Minneapolis’ Data-Driven Green Cost Share Program Delivers Environmental Justice

2021 Certification Level: Silver

By Marisa Taylor Karas

The City of Minneapolis has a long history of enacting progressive policies to tackle climate change. Back in 1993, it joined forces with neighboring St. Paul to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere with its Urban CO2 Project Plan. In 2012, Minneapolis set the ambitious goals of cutting GHG emissions 30 percent by 2025, and 80 percent by 2050.

That same year, Minneapolis took another innovative step with the creation of its Green Cost Share program. It was launched by the City’s Department of Health as an incentive-based — rather than punitive — way to reduce pollution and address climate change. The basic idea is this: The City offers matching funds to residential, commercial, and industrial property owners as an incentive to invest in energy efficiency and pollution reduction projects. The resulting improvements help the City move closer to achieving its climate change goals while also addressing public health inequities.

Data-driven performance management and open data are at the core of the Green Cost Share program — and are playing a growing role in the City overall. In recent years, Minneapolis has strengthened other foundational practices as well, including general management and data governance, all of which help in the City’s efforts to monitor and utilize relevant data. Leaders of the Green Cost Share program collect data on dollars invested, estimated lifetime energy bill savings, and pollutants reduced. And they make everything public through a dashboard presenting all the metrics.

“From how we track progress toward program goals to how we target underinvested parts of the city overdue for environmental justice, data is in many ways the engine of Green Cost Share,” says Patrick Hanlon, who runs the program as director of environmental programs for the City of Minneapolis. “Tracking and analyzing data has helped us both define and prove success, as well as course-correct as the program has evolved over the years.”

The program kicked off by building partnerships with dry cleaning companies to end their use of perchloroethylene, a cleaning solvent and known toxic air pollutant that may cause asthma, birth defects, and cancer. By 2018, Minneapolis became the first city in the country to be completely “perc”-free.

A rooftop solar project incentivized by the Green Cost Share program. Image courtesy of the City of Minneapolis.

That was just one program goal. By offering property owners 20 percent of project costs (up to $20,000), the Green Cost Share program has also incentivized the installation of solar arrays, insulation, high-efficiency water heaters and furnaces, and other pollution-reduction improvements across the City. The program’s specific impacts since 2013 are detailed in the dashboard: 580 projects have received match funding, saving 31.8 million kilowatt hours of energy. That’s prevented more than 11,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere — the equivalent of taking over 2,400 cars off the road. Combined, program recipients will be saving over $50,000,000 over the lifetime of their projects.

Data-Driven Course-Correcting

The Green Cost Share program’s use of data goes beyond demonstrating impact, however. To ensure the program helps improve public health measures and delivers environmental justice, staff have ramped-up efforts to engage property owners in areas of Minneapolis defined as high-need.

In 2017, program staff noticed they weren’t receiving many applications from areas designated as Green Zones. Mostly located in north and south Minneapolis, the zones were defined by community groups based on demographic, economic and public health data provided by the City. They have higher concentrations of low-income residents and communities of color, and histories of practices like redlining and lease covenants. Not coincidentally, these areas also often have high levels of pollution related to traffic and stationary pollution sources, brownfield sites, and substandard housing. The City’s Green Zone task force expressed a desire for more investment in renewables, energy efficiency, and green jobs.

With the goal of inspiring more projects in the zones and support from the mayor and City Council, the Environmental Programs team adjusted the program’s match funding formula. It began offering a 30 percent match rate of up to $30,000 to applicants in the Green Zones or Great Streets program, another revitalization program that targets areas where people of color and low-income residents are concentrated. Before 2017, only about 20 percent of program participants were environmental justice properties. Today, the figure is 58 percent.

“We look at this program as a way we can intentionally invest back into communities that have been discriminated against historically,” Hanlon says.

The City of Minneapolis has developed various strategies to support economic recovery from the pandemic and address racial inequities. As part of that comprehensive approach, the Green Cost Share program matches 40 percent (up to $40,000) of the cost to rebuild properties damaged during protests last year following George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, which sparked a national movement for racial justice. The program continues to look for ways to provide additional incentives, prioritize projects, and build relationships in environmental justice communities. One way it is doing this: A Green Career program launched last year in partnership with the Department of Community Planning & Economic Development (CPED) that focuses on training residents in BIPOC communities for jobs with solar and energy-efficiency contractors. The City is tracking data to evaluate program outcomes.

Green Career program participants and city staff. Image courtesy of the City of Minneapolis.

For all its activities and projects, the Environmental Programs team collects and analyzes data to identify areas for improvement. One need that’s emerged from analysis: a better group purchase program allowing solar developers to aggregate smaller projects like single-family homes to be submitted in bulk to both take advantage of the incentive and reduce overall project costs.

The team also received community feedback about the lack of energy-efficiency projects being done in larger apartment buildings with low-income tenants. A data analysis bore this out, so the Environmental Programs team partnered with the CPED department on its successful 4d Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing program. The 4d program, which provides incentives for building owners to keep units affordable, has successfully helped building owners make energy efficiency upgrades after they signed up for the incentives. The results were significant — Green Cost Share projects in buildings with over 1,000 tenants rose sharply, from three to 49.

“Those are the kind of opportunities that can be revealed by regular, robust project data analysis,” says Isaac Evans, energy-related contract manager for the City.

The program is also working to obtain better demographic data about project applicants to make further progress on environmental justice goals. Applications can request (but cannot require) demographic data from applicants; the team is working to improve data sharing between city departments to supplement information and improve demographic data tracking.

“The Green Cost Share program can’t succeed in a silo and it can’t succeed without strong data practices,” Hanlon says. “To align with the City’s overarching climate and equity goals, we know we have to work hand-in-hand with colleagues across city government and residents in need. Sustained collaboration and proactive data-driven performance management are both key to success — for all City programs, really.”

Marisa Taylor Karas is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera America, and other publications.

As a member of the nationwide What Works Cities (WWC) network, the City of Minneapolis has received technical assistance from one of WWC’s expert partners to strengthen data-driven governance capacities. The City has also participated in WWC’s online learning Sprints to develop foundational data practices.

Minneapolis is one of 23 cities to achieve 2021 What Works Cities Certification, the national standard of excellence for well-managed, data-driven local government. Read stories from other certified cities here.

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