Sabathani Community Center in Minneapolis transitions to an example of clean energy and a center for resilience

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 Boilers are called, are the main sources of heat for the town’s original African-American community center. 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 can reach $27,000 a month, according to Sabathani general manager Scott Redd.

“We should be able to take that money and do something else with it,” he said.

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 aims to make that heart greener. Initially, the center is one of three buildings selected by Xcel Energy for the $9 million Resilient Cities 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.

But Sabathani does not stop there. It is in the midst of a green energy retrofit to reduce the building’s carbon footprint and utility costs.

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 Minneapolis government researching clean energy sources in the city and ways to increase energy storage capacity. 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, Xcel’s head of policy and outreach.

Xcel and Minneapolis chose three centers to become centers of resilience: Sabathani, the Minneapolis American Indian Center and Renewable Energy Partners on the North Side.

Each site will receive a rooftop solar panel and on-site storage battery. About the size of a shipping container, the battery will be off-site, said Andre Gouin, enterprise technology consultant at Xcel. 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.

Sabathani started small. 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.

The Sabathani Community Center is now aiming to replace Thelma and Louise with a geothermal heating system by raising $11.2 million to fund the upgrade.

“We’re all in,” Redd said.

Reducing the carbon footprint of Sabathani and the surrounding neighborhood is a major goal for the community center, he said.

If all the center plans are put together, it will 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.

This story comes from Sahan Diary, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota’s immigrants and communities of color. Subscribe to his free newsletter to receive stories in your inbox.

Previous versions of this story misstated the first name of the manager of the Sabathani Community Center building, Jesus Dominguez.

Jill E. Washington