Minnesota buildings: our next big climate challenge

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Most Minnesotans are used to a bit of weather whiplash as summer turns to fall, though the past week’s plunge into brisk temperatures after a 90-degree weekend and our hottest September on record was an especially stark example.

Plenty of Minnesota households and businesses have run both the air conditioning and heat this week, illustrating a two-sided challenge: climate change is making our summers longer and hotter – while also contributing to polar vortex events that can deep freeze parts of the state. So we keep our furnaces and air conditioners running…but that energy use makes the problem worse.

From 2005-2018, most sector sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota got smaller. Not so for homes and buildings. Commercial buildings increased their emissions of CO2 equivalents by 15%, while residential buildings’ emissions rose by a whopping 32%.

Most of that increase – which does not include electricity use – was due to the use of natural gas in heating and in leaking of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) from air conditioning. The state’s population only increased by 10% during that period, pointing the finger at changing weather patterns that required more heating and more air conditioning.

Heating and cooling aren’t luxuries we can simply cut back on. While it’s both possible and responsible to turn the thermostat down in cold weather and up in hot weather, Minnesotans’ health and well-being are threatened by increasingly common extreme temperatures and by outdoor hazards like wildfire smoke. This threat is especially high in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, which tend to have fewer trees (which moderate extreme heat), higher surface temperatures, and poorer building insulation.

Schools are a perfect example: as two educators wrote in MinnPost earlier this week, older schools – commonly in cities like Saint Paul and Minneapolis – are often poorly equipped or completely devoid of air conditioning, having been built for the state’s cold winters and mild autumns and springs. When temperatures creep into the 80s and 90s as early as April and late as October, students’ health and ability to learn is put at risk. 

A comprehensive solution

These students, as well as families across the state, need safe conditions in their homes and the buildings they use every day. At the same time, we need to cut the emissions from these buildings to solve the climate crisis.

The good news is that science has shown us how to tackle this problem, and the most recent Legislative session helped get us going.

This year’s Climate and Energy Omnibus Bill included $38.7 million for weatherization and pre-weatherization efforts, helping make homes and buildings’ heating and cooling systems run more efficiently. Weatherization includes upgrades like better insulation, storm doors, and windows. Pre-weatherization addresses issues – including problems like leaky roofs or mold – that could prevent a household from accessing state or federal funds for weatherization.

The Legislature also passed $13 million for heat pump financial assistance. Once Minnesota’s rebate program is up and running, it will supplement federal rebates for heat pumps, electric stoves, and other home electrification projects.

Heat pumps are one of our most useful tools for cutting building emissions. They’re all-electric and can perform the job of both an air conditioner and a heater, keeping residents comfortable while avoiding costly price spikes in natural gas. But like old-school furnaces, they work best in a well-insulated home, underscoring the importance of weatherization.

Switching to heat pumps and other electrical appliances will require an increased supply of clean power, so it’s fitting that the Legislature also passed funding to help buildings generate the power they need to stay comfortable. The popular Solar on Schools program received $29.3 million in funding, helping to provide cheap, clean energy to keep the lights on and the HVAC systems running for our students. The Legislature passed an additional $5 million in funding for solar panels on other public buildings.

Next steps

MEP will work with Legislators at the Capital in 2024 to build on these and other climate action steps. Energy efficiency is among the most effective and least controversial steps we can take to protect both the climate and the health and comfort of Minnesotans, and we expect it to continue to receive support. We’ll also advocate for policies that further support electrification and reduce our state’s costly reliance on natural gas

Installing all of the necessary insulation, heat pumps, and solar panels will require plenty of skilled workers. The American Climate Corps, which we covered in last week’s column, will help train those workers. Minnesota should continue to develop its own pipeline to these high-paying jobs.

And as educators wrote in MinnPost, we need to make sure those most vulnerable to increasingly common heatwaves aren’t left behind. Minnesota should invest in ensuring all students can learn safely and comfortably, and provide increased utility support and clean energy investments in communities most susceptible to extreme temperatures.

Climate change is here to stay, and Minnesota’s weather will continue to get weirder. But there’s much we can do to limit this crisis, and to make sure our neighbors are safe and healthy.

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