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On a sunny spring afternoon in South Minneapolis in late March, just as school was getting out and cars zoomed past on 35W overhead, a celebration of local energy innovation was on display at Taqueria La Hacienda on East Lake Street.

The event, hosted by the Lake Street Council, highlighted the work of the Council and its partners over the past 18 months to pilot “Energy Coaching”—an effort to help under-served and minority-owned small businesses take advantage of rebates and grants that can make energy efficiency improvements palatable, even for businesses with low profit margins.

The program, which I’ve described in more detail here, attempted to build on the small-business energy efficiency programs that are already available in Xcel Energy territory by deploying so-called “Energy Coaches”—individuals with a local presence that can facilitate connections between hard-to-reach business owners and existing utility-funded energy efficiency providers.

While the project’s final report is still in development, the celebration seems deserved. Overall, the Energy Coaching pilot project led to the completion of 84 energy assessments at small businesses on Lake Street. Of those, roughly half were owned by people of color and approximately 60% reported that they had never previously considered having an energy assessment. About 20 businesses have since taken action following their assessment, resulting in over $24,000 of combined savings annually, with individual businesses seeing savings of $1,550 on average.

Matt Kazinka, who served as an Energy Coach on behalf of Lake Street Council for the 84 businesses, spoke at the event about the importance of partnership. He noted how Wells Fargo, the project’s funder, “took a chance on this effort” by offering to fund the pilot project beginning in 2014. Not only that, but the bank’s local charitable giving branch, the Metropolitan Contributions Committee, brought to the event a signed check for an additional $50,000 to continue the work on Lake Street and beyond.

Carolyn Roby, Vice President at Wells Fargo Foundation MN, explained, “Small business development, small business success, is really important to our grantmaking.” She added that Wells Fargo has made significant strides to reduce energy usage in its own buildings.

Other key partners in the project included Energy Smart, a joint program of the MN Chamber of Commerce and MN Waste Wise Foundation that provided energy assessments, technical assistance, and mini-grants to participating businesses, and the Metro Clean Energy Resource Team (Metro CERT), a program of the Great Plains Institute and one of seven regions that comprise the statewide CERTs Partnership.

Also in attendance were representatives from Xcel Energy, whose rebate programs are crucial to reducing the costs of energy efficiency investments for small businesses, staff from the Center for Energy and Environment, which offers a parallel rebate program for lighting retrofits that several participating businesses took advantage of, and staff from the City of Minneapolis who are supporting the City’s Clean Energy Partnership—a unique joint effort between the City and its energy utilities that recently approved $30,000 in funding for outreach to under-served communities.

The achievements of the pilot project may seem small, and in comparison to savings reaped by larger businesses, they are. But the event was also celebrating something larger—a collaborative effort of multiple parties to serve utility customers that are considered difficult-to-reach.

On one hand, this event was just another group of folks enjoying tacos on a sunny afternoon on East Lake Street; on the other, it was a step towards a more equitable energy system—one in which even the hardest-to-reach customers can reap the benefits of energy efficiency.

For more details on specific projects completed through this initiative, check out our five case studies on Small Business Energy Coaching highlighting energy efficiency projects: 

Operated by the Great Plains Institute, Metro CERT is one of seven regions that comprise Minnesota’s Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) — a statewide partnership of four organizations working to connect individuals and their communities to the resources they need to identify and implement community-based clean energy projects.

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