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Sustainable: McKnight aims funding at climate change

April 3, 2018 /
Finance and Commerce

In north Minneapolis, Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light helped organize and fund a community solar garden on top of Shiloh Temple that later this year will begin powering a nearby mosque and 26 homes.In central Minnesota, the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance in Backus developed a community solar garden for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and has been studying how social-impact bonds might be used to finance community solar gardens for low-income residents.

In St. Paul, the Clean Energy Resource Teams work with partners across Minnesota on projects promoting LED lighting, energy efficiency, solar energy, biomass and other initiatives. The effort helps organizations save energy and money while reducing carbon emissions.

What all these organizations have in common is funding from the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis. The foundation invests in organizations working on rural and urban clean-energy initiatives through its Midwest Climate & Energy program.

The well-known foundation, started in 1953 by 3M executive William L. McKnight and his wife, Maude, delivers more than $90 million in grants through seven program areas. One of those, the Climate & Energy program, targets nonprofits working in a variety of areas, including new business models for utilities, clean-energy leadership, electric vehicle advancement, decarbonization of the economy, improved transmission and energy efficiency. Through its grants, the foundation has helped strengthen a nonprofit infrastructure focused on clean energy and carbon reduction in Minnesota and the Midwest.

Program started in 2013  

While McKnight has given grants related to climate change for more than 20 years, it began a program dedicated to the matter in 2013, according to Aimee Witteman, program director of Midwest Climate & Energy.

“We really see a unique opportunity for Midwest leadership on this issue,” she said. “People talk a lot about technological innovation on the coast. But we think we are uniquely positioned to identify opportunities for Midwest leadership on climate change.”

In fact, Minnesota remains a leader on many fronts, she said. Businesses involved in clean energy employ more than 57,000 people in Minnesota, with jobs in the solar industry growing last year by 44 percent.

Large Minnesota corporations — such as Target Corp., Cargill, Best Buy, 3M Co., General Mills Inc. and Andersen Corp. — have strong sustainability goals. Wind and solar are now cost-competitive with natural gas. Xcel Energy announced last year a goal of 85 percent carbon-free power by 2030, with some 60 percent coming from renewables, Witteman said.

With the federal government pulling back from climate leadership, the opportunities have grown for business, along with local and state governments, to lead the charge in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, Witteman said.  It’s no longer a hard sell, with customers demanding cleaner power.

The market is driving change almost as much as policy. “There’s a lot of tailwind now,” Witteman said. “We’re looking at how we can accelerate that progress.”

McKnight recently tweaked its climate program based on input from clean-energy leaders. Climate change plays a role in the organization’s new diversity, equity and inclusion policy because it recognizes that global warming and pollution have their greatest impact on the poorest members of society.

Yet the thrust remains the same. “We look at the three areas — market, policy, community — to see where there is the biggest leverage for change,” Witteman said. “We support dozens of organizations that work in one of those or across all three.”

McKnight’s Investments

Last year McKnight gave grants of $15 million to 48 organizations in the Midwest Climate & Energy category, which represents about 17 percent of its annual giving.  Most of the funding goes to grantees in Minnesota, although the foundation offers some funding to groups in Iowa and Wisconsin.

A glimpse of its website offers a compendium of clean-energy activities underway. The Minneapolis-based Great Plains Institute’s Drive Electric Minnesota promotes electric vehicles. The institute and the Minneapolis-based Center for Energy and Environment created the e21 Initiative to look at future utility reform. Along those lines the Regulatory Assistance Project, based in Vermont, offers technical assistance to regulators in the Midwest through McKnight.

The foundation has been more than willing to make a bet on new ideas, said the Environment Initiative’s CEO, Mike Harley. The Minneapolis-based nonprofit, which focuses on environmental solutions from a business perspective, used $260,000 worth of McKnight grants to assist in developing the Minnesota Sustainable Growth Coalition.

The coalition works to develop approaches to minimizing waste, reducing water use and creating an economy where 100 percent of power comes from renewable energy. “One of the important things about McKnight is it is willing to invest in a new idea and take a risk with us,” Harley said.

Michael Noble, executive director of Fresh Energy, receives about one-eighth of his nonprofit’s budget from McKnight. Fresh Energy has worked on policies to electrify the economy by focusing on the transportation sector, promoting electric cars and buses. For example, Fresh Energy created a tool allowing state fleet managers to compare electric vehicles with gas-powered models. (Gas invariably turns out more expensive over the lives of vehicles.)

Clean Energy Economy Minnesota received $300,000 over two years to study and promote clean-energy jobs in Minnesota. The organization recently sponsored Clean Energy Business Day at the Capitol and has held several events bringing together politicians with green energy businesses since being founded two years ago.

“McKnight provides critical leadership in driving towards a low-carbon economy here in Minnesota and the Midwest region,” said Gregg Mast, Clean Energy Economy Minnesota’s executive director. “Their ambition is both inspiring and infectious. Its support enables us to work with our businesses to harness the economic opportunities that are provided by clean energy throughout the state.”

Among the first grants the Citizens Utility Board received was one for $200,000 from McKnight. The nonprofit supports clean energy and reliable utility service for businesses and residents through education and public policy work.

“They were one of the foundational supporters; they’ve been supporting CUB since day one,” said Executive Director Annie Levenson Falk. “They’ve supported a lot of good energy work in Minnesota and around the region.”

While McKnight likes to see funding go to good use in spreading the gospel of clean energy, it understands numbers do not always tell the story of progress. “We’re careful not to be overly metric-focused because we have a healthy appreciation that there are many variables,” Witteman said. “We look at broad directional change.”

Electrifying the future

Witteman gained an appreciation of the environment while growing up near Wausau in a part of Wisconsin where forests and farms share the landscape. Having earned an undergraduate degree in history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she headed for Tufts University in Boston to study agriculture, food and environmental science and policy.

After working on Capitol Hill for a lobbying organization focused on farm legislation, Witteman moved to the Twin Cities with her husband, Barrett Colombo, a Minnesota native who works at the University of Minnesota. She joined McKnight as a program officer in 2010 focused on the environment. Three years later Witteman began her current position.

Now that clean energy is an established market able to compete against fossil fuel generation, the next evolution will be the electrification of the economy, especially transportation.

“Two years from now, I think we’ll be in the middle of seeing a charging infrastructure being built across state and region, with electric fleets for companies and units of government,” she said. “Electrifying transportation will be a big part of what we’re doing.”

Author: Ben Bratrud

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