Image of proposed multi-unit development

Single-Family Home Solar or Apartment Development: Which Is Better for the Climate?

The sagas on Van Buren Street in Northeast Minneapolis continue.  This time there is an appeal against the development of 64 new apartment homes at 613-623 N.E. Van Buren St. from the neighbor immediately to the north, located at 625 N.E. Van Buren St.  The complaint? Many components are wrapped up in the ongoing lawsuit against the Minneapolis 2040 Plan. But a key one is the argument of environmental degradation, and the loss of the opportunity to install a viable rooftop solar array.

Granted, the latter part of the complaint is factually correct. A six-story apartment building would block viable solar photovoltaic access to the property at 625 Van Buren.  The complaint documents include a signed letter from the solar company, All Energy Solar, validating the claim.

One could go down legal and philosophical rabbit holes regarding whether a property owner has “sunlight rights,” but I want to discuss the value of a hypothetical solar array on the single-family home in the context of climate change and the city’s and state’s climate goals.

Full disclosure: In a previous role, I calculated the official greenhouse gas emissions inventory for the City of Minneapolis. I also currently have solar on my Minneapolis triplex, and I am under contract to have All Energy Solar install a solar array on our accessory dwelling unit. My husband and I both work in clean energy — me in energy efficiency and he in solar.

The city and state have big climate goals: 80 percent climate pollution reduction by 2050 from 2006 levels. Building, energy use and transportation energy use are the biggest sources of climate pollution. Renewable energy generation, like that from solar PV panels, will to be critical to reducing climate pollution.

The single-family house at 625 Van Buren has a large south-facing roof, which is favorable for solar energy generation. Using the Department of Energy’s PVWatt’s calculator, we can quickly estimate the potential size of the solar array and the annual electricity generation to be around 7.5kW and 10,000 kwh/year. That amount of energy can supply a Minnesota home’s non-heating energy needs in a year. It is also equivalent to the amount of energy to drive 7,500 miles with a car that gets the national average of 25 miles per gallon. For context, this is about half of the 14,263 miles the average American driver drives in a year.

Now, let’s consider the climate impact of the people who would likely live in the proposed 64-unit apartment building. We’re going to assume that people are in need of housing and for simplicity’s sake that they have the option of moving to one of three highly probable places:

  1. Exurb: Chaska in Carver County, the fastest growing county in the state, according to the 2020 census
  2. Suburb: St. Louis Park, where has seen a fair amount of housing growth along the I-394 corridor and the Green Line LRT extension.
  3. City: The 64-unit building at 613-623 Van Buren.

What is the carbon footprint of living in these three locations? Let’s examine the average vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita in each community using data from the Minnesota Department of Transportation. The table below includes just the miles driven on local streets and not on U.S. or Minnesota highways, since traffic on local streets is most likely to be from the local population.

Annual VMT*Centerline Miles*Population**Calculated VMT per capita
St. Louis Park132,733,14217649,0002,709
Table 1. Vehicle miles traveled data for Chaska, Minneapolis and St. Louis Park. *VMT and Centerline Miles includes all roads except U.S. interstates and Minnesota highways. ** Population estimations from 2021 U.S. Census and rounded to nearest thousand.

Location, Location, Location

The average Minneapolitan drives about 400 miles per year less than residents of Chaska or St. Louis Park. This is likely because transit, biking and walking are more viable options. Note that the 600 block of Van Buren has a Walk Score of 73, a Transit Score of 53 and a Bike Score of 86. With these high scores, it is reasonable to assume that this block would follow the Minneapolis trend of lower VMT compared with the other locations.  

Remember, 625 Van Buren’s solar array had an equivalent energy savings of not driving approximately 7,500 miles. Doing quick math (7,500 miles divided by 400 miles), this means it would take only 19 residents choosing to live in the apartment building to equal the climate pollution savings from a single-family home’s solar array.

Said another way, our region would save at least three times as much energy and the subsequent climate pollution by having the new residents move into the 64-unit building on Van Buren than to a suburb or exurb.

These are simple reductions due to transportation and do not count the energy and carbon savings from multifamily buildings over those of single-family buildings. In general, central heating and cooling system efficiencies — along with having fewer energy losses due to lower surface-area-to-volume ratios — make multifamily residences more energy efficient and less climate-polluting on a per-household basis.

Given our aggressive climate action goals, simple math and rationale shows that the choice is clear: A 64-unit development at 613-623 Van Buren has greater climate impact than a single-family home solar array.

The single-family homeowner who wants renewable energy is not without options. Xcel Energy offers Renewable*Connect, and a resident can subscribe to a community solar garden. Both are attractive and affordable options for sourcing renewable electricity and are available to both homeowners and renters alike.

As I mentioned, we have a solar array on our property and are actively building more. If the property owner south of us ever decided to build more densely and shade our array, sure: I’d be cranky about my personal investments. But investments inherently have risk. And risks don’t always pan out. I also would rather have more neighbors move to my urban neighborhood than to the exurbs.

It is the government’s role to take a broader societal view of benefits and drawbacks. We are in a global climate crisis. Minnesota is in a drought, and we’ve broken multiple record-high temperatures this year. We need to be serious about reducing climate pollution. The Minneapolis City Council should not fall for the solar red herring. Instead, follow the math.

Contact members of the Minneapolis City Council and ask them to continue to support the development at 613-623 Van Buren.

Katie Jones

About Katie Jones

Pronouns: she/her

Katie Jones is an engineer, a community builder, and a climate advocate. A Lowry Hill East (Wedge) resident serves on the Minneapolis' Capital Long Range Improvement Committee and recently served on the Governor’s Sustainable Transportation Advisory Committee. Her day job is in city energy efficiency policy, and she is currently building the Uptown Strawhouse behind her triplex (

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