Roof Depot in East Phillips scores grant for solar array – Sahan Journal

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A federal grant will help the community group behind the Roof Depot project in south Minneapolis install a massive rooftop solar array that will power the building and offset energy costs for hundreds of neighboring households. 

The Department of Energy awarded a $100,000 grant to the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute and Cooperative Energy Futures, a Minnesota leader in community solar projects, to plan a large solar array on the site of the former Sears warehouse that the community group acquired after a years-long fight with the city of Minneapolis last year

The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute and Cooperative Energy Futures started working together years ago, according to institute staff member Daniel Colten-Schmidt. The institute always planned to use the sun to power their vision of an indoor farm, affordable housing, space for local businesses and nonprofits, and a job training center in the 230,000-square-foot building. 

When Cooperative Energy Futures told the institute about the grant opportunity, there was only a week left to apply. Grantwriters with the two groups worked together for five days to submit an application, and learned in early April that they were one of 23 groups awarded $100,000 for projects serving environmental justice communities. 

“We were over the moon,” Colten-Schmidt said. 

The plan is to build 4 megawatts of solar capacity at the site, mostly on the roof, but also potentially via ground-mounted panels in the parking lot.

About half of the power will go directly to building, and half will be set up as a community solar garden that the organizations hope to fill with local subscribers. Early estimates predict about 200 households will be able to subscribe to the community solar garden to offset their utility bills. 

Cooperative Energy Futures subscribers are member-owners, and see their power bill reduced by about 20% right away, with larger savings over time. The firm typically builds rooftop arrays on larger warehouse-type structures, and partners with Go Solar Construction, a Black-owned firm based in Bloomington, to do the installations. 

The grant comes from the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which is also working on a project to help small businesses in diverse Twin Cities commercial corridors benefit from solar power. Grants were awarded to projects bringing green energy and cost savings to diverse, working class communities targeted by the federal government’s Justice40 Initiative, which seeks to put at least 40% of federal clean energy investments into disadvantaged communities.  

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“Our growing pool of community-based prizes is showing communities—and the country at large—what’s possible when it comes to increasing efficiency, reducing energy costs, and creating jobs on a small scale,” said Liz Doris, director of the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The organizations are working quickly through the planning stages, Colten-Schmidt said. The grant comes with the opportunity to receive more federal funding if they demonstrate progress by July, according to a Department of Energy news release. 

“This grant funding represents a vital step towards empowering communities through clean energy innovation, ensuring energy cost savings, and fostering inclusive development in Minneapolis,” said Representative Samantha Sencer-Mura, DFL-Minneapolis, who helped win state funding for the Roof Depot site in 2023. 

The full cost of the array is expected to be around $4 million, Colten-Schmidt said, and the institute hopes to raise funds to cover about half the project.  

The group anticipates needing to complete repairs on the roof before installing the solar array, which will include adding a reflective surface intended to maximize solar power potential. Most of the roof will be covered in solar panels, but a section is expected to be covered in greenhouse-style glass for the indoor farm. 

The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute is on track to officially close on the Roof Depot building in July, as is stipulated in the purchase agreement with the city of Minneapolis. The group is holding monthly meetings with neighbors to solicit feedback and to formally establish a community ownership model that will direct benefits toward low-income residents in East Phillips. 

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