Innovative Power Systems (IPS Solar) (No. 51 on the 2019 Top Solar Contractors list) has flipped the script on community solar projects. The Minnesota-based company was founded in 1991 and has installed about 100 MW of community solar systems with another 50 MW planned. Eric Pasi, chief development officer at IPS Solar, admits that community solar projects are typically aimed at off-takers that have greater financial standing — corporate or municipal customers or high-income residents — and don’t necessarily represent the residents of the community where a system is installed.
“What that’s doing is actually exacerbating this energy divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots;’ where people with good credit and businesses are lowering their energy costs, and the costs of renewable programs, like community solar, then transfer to the people that aren’t participating,” Pasi said.
So the company is trying to change that demographic for the benefit of everyone. In 2018, IPS Solar installed a 204-kW community solar array on the rooftop of Shiloh Temple International Ministries, a church in North Minneapolis. Instead of opening enrollment to anyone, IPS Solar first offered subscriptions to congregation members, neighborhood residents and smaller businesses in the area. North Minneapolis is a primarily black neighborhood, and its residents have pushed city officials to explore renewable energy options in the community.
“It is a mission of ours to lead the local transition away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy,” Pasi said. “We’re just looking at different opportunities as a way to address some of these inequities.”
IPS Solar is planning more community solar projects like Shiloh Temple that prioritize underserved communities, like its ongoing project at Red Lake Indian Reservation in Northwest Minnesota. The company has also joined local stakeholders in the Just Solar Coalition, a group pushing for inclusivity in solar generation in Minnesota.
IPS Solar also encourages workforce development for residents in communities often overlooked by solar. In fact, part of the team that installed the Shiloh Temple solar garden lives in North Minneapolis, and they have installed other projects in the area and continue to work in the industry.
“It is a very tight job market with construction,” Pasi said. “There’s a lot of building happening all across the economy and finding talented and qualified workers is a challenge for us, so we have done what we can to help spur hiring in areas that traditionally have been overlooked.”
Minnesota stands as the Midwestern state with the most solar installed, breaking 1 GW in 2018, and initiatives like the Illinois Solar For All program are creating even more new opportunities for solar installers in the region. IPS Solar plans to take its template for melding solar construction and environmental justice and apply it to other Midwestern states to “really open access to the clean energy economy to more people,” Pasi said.
“We feel very fortunate to be a part of this industry,” he said. “It’s changing all the time and it’s almost dizzying to meet the amount of evolution that happens, and it’s super fun. We appreciate all of our employees and all of our partners that helped to make what we’re doing possible.”