Railroad Island to be an energy conservation hotspot

courtesy of Google Maps • A new solar garden, part of an energy conservation program taking place in Railroad Island, will be located at the end of Minnehaha Avenue near the Village on Rivoli housing development. Homes with low income occupants will be hooked up to the solar garden for free, with the goal of eliminating barriers to renewable energy.

The little neighborhood of Railroad Island has become a big target when it comes to energy consumption and renewable energy.

The neighborhood is going to be home to two new projects: an energy conservation program and a new solar garden.

The two together are called RENEW — Rehabilitation and Efficiency; Neighborhood Energy Works. The new program will be piloted in Railroad Island for three years.  

According to Tami Gunderzik, a product manager at Xcel Energy, RENEW aims to help low income residents lower their energy consumption and lower the financial burden they face when paying for high energy consumption. The program is also aimed to remove barriers for low income households to have access to renewable energy.

The project is a partnership between Dayton’s Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services, Energy Cents and Xcel Energy.


Energy conservation

One half of the program is aimed at energy conservation.

Pam Marshall, executive director for Energy Cents, said the conservation aspect will include a free energy audit to help identify ways to make a dwelling more efficient. It will also include replacing old water heaters and furnaces with new, more efficient models, and replacing inefficient appliances like refrigerators and air conditioning units and installing LED lighting for free for homeowners. 

The program will also give free energy audits to landlords who rent to low income tenants and will cover 50 percent of the costs to replace the aforementioned items.

The goal, Marshall said, is in the first three years of the pilot program to help improve about 100 single-family homes, and 50 smaller apartment buildings — ones that have two to four dwellings — and to serve about seven or so larger, multifamily buildings. 


Solar garden

The other half of the RENEW program is the construction of a solar garden. 

The solar garden will serve low income homeowners and tenants who make less than 50 percent of the median income, just like the conservation aspect. Households won’t be required to pay an up-front cost or go through credit score checks — they’ll be hooked up for free. 

“Accessibility for everyone is very important to Xcel Energy,” Gunderzik said. 

The garden will be near the Village on Rivoli housing development at the western end of Minnehaha Avenue along Rivoli Street. While the project has passed over quite a few bureaucratic hurdles, there are still a few more to go, but planners are hoping to get the new solar array up and running by fall.

Jim Erchul, executive director for Dayton’s Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services, said the next steps for the solar garden involve a land transfer between the county, city and his organization, and approval by the Federal Aviation Administration, because the array is below some of the flight paths to Holman Field in St. Paul. The final approval of a sustainable power ordinance will need to go through the St. Paul City Council as well.

When the project is finished, Erchul estimates the array will power about 120 homes. The solar garden will be owned by Xcel Energy when it is finished.

Erchul said there will be a few unique characteristics to the project. First, it will power homes that are occupied by people who make less than 50 percent median income, directly impacting those who are often the most burdened by energy costs. 

The solar garden will also serve as a training site for various construction training groups. For example, the Youth Build program that Dayton’s Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services works with may use the site to train students on how to work with photovoltaic panels and solar energy projects.

Another interesting aspect of the project, Erchul notes, is that this will be the first large solar garden in the City of St. Paul.



While an exact start still needs to be pinned down, Marshall and Gunderzik said the project will definitely get going this summer. Marshall said the number of homes served by the conservation aspect of the program during the first year may only be about 10 or so as they fine-tune the process. They’ll reach out to the dwellings with the highest energy consumption first and work from there. 

Marshall and Gunderzik said the three organizations plan to have community kickoff and groundbreaking events at some point this summer, but again are waiting on a few fine details to be ironed out regarding the solar garden. 

Marshall added that in the next few months, signage will be put up in the neighborhood and a phone line will eventually be established for Railroad Island residents to call to find out if they qualify. She said they are also working on establishing funding to hire a community outreach director. The Railroad Island Task Force will be involved in educating the community about the project as well.

Marshall said the program is “pretty exciting,” as organizers hope to help improve the energy consumption of about 75 percent of the dwellings in Railroad Island. 

Marshall, Erchul and Gunderzik all said this is a pretty unique project. In the past, conservation programs similar to this usually target seemingly random homes across the metro — this will be the first time a specific community is targeted. 

Gunderzik said that after the three-year pilot program, they will assess and figure out how the RENEW program could be used in other communities.

“We’re excited about this,” Gunderzik said, adding the program encompasses the values of Xcel Energy — making renewable energy accessible to customers, bringing energy and cost savings and meeting people where their needs are. 

Marshall said she hopes the pilot period will prove that through modest investment, this project will create measurable benefits not only in energy conservation, but also in societal benefits. 

“If you stabilize a low income family in their home, improve its safety,” she said, “it gives the family more financial resources to spend on other things.”


– Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto

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