Twin Cities Team Finds Opportunities To Expand Rooftop Solar for Underserved Small Businesses

May 30, 2024 by Aaron Backs and Diana McKeown

The Solar Energy Innovation Network (SEIN) Round 3 team led by Lake Street Council highlights findings to improve equitable solar access for small businesses.

The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of NREL, the U.S. Department of Energy, or the U.S. government.

A neighborhood in the Twin Cities area of Monnesota. In the foreground, a one-story small business building with a rooftop solar installation. In the background, a downtown skyline.
Rooftop PV solar on a small business in the Twin Cities. Photo by Brandon Stengel for BWBR Architects

The Twin Cities Advancing Small Business Solar Equity team's SEIN Round 3 report, Advancing Small Business Solar Equity: Final Technical Insights Report (available on the Lake Street Council website), details the team's proposed Solar Hub Network model to overcome the significant barriers for underserved Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC)- and immigrant-owned small businesses to access rooftop solar energy.

The report is the culmination of nearly 3 years of partnership focused on the small business corridors most impacted by the civil unrest after the murder of George Floyd, including West Broadway in North Minneapolis, Lake Street in South Minneapolis, and the University Avenue-Midway area of Saint Paul.

This partnership builds on a nearly decade-long relationship between Lake Street Council and the Great Plains Institute, a Minneapolis-based clean energy nonprofit, to bring energy efficiency and associated cost-savings to Lake Street businesses. To round out, the project team included:

  • Small business-serving community-based organizations representing the other two focus corridors (Northside Economic Opportunity Network, for West Broadway; and the Neighborhood Development Center, for University Avenue-Midway)
  • Facilitation and clean energy expertise, provided by William Weber Consulting
  • In-kind support provided by the Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul as well as Xcel Energy, the utility serving the team's three focus corridors.

The Advancing Small Business Solar Equity Team Approach and Outcomes

The Advancing Small Business Solar Equity: Final Technical Insights Report (available on the Lake Street Council website) comprehensively documents the team's research process and findings, the proposed Solar Hub Network model to improve solar access for underserved small businesses, and the next steps for implementation. Key highlights of the report include:

A list of six key principles our team developed to guide our work.
Our team used the human-centered design principles available on the website to guide our research interviews and ensure we were understanding, empathizing with, and centering the perspectives of people our proposed model would be serving. We conducted many interviews with business owners, solar installers, and other experts in solar and finance—our findings on barriers to rooftop solar for underserved small businesses went on to inform our proposed Solar Hub Network model.
Our research confirmed that the Twin Cities already have a relatively robust environment to support small business solar development but that it is difficult for small business owners to navigate. Rather than developing a new product, our team proposed a Solar Hub Network model, which repackages existing solar and incentive programming and embeds solar expertise within the community-based organizations that small businesses already engage with. The team anticipates this model could be replicated beyond the Twin Cities metropolitan area.
The research process of this report led to many additional understandings and considerations in the field of equitable access to small business solar, which are detailed in the report's appendices.

Next Steps for the Advancing Small Business Solar Equity Team

Due to the numerous partnerships built and strengthened throughout the duration of this project, the Advancing Small Business Solar Equity team is well-equipped to begin implementing the Solar Hub Network in our identified underserved small business corridors.

Looking forward, the team is already identifying funding sources to continue this work and is looking to expand scope beyond just solar to also include energy efficiency and electrification.

The team has an ambitious plan and goals for 2024:

  • Develop a training program for partner community-based organization staff members to embed staff expertise in solar, energy efficiency, and electrification
  • Seek opportunities for community lenders to take advantage of the new Minnesota Climate Innovation Finance Authority and develop innovative green financing products that work for small businesses
  • Support partner community-based organizations in developing a trusted and local vendor list for the small businesses they serve
  • Pilot Solar Hubs at partner community-based organizations to support small businesses in each corridor.

The team is excited to continue the sustainable and clean energy rebuild of Lake Street, West Broadway, and University Avenue-Midway. Stay tuned for more updates as this project continues to develop.

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