Shining Green in Minnesota

A shift to solar energy is rolling out across the globe. The dramatic drop in the cost of solar energy is stimulating high interest from developers and individuals who want to produce green energy. Until recently, many have found the upfront costs prohibitive. But now solar power is at a tipping point, and for many, green energy has become more affordable than dirty energy. Multiple states have enacted mandates and legislative subsidies that push our power companies to make sustainable, nonpolluting energy available to everyone, helping to drive the costs down even faster. It’s a change that solar developers and ratepayers are very excited about.

The Humanists of Minnesota (a chapter of the American Humanist Association) have recently had success with a powerful idea that leverages philanthropy with environmental benefits. Simply stated, a dedicated gift for purchasing solar energy can go further, dollar for dollar, than cash alone. Here’s how it happened in Minnesota:

We took note of state legislation passed in 2013, which mandated that major utilities companies generate a higher percentage of their energy from renewable sources and created ways for more people to participate. One way is through a program called community solar, which allows people who can’t build solar panels on their homes to participate in green energy by subscribing to solar energy. Dubbed a “solar garden,” community solar builds solar arrays that feed into the electric grid and to which anyone can subscribe.

It occurred to us that if patrons of charities were to donate such subscriptions to their favorite nonprofits, those charities would reap the benefits for many years. In fact, the financial benefits would actually add up to more than the original donation over time, while also switching the organization to green energy. With that idea in mind, as board members of Humanists of Minnesota, we laid out the idea and were granted two thousand dollars to offer one of the charities we support, an organization called Tubman. It is a long-standing, stable nonprofit specializing in family crisis and support services out of three buildings, two of which are residences.

With those dollars in hand, we approached Tubman’s CEO at the time, Christine Brinkman, with all the pertinent information and asked if we could present it to their decision makers for consideration. She agreed. The excitement about the possibilities seemed to take hold immediately. Tubman’s board members met with solar developers and were so taken with the financial and environmental benefits, they ultimately decided to embark on a far greater effort than we had imagined in the beginning, using our gift and other similar donations.

Tubman has since announced a major switch to solar energy. For one of their buildings that isn’t appropriate for a solar installation of its own, Tubman will be using solar-dedicated gifts for the purchase of subscriptions to community solar. We also received word from Brinkman in November that because we brought the potential of going solar to their attention, they have followed through with the necessary consultations and applications for Minnesota subsidies. These have inspired them to move forward on physical installations of their own panels on two of their buildings. After working with a consultant, they have found that the financing will be covered by the savings they receive in energy. Further, when installed, the panels will lower their operating costs by an estimated twelve thousand dollars a year. Solar developers estimate that about half of Tubman’s electricity use will be covered by this decision and that the approximate number of kilowatts produced can power at least thirty medium-sized homes.

The funds from Humanists of MN and the work of this initiative has been critical to making a difference in our environment and supporting a terrific nonprofit. In Brinkman’s words, “We would not have considered solar if you had not approached us with your idea. Now look where we are at. This outcome is better than we ever thought it would be.”

We believe this initiative is replicable for many other charities across the US. That’s why we’ve put up a website with details of our origins and ideas, and we welcome anyone to check it out and spread the word. Find out more at the SHINE Community (Solar Harvesting is Now for Everyone). It’s a great way for humanists to participate in philanthropic and environmental causes at the same time.