got up to the top of the hill, and I'm trying to bring them with me.

Jamez Staples, President, Renewable Energy Partners

Marie Donahue: I’m glad you’re raising those points around EVs—or electric vehicles—and access to clean energy technology, which I’ve heard has been a focus of your work, whether that’s in solar or electric vehicle charging. So, I’m curious, since these conversations can be a bit wonky or technocratic, how did you come to see the technology angle as being such a critical piece to focus on? 

Jamez Staples: I came to this work because I wanted to create economic opportunity for people who have traditionally been left behind. And that in itself was a mountain to climb because it wasn't like I had a background in it, but I saw how big the mountain was. After you'd get up one little hill, you realize there's another big hill. And I realized, this thing is huge! Clean energy is everything; it’s EVs, energy efficiency, just the whole gamut. It’s the STEM component. So, I had to run back down the hill to my people and be like, “Look, this is an opportunity. We need to be a part of this.” I got up to the top of the hill, and I'm trying to bring them with me.

The key has been: how do we make this an opportunity for all of us to actively participate? The fact that the climate change movement had already been happening, it had already been a serious point of discussion on presidential campaigns. This made it just that much more grandiose. For me to try and help those that didn't know about it to see if there's an opportunity.

So, I came to this work looking at it through the economical lens. And then I realized, if we're here and we want to get here, there's a big gap. So the gap was one part awareness, but also the actual training that was necessary for people to participate. That's where I was like: “We want to be a part of this. We got to start preparing and getting ready.” And that's where the training center is a critical component of the industry, as we move forward.

So, I know I jumped in talking about EVs, but I'm very much in the solar business and we're developing projects. The intended use of the training center is to look at the disparities that Minnesota has. My goal was to engage in vertical integration in how do we make sure that the youth are engaged, so that they can actively participate? Because if we have disparities, then we need to figure out how to address those disparities. But if we just work and focus on the adult population, we still have youth coming out of school without the skill sets that they need. And if we can stop that from happening, that's kind of like putting pressure on the wound, so it's no longer hemorrhaging.

Then we can start to focus on how we ultimately, once we get the youth together, then how we can focus on the adults also. Because it’s like doing the same thing over and over again, expecting to resolve the educational system, which isn't necessarily working for the youth. So we need to fix that, get them to technical training, get them the awareness of STEM careers, and then also simultaneously address demand for those careers.

 

Marie Donahue: I have some background about your work on the training center, but for our audience’s sake, could you ground us in your vision for that location and expand on this idea for a place-based center? Could you speak to some of the gaps that you saw as why a center like this—where it is in North Minneapolis—was so needed?

Jamez Staples: So, the training center is a site in North Minneapolis located at 1200 Plymouth, which is on the highest use transit line in the state of Minnesota. It is on the #5 bus line. It is also scheduled for a $75 million bus rapid transit improvement, which will run all the way from Brooklyn Center to Bloomington. Buses will come as often as every 10 to 14 minutes. So it gives a direct North-South connection. There's also the light rail, which will be within reasonable proximity. So that one can get to it connected by light rail, as well as bus. So that [public transit] was an issue.

The training center is a site in North Minneapolis located at 1200 Plymouth, which is on the highest use transit line in the state of Minnesota...And we've been working for the last few years to basically bring the vision to fruition—bringing solar training to the community.

Jamez Staples, President, Renewable Energy Partners
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Jamez Staples: Let me back up for a second. When I started our solar installation company, we realized quickly that in order to be efficient and profitable, we needed to make sure that we had a workforce that was skilled. Now granted, we were on the roof working and just figuring it out with guidance and direction from the others that were on the roof with us. But everyone knows if you don't know what you're doing on a roof, you can lose your shirt pretty quickly, right? If it's kind of like any other business, if you don't know what you're doing and you're paying people, you can easily go into a hole.

So, I asked where the training was. The training was in St. Michael—that's where the IBEW Training Center was at the time. There's no public transit to get you there. The same with Hugo, Minnesota, where Xcel Energy has a desire that they wanted to diversify their workforce. There was no public transit to get anybody there for their line worker training. If they want to take a solar class, that’s in White Bear Lake at Century College, two hours, one-way bus commute. And the same thing for the line worker training in Dakota County, it's two hours, one way, right?

 

I said, we need to fix that issue. State governor, legislators, you guys are looking at selling this property. I think it'd be ideal if you all would use this piece of property for the purposes of training people for these emerging sectors and STEM careers. A lot of “yeahs,” a lot of nods, a lot of letters of support, but when it came to it, the state decided they were gonna sell the building. I had already worked on it for roughly three years at this point, trying to get the state to make it a public project. And then when they decided to sell it, I was up in arms, right.

It's kind of like, what are you doing? I'd been having conversation after conversation, and then somebody just said they're going to sell it. It's like, okay, I’ve got to figure this out. So, I made the acquisition of the property. And we've been working for the last few years to basically bring the vision to fruition—bringing solar training to the community.

I said, ‘Hey, we should figure out how to get the workforce to reflect the communities that it’s in.’

Jamez Staples, President, Renewable Energy Partners

Jamez Staples: I started working with a variety of committees and one of them is the Clean Energy Partnerships Energy Vision Advisory Committee. The purpose of that was because I know that the City of Minneapolis has a desire to go 100% renewable. I'm saying, “Hey, we can do this work with equity.” I know that the numerous state agencies, numerous governmental agencies have a desire to go 100% renewable also, including the state of Minnesota. How do we make that happen with equity? How do we make sure that when the Met Council is talking about 100% renewable, that and the county and on and on and on.

So as part of the Clean Energy Partnerships Energy Vision Advisory Committee, we authorized a study—and I knew this, I knew the information before we did the study—but I said, “We don't have the workforce to meet 100% renewable.” And after two years or three years, however long it was, we finally did an assessment. We spent $25,000 on an assessment, and it confirmed my assumption.

So then I said, “Hey, we should figure out how to get the workforce to reflect the communities that it’s in.” So lots of hoops and hurdles in the political fights in the interim, but we got there. And like I said, we made the acquisition. We’re putting, we've got 150 or so kilowatts of solar on the roof, which will be connected pretty soon here. We've got batteries up and we're doing a stormwater retrofit, and some other technology improvements.

Everything just came together within like the last six months. Last year we were awarded the grant for the improvements and some reimbursements back in 2018, but we just had some political issues there and we were able to overcome those in May.

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Marie Donahue: So you spoke a bit to this, but what did you find most challenging as you navigated this process with getting the training center going and with your work in these times?

Jamez Staples: What's been most challenging...I pointed to the politics because it's the politics, right? If everyone is saying they want to do something, and I'm providing—and I don't want to say just I, because it's a whole host of people who have helped me and supported and have been supportive of this work—if all these people are saying, “This is how we can get there. You want to do equity. You want to see more people of color working. You want to see, you want to eliminate the skills gap. You want to do this. You want to do that.” And then there's a solution within there's a certain segment of the population that is in control of these things. And they don't want to seek a solution. That's a problem, right?

We were able to overcome those and now we're aggressively moving. We're also implementing a heat pump, which is going to put the gas utility on standby. We'll be putting EV charging stations in the parking lot, and building controls. So the building will be its own freestanding, microgrid.

Marie Donahue: Which is important in these times of thinking about resilience, right? And how we build back systems to be better. Any other challenges?

Jamez Staples: Funding has been a challenge and just the partnerships, right? I mean, we’ve got a partnership with the University of Minnesota, which is amazing, but I've been wanting to try and figure out how we work with the two-year technical schools to incorporate some of the programs that they offer that haven't been able to be brought into the city. So I'm saying, “Hey, let's work together.” To bring some of those programs [to the cities], so that someone doesn't have to travel that far and we still incorporate those in the [Minnesota] State College and Universities system.

 

Marie Donahue: Has there been a strategy around those partnerships and are you moving forward with any sort of pilots?

Jamez Staples: Because working with nonprofits has been a bit more nimble, we've been working with them. I made some attempts to connect with the State Colleges and Universities' energy folks, and we've had some conversations, which is good. It's just actually bringing what we want to be a reality that hasn't necessarily come together yet. I think I'm not talking to the people at high enough on the totem pole. So I’ve probably got to move up a bit, but I also have realized that if you go to the top and you get shot down, then it's a “no” all the way down. So, I've started at the temperate level now, as opposed to just going right to the top.

Marie Donahue: So those are for technical college-level students that might be early in their careers or mid-career. In terms of programming around the youth component that you’d mentioned, are there any unique partnerships there that you're exploring?

Jamez Staples: Yeah, we made numerous attempts to work with the Minneapolis Public Schools, and are still not writing them off. We would like to find a way we work with Minneapolis Public Schools, but if we have to start working with other public schools, that's great too.

Right now, what we're talking about are nonprofit partnerships that occupy space to run programs. That's what we're just going to do now until we figure out all these other things, because what we want to make sure is that #1—we just have activity happening at the site in these emerging sectors. So we're looking at some of the drone technology programs offered by Minnesota STEM Partnership. They have drones, artificial intelligence, robotics. We have Juxtaposition, which is running an environmental justice program. We have Spark Y, which is a nonprofit organization, which has programs in Ag [agriculture] and some other kinds of technologies. And all of these entities engage heavily with youth.

Marie Donahue: To broaden on that point about engaging young people at the training center and preparing them for the future, in this next question, I'm curious, what do you hope that future looks like and how, how are you now adjusting or adapting your vision and plans to align with that? Especially given some of the challenges we've been talking about?

Jamez Staples: I had to make some modifications. The program we hoped to replicate is a program called CTECH out of Rochester. CTECH is a centralized location where the public school systems of the surrounding region send students to actually engage and learn from a technical perspective. They send students there, who will pipe in either via bus or their own vehicles. They spend two hours there, while learning the technical skills that they want and then they go back home.

Because Minneapolis Public Schools hasn't signed on as a partner, we haven't been able to activate those participatory groups yet. So the plan now—oh and I forgot to mention Midwest Renewable Energy Association. They're doing phenomenal work with us. They have stepped up and agreed to offer the solar training program that they have in addition to offering some scholarships for low-income participants that will have the ability to take the class and then to call it an internship or an apprenticeship shortly after. So, they'll have the ability to actually go get the trade, go to work, have the organization contribute to subsidize the wage. So that kind of like on ramp, when you're starting to learn—the entities that absorb them, don't lose money, there’s an ability to actually have their wage subsidized. So they're not paying as much. And then as the workers get up to speed, then they'll eventually earn the full wage of what the person should be making.

So, the way I envision success is more people from this neighborhood in North Minneapolis becoming aware of the clean energy sector and the energy industry and sustainability sectors. Then for them to consider taking an interest from an employment perspective...And that would ultimately lead to jobs and clean energy in a very intentional way with equity. If we made it a priority.

Jamez Staples, President, Renewable Energy Partners

Marie Donahue: How would you measure success in all of this programming over time through these partnerships?

Jamez Staples: So, the way I envision success is more people from this neighborhood in North Minneapolis becoming aware of the clean energy sector and the energy industry and sustainability sectors. Then it would be for them to consider taking an interest from an employment perspective. And then that would lead to the requirement of training. And that would ultimately lead to jobs and clean energy in a very intentional way with equity. If we made it a priority.

If we all get more focused on the people that were impacted and creating the pathway for them to do so, are they going to address the issues in their community? I think that that would be ideal because then you start to get a groundswell of people who understand how or why they got asthma. And beyond that, how they can actively participate in mitigating that in their children's children. This community has some of the highest asthma rates in the state of Minnesota. So if you have a problem like this, whose responsibility is it to address that problem?

Marie Donahue: I would say our, our public institutions need to be supporting communities.

Jamez Staples: No, what I mean is: if you personally have a problem, whose responsibility is to address that problem?

Marie Donahue: Right, there is some, some individual ownership that you have to take. 

Jamez Staples: Okay, so how do we empower this population to engage and fix their own problem?

Marie Donahue: Right, thank you for emphasizing that. And perhaps as we focus on this point that you're making about empowering more people to take ownership of solutions and engage in the future of clean energy. I wonder what does that mean for what you're taking on in your work? What's next on the horizon for you, or what's on your plate in the coming months as you move forward?

 

Jamez Staples: We're excited about the work that is happening already, right? The exterior of the building and all the work that's happening on the outside. We're excited about working to address the interior and build out those spaces. And to develop the partnerships, so that we can make sure that it's built with the intended use that everybody can actually have access to participate.

We are very excited about that existing space, but we’re also excited about the new space that we've received to be developed in the future, which is across the street. We want to develop this ¾ acre parking lot into an 80 to 100,000 square foot building, which will ultimately provide the additional programming, as well as space for partnerships to come together, where again, people can have access to engage and participate in whatever area of interest they may have within the sustainability pathways.

We've got this COVID issue, that's displacing a lot of people out of their jobs. Well, we should be using some of those funds for these projects that incorporate workforce training programs, so that we can help ladder up folks back into career pathways that are growing.

Jamez Staples, President, Renewable Energy Partners
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Jamez Staples: I'm super excited about that. We're excited about working with the Department of Energy, aggressively applying for various grants with the University of Minnesota, DOE, National Science Foundation, some family foundations. Grants that we're going after and even legislative funding. We're looking for legislative funding for some of the, to build out some of the space and some of the programming.

If you think about it, the state of Minnesota is spending—or cities or counties are spending—money on these programs. Why aren't we finding a way to build in an equity component? Why are we not making sure that some of these entities that have the capacity or need to grow, especially with COVID. We've got this COVID issue, that's displacing a lot of people out of their jobs. Well, we should be using some of those funds for these projects that incorporate workforce training programs, so that we can help ladder up folks back into career pathways that are growing.

So I'm going to spin this around a bit—you came from where?

Marie Donahue: So I came to Minnesota, I moved around quite a bit. But yeah, I had broad interests in sustainability and climate change and knew Minnesota had a lot of really great organizations. I'd worked a little bit with Climate Generation as a student. So. I was pleased to land here and learn the space.

Jamez Staples: So how excited are you about your new role? Tell me about your role with CERTs here.

Marie Donahue: I'm telling stories, I'm helping with our communications work primarily with Dan Thiede, and half of my role. So I split my time between CERTs and then also a larger statewide group called the Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, helping support communications on both of those. And yeah, just really excited to be. I think the applied nature of CERTs’ work, especially seeing projects being implemented and being able to connect to people—hopefully someday in person, but at least in the meantime over Zoom—about that whole landscape. There's so much happening in Minnesota.

And I do think that there are also really important and needed ways that we are working toward equity. Prior to moving here, I was at the University of Michigan and working with some environmental justice leaders in that program and in the Detroit area, and I just learned so much about bottom-up change and the ways in which you really do need to confront the ways that clean energy and our systems have failed communities. And we need to figure out ways to do that better.

So that's where I'm coming from. That's my lens, but I am excited that CERTs is so focused on what's happening here on the ground.

Minnesota has some issues, and they need to be addressed. And I'm glad that they're coming to light. I think it’s good that they have come to light. The world is watching. And I think that it's important that we step up and demonstrate the way we can utilize an industry, such as the sustainability and energy sectors, as a way to mitigate and curb climate change, as well as the economic participation for people who haven't been traditionally engaged.

Jamez Staples, President, Renewable Energy Partners
 

Jamez Staples: Obviously Minnesota is a great place. But with recent events, I hope these more recent events haven't scared you away. Minnesota has some issues, and they need to be addressed. And I'm glad that they're coming to light. I think it’s good that they have come to light. The world is watching. And I think that it's important that we step up and demonstrate the way that we can utilize an industry, such as the sustainability and energy sectors, as a way to mitigate and curb climate change, as well as the economic participation for people who haven't been traditionally engaged.

It's like these conversations right here, right? That I like, and some of the opportunities we have, and also some of the challenges, you know. Everybody wants to raise their hand and say, “It’s so great,” but we also gotta be willing to address the issues that aren't so great.

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