Sabathani Community Center undergoes an eco-transformation
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In the cavernous basement of the Sabathani Community Center in south Minneapolis, two massive 50-year-old boilers are being serviced ahead of another long winter.
Thelma and Louise, as the monstrous metal boilers are called, are the main sources of heat for the town’s original African-American community center, which is housed in a former college building on 38th Street. Sabathani spends about $20,000 a year winterizing machinery, building manager Jesus Dominguez said.
The nearly 100-year-old building had an Energy Star rating of zero when Sabathani conducted an audit in 2019. Winter utility bills for the 188,000-square-foot structure can reach $27,000 a month, the manager says. General of Sabathani, Scott. redd.
“We should be able to take that money and do something else with it,” Redd said.
There are plenty of places the money could be spent. Sabathani Community Center was founded in 1966 by black members of a South Minneapolis Baptist church. Today, it serves as a one-stop-shop for integrated community services, with a large food shelf, workforce training, and medical referral centers. Sabathani also hosts 25 organizations in its building, including a Montessori school and a printing house. Each year, approximately 150,000 people pass through its doors.
Sabathani calls itself “the heart of South Minneapolis,” and the organization has an ambitious goal to make that heart greener. Initially, the community center is one of three buildings selected by Xcel Energy for the $9 million Resilient Minneapolis Project, an initiative that will install rooftop solar panels and a large energy storage battery on the site. The aim is to ensure that Sabathani can be a refuge for the community during power outages caused by extreme weather conditions or to cool off during heat waves.
As climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels continues to warm the atmosphere, extreme weather events and heat waves are becoming more common, experts say.
“It’s not if it happens, it’s when it happens,” Redd said.
But Sabathani does not stop there. It’s in the midst of a green energy retrofit that aims to reduce the building’s carbon footprint and utility costs.
Poles of resilience
The Resilient Minneapolis project grew out of Xcel Energy’s Integrated Distribution Plan, an effort required by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission for utility companies to plan their future investments in the local energy grid.
The project began with Xcel Energy and the government of Minneapolis looking for ways to increase energy storage capacity and clean energy sources in the city. The goal was to add more “unwired” alternatives that can distribute power without connecting to power lines and poles. After the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, Xcel wanted to expand its partnerships with organizations led by and serving local communities of color, according to Nick Martin, policy and outreach manager for Xcel Energy.
Xcel and Minneapolis therefore launched calls for tenders and chose three centers to become centers of resilience. Sabathani Community Center, the Minneapolis American Indian Center and Renewable Energy Partners on the North Side were selected.
“These are usually the places people go to first when they need help or information,” said Toni Hauser, emergency preparedness officer for the city of Minneapolis.
Each site will receive a rooftop solar panel and on-site storage battery. The battery will be off-site and about the size of a shipping container, according to André Gouin, enterprise technology consultant at Xcel Energy. The batteries will usually be part of the larger electrical grid, taking power from the solar panels and distributing it throughout the service area. But during outages, batteries can be “islanded” or isolated from the larger grid to power individual sites.
It will be the first islanding-capable battery system in Minnesota and is based on an Xcel model developed in Colorado, Gouin said. At full charge, the battery could power a building like Sabathani for nearly 10 hours. With a direct connection to solar panels, it could power buildings perpetually if Minneapolis faced a long-lasting outage.
Construction of the resilience hubs is expected to begin in the summer of 2024.
Sabathani Community Center’s journey to green energy began with an energy audit by the Center for Energy and Environment, a nonprofit organization that helps Minnesotans improve their energy efficiency. The old brick undergraduate building, with long hallways, high-ceilinged classrooms and a yellowing hardwood gym floor had nowhere to go except its initial score of zero. Energy Star is a rating system used by the Environmental Protection Agency to measure the efficiency of buildings and appliances.
“They wanted to go from worst to first when it comes to their energy systems,” said Kelly Mulleman, coordinator of the city of Minneapolis’ sustainability program.
Sabathani started small. Using recommendations from the Center for Energy and the Environment, he switched to LED lighting and installed smart thermostats throughout the building. The community center received grants from the city’s Green Cost-Sharing Program and the Minneapolis Foundation to cover approximately $90,000 in improvements by the end of 2021.
The changes are already noticeable in monthly utility bills, Redd said, with estimated annual savings of $28,000.
Approaching an old, inefficient building was daunting, “but there’s a lot of opportunity in buildings like this,” said Jon Blaufuss, senior program manager at the Center for Energy and the Environment who worked on the Sabathani project.
The Sabathani Community Center has also partnered with the Center for Energy and the Environment to ensure that the new affordable seniors’ apartment complex it has built in 2021 is as insulated and energy efficient as possible. .
With small improvements completed and the installation of the Resilience Center coming this summer, the Sabathani Community Center now has its sights set on a bigger goal. She wants to replace Thelma and Louise with a geothermal heating system. The goal is to raise $11.2 million to fund the geothermal upgrade.
“We’re all in,” Redd said.
A new geothermal system would significantly reduce maintenance and energy costs, Blaufuss said. Sabathani is pursuing a low-footprint system that would allow multiple small wells to be drilled to access consistent ground temperatures. Installing this system would allow Sabathani to eliminate the use of natural gas. Natural gas heating prices have risen in recent years and are expected to be high again this winter in Minnesota, according to Minnesota Public Radio.
Reducing the carbon footprint of Sabathani and the surrounding neighborhood is a major goal for the community center, Redd said.
The Sabathani Community Center is just beginning its fundraising efforts for the geothermal system. But if all its plans come together, the center can serve as an example of how it is possible to modernize an older structure. There will always be a need for Sabathani, Redd said, and saving money on electricity will allow the organization to spend those dollars on other needs.