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Greenspace: Organization hopes to bring social justice to solar power

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Julia Nerbonne, executive director of Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light.
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Getting access to solar power is getting a little easier for some in Minnesota. But the divide isn't just between Xcel customers and Rochester Public Utilities. There's also a divide between rich and poor when it comes to taking advantage of new solar power rules.

So Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light is working to bring solar power to everyone, no matter their financial status. The problem, said Julia Nerbonne, executive director of MNIPL, is that while Minnesotans have more access to solar power thanks to community solar gardens, buying into solar gardens looks like an opportunity for those with ready cash to invest or a high enough credit rating to get financing for solar power.

"People can finance shares of an array," Nerbonne said. "This is all tremendously great news. But community solar won't be accessible for people with low credit scores or people without ready cash."

And that's where MNIPL comes in.

"We want to ask businesses how to make solar power available to end economic inequalities," she said.

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That means making financing available for people without a few grand lying around and who don't have a credit score of 700 or higher, Nerbonne said.

"Pretty soon, all these community solar gardens will be available," she said, adding that within 15 years the solar gardens will pay for themselves, providing essentially free energy for 10 years or more. "It really is alarming to us that they are only willing to give credit to people with credit scores of 700 or above. We really think this make a 'haves and have nots' situation that is not socially just. We want to share the solar."

With this in mind, MNIPL held a news conference last week where it announced that religious leaders are asking companies to help make environmental justice also equal social and economic justice.

Riz Prakasim, associate pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church in Roseville, said, "When we follow in the steps of Jesus, we have no choice but to demand that this energy revolution is accessible to all. That it serves to heal wounds, not expand the divide between rich and poor."

Nerbonne said getting faith communities involved in the emerging solar market should help make that market accessible for people of all financial levels to participate in community solar.

"We want to help make it accessible where it was price prohibitive before," she said.

And as these solar gardens get built, MNIPL is asking solar companies to hire people in marginalized communities to get them involved in the other financial benefit of the growth in solar power in Minnesota.

"We're asking solar developers to adopt a set of values that include economic equality and diversity," Nerbonne said. "We want to make sure the placement of panels is acceptable to the community and promotes social justice."

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Right now, Nerbonne said, MNIPL has proposals from two developers that are working to see just what a socially just solar array would look like. The organization is hoping to develop arrays ranging from 250 kilowatts up to 1 megawatt.

"That might power homes for 100 families," she said. "If they made an investment today, pay today or pay as you go, that's 13 to 17 years of power for free."

Related Topics: GREENSPACEFINANCE
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