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
Chaska77,051,72212128,0002,752
Minneapolis978,355,8151,471425,0002,302
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

Katie Jones is an engineer, a community builder, and a climate advocate. A Lowry Hill East (Wedge) resident, she co-leads Hennepin for People, a “group of neighbors supporting a vibrant, sustainable, and safe Hennepin Ave that is accessible to all people no matter how they travel.” She also 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 (uptownstrawhouse.weebly.com).

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

  1. ROGER GOERKE

    The implied assumption that building a 64 unit apartment building will somehow alleviate the current drought situation or reduce local temperatures is quite ludicrous. You did not factor in the green house gasses emitted by the construction equipment required to build said 64 unit apartment building and that same apartment building will when functioning be emitting greenhouse gasses created during the heating and air conditioning of the same structure.
    You also assume that this theoretical family is given the limited choices listed for housing and that living in Chaska implies that they will be driving more than if they lived in the 64 unit apartment building. If this theoretical family works from home and uses the Chaska property to raise their own vegetables the climate impact will be minimal compared to the same family living in the 64 unit apartment.
    The best most environmentally friendly solution is to plant trees on the property to be developed and let nature handle the green house gasses as it has done adequately for the last 150 years (dating from the approximate beginning of the industrial age 1870?). At this time there are apartment projects going up almost everywhere you look in the Twin Cities and those don’t seem to be at all in demand as evidenced by mostly empty balconies in these newly developed structures. I realize that is not a scientific measurement but more of an impression.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      “The best most environmentally friendly solution is to plant trees on the property to be developed and let nature handle the green house gasses…”

      Only if you assume that people don’t need somewhere to live.

      1. ROGER GOERKE

        Based on Sheldon’s research below, there is no shortage of apartments for rent in St. Paul’s western suburbs and adding trees to Van Buren street might entice people who like breathing to stay in NE Minneapolis.

    2. Bennett Ackerberg

      “At this time there are apartment projects going up almost everywhere you look in the Twin Cities and those don’t seem to be at all in demand as evidenced by mostly empty balconies in these newly developed structures. I realize that is not a scientific measurement but more of an impression.”

      Multifamily vacancy rate in Minneapolis is 6%, up 2 points from 2020. The city has seen a population decline for the first time in 20 some years but it’s hardly apocalyptic. Developers are worried about rent control, not lack of tenants.

      Office buildings, however… now that’s apocalyptic.

  2. Sheldon Gitis

    The 10s of thousands of currently vacant apartments in places like Chaska and St. Louis Park are not going to suddenly become occupied if the residents of NE Minneapolis choose not to replace single-family homes and relatively small multiplexes with 64-unit apartment buildings.
    https://www.apartments.com/saint-louis-park-mn

    While it’s nice to see someone doing some math, the assumption that the prospective occupants of the proposed 64-unit building in NE Minneapolis would somehow choose to live in Chaska or St. Louis Park rather than NE Minneapolis or some other more convenient location, simply because some developer can’t realize his wet dream to convert a block of single-family homes and relatively small multiplexes in NE Minneapolis into a block of apartment buildings, is a bit misconstrued, to say the least.

    https://www.google.com/maps/place/613+Van+Buren+St+NE,+Minneapolis,+MN+55413/@44.9953695,-93.2486358,3a,90y,349.78h,79.47t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1sfX3vi7Pc-7KOfUGdwXH97g!2e0!6shttps:%2F%2Fstreetviewpixels-pa.googleapis.com%2Fv1%2Fthumbnail%3Fpanoid%3DfX3vi7Pc-7KOfUGdwXH97g%26cb_client%3Dsearch.gws-prod.gps%26w%3D86%26h%3D86%26yaw%3D51.370598%26pitch%3D0%26thumbfov%3D100!7i16384!8i8192!4m5!3m4!1s0x52b32d9c045ea2f1:0xabe4ba9a05e3edba!8m2!3d44.995498!4d-93.2483901

    1. Zak YudhishthuModerator  

      This is a stylized story and of course, it’s not literally true that any single person is picking between these three totally different places to live. But what matters is the aggregates, and if there are less aggregate places to live in the center cities then there will be less aggregate people living there.

      1. Sheldon Gitis

        The market for acquisition, development and construction (ADC) Ponzi scams works very differently than the market for pork bellies. When a large apartment building gets plopped onto some relatively inexpensive piece of real estate, next to a highway and/or in a relatively low-income neighborhood, the developer and his investors, bankers, architects, lawyers, construction contractors, insurance agents and other “professional” partners all collect large fees, regardless of the supply and demand for such real estate ventures.

        A handful of very big businesses control a sizable portion of all the apartment rentals in the Twin Cities metro. The very big businesses that control the so-called “multi-family” housing market are not reducing rents, regardless of what the vacancy rate may or may not be. Occasionally, you do see move-in incentives like a month free rent, but rent reductions for all units, or even most units, in the large apartment buildings are non-existent. It’s never happened and it never will. Doing so would result in a huge loss of revenue. Do the math. Companies like Bader, Dominium, Reuter-Walton, Common Bond etc., with 1000s apartments to rent, aren’t going to decide to reduce annual revenue by millions of dollars in order to fill some vacant apartments. They fill the vacant apartments with caretakers to vacuum the halls and cut labor costs; they don’t do across the board rent reductions. And when big ugly buildings become no longer profitable, they’re simply dumped, one way or another.

        The game isn’t about satisfying a demand. The game is a Ponzi scam that’s made a handful of very big businesses very lucrative, in large part by taking advantage of public subsidies aka corporate welfare. When Bader or Dominium or Reuter-Walton plops down a $50 million big box apartment building next to highway, the developer and his investors, bankers, architects, lawyers, construction contractors, insurance agents and other “professional” partners get paid handsomely, regardless of what the vacancy rate may or may not be. Meanwhile, the wealthy developers and their “professional” partners whine about and blame regulatory hurdles for the high cost of housing.

        Give me break.

        1. Bennett Ackerberg

          “The market for acquisition, development and construction (ADC) Ponzi scams works very differently than the market for pork bellies. When a large apartment building gets plopped onto some relatively inexpensive piece of real estate, next to a highway and/or in a relatively low-income neighborhood, the developer and his investors, bankers, architects, lawyers, construction contractors, insurance agents and other “professional” partners all collect large fees, regardless of the supply and demand for such real estate ventures.”

          What? The fees charged by everyone in the development process is payment for their work. The investors obviously do not charge fees, they are the ones paying them, and they would not do so unless they thought the development would be profitable which is very much dependent on supply/demand.

          “A handful of very big businesses control a sizable portion of all the apartment rentals in the Twin Cities metro. The very big businesses that control the so-called “multi-family” housing market are not reducing rents, regardless of what the vacancy rate may or may not be. Occasionally, you do see move-in incentives like a month free rent, but rent reductions for all units, or even most units, in the large apartment buildings are non-existent. It’s never happened and it never will. Doing so would result in a huge loss of revenue. Do the math. Companies like Bader, Dominium, Reuter-Walton, Common Bond etc., with 1000s apartments to rent, aren’t going to decide to reduce annual revenue by millions of dollars in order to fill some vacant apartments.”

          You realize vacancy is effectively the same thing as a reduction in rents from the perspective of a building owner, right? It is a loss of revenue in any case. Rents are not decreasing because the vacancy rate is very low. You know what controls rent growth? Making more housing units available.

          “And when big ugly buildings become no longer profitable, they’re simply dumped, one way or another.”

          I.e., sold and re-developed into something else. What is the issue?

          I know the anti-development crowd is very fond of their conspiracies, but if you have it out for the wealthy developers then propose an increased income tax or something instead of hiding your NIMBYism behind some sort of artificial concern for the poor or the environment or whatever.

        2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          “The apartment are all empty but reducing rents would hurt revenue” is some interesting cognitive dissonance.

          Yes, developers make money from developing, but they’re no money in it (i.e., no one pays you to develop it or buys it from you after its built) if there aren’t people to rent the apartments.

  3. Janne Flisrand

    Reading, I kept thinking, “But, you’re underselling the climate benefits of this building!” The size of home is the biggest factor in how much energy it takes to heat and cool that home. New apartments tend to be much smaller than single family homes and also than suburban apartments, so each home will require less energy to heat and cool than the alternatives. That’s a pollution reduction that’s on top of the reduction from transportation.

    1. Sheldon Gitis

      Keep thinking, and you might realize the per person energy costs of a typical cookie-cutter rambler in the inner ring suburbs, housing a family of 4 or more, might be considerably less than the energy costs for a couple apartment units, housing 4 or fewer persons.

      Obviously, the smaller the building, the more flexible you can be in satisfying its energy needs. Many of the large apartment buildings have energy draining lobbies, fitness rooms, swimming pools, rooftop patios and other amenities not typically found in SFHs and other much smaller buildings. The large buildings, and their large parking facilities, long hallways, elevators and other common spaces require a large amount of power generating constantly, 24-7. A SFH can shut down or significantly reduce its energy use during times when residents are away or asleep. The hallways and other common spaces of a large apartment building need heat, light and air-conditioning all the time, regardless of whether or not anyone is present.

      1. ted duepner

        Sheldon, where are you getting that info? Everything I’ve read says the opposite. https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=11731

        “Households living in apartment buildings with five or more units use about half as much energy as other types of homes. Lower energy use in apartments can be partially explained by their smaller living space. Additionally, apartment units are bordered by other units or common areas on one or more sides and typically have fewer windows, limiting exposure to exterior temperatures.”

        “Overall, new homes consume about as much energy as older ones, but trends differ by home type. Households living in new (2000s) single-family homes use more energy than those living in older homes.”

        1. Sheldon Gitis

          Obviously, if you’re comparing a 3 br condo in the city to an umpteen br McMansion in the exurbs, the family in the city condo is more energy-efficient than the family in the exurban condo. The reality is, relatively few families with children live in either the condo or the McMansion. Most families with children live in smaller, more modest homes, not in McMansions or big box apartment buildings.

          As far as your “everything” reading is concerned, glancing at graphs may convey the message that apartments in large buildings are more energy-efficient, but does not necessarily convey the facts. A 100+ unit apartment building is not the 5+ unit building illustrated in the graph. Furthermore, the energy consumed by each of the individual apartment units does not equal the energy consumed by the building as a whole.

          Also, your US EIA source seems to ignore per resident energy usage. A so-called “household” can be one person or a dozen people. If the SFH or 2-4 unit apartment building is housing 6 people and the apartment in the big box building is housing one person, the SFH or 2-4 unit building can use 6 times as much energy as the unit in the big box apartment building and still be as energy-efficient.

      2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        Not really. Shared walls alone significantly reduce energy needs. Those hallways are flanked by apartments that are themselves heated and cooled, significantly reducing the energy needed. Lights these days are very low energy-using LED.

        Just the exposure to the outside of a SFH’s walls make them significantly more energy intensive.

      3. Janne Flisrsand

        Do, show me the data on which you are basing that assertion.

        My day-job team completes energy and water benchmarking reports for roughly 2.5% of the apartments in the United States. That’s like creating MPG labels for cars, but for apartment buildings. The data shows your statement is blatant mis-information.

        I’ll provide a simple aggregating report from UCBerkeley. It includes transportation as well as housing. Check out the map at https://coolclimate.berkeley.edu/maps and zoom in on any city – the article you’re commenting on might recommend the Twin Cities.

        1. Sheldon Gitis

          What data shows anything I’ve stated is “blatant mis-information”? As far as I can tell, the UC Berkeley mapping you linked to shows nothing to refute any statement I have made.

          Concerning your “mpg” for 2.5% of apartment buildings, so what? How does that make anything you’ve said any more credible than anything I’ve said? All it says to me is you’re apparently employed by the apartment building industry.

    2. Ted Duepner

      Exactly what I came here to say. I was a little confused why the analysis was so focused on solar benefits compared to VMTs of different geographic locations around the twin cities. If we’re only talking about 400 VMTs less for Minneapolitans (a number i found quite surprisingly insignificant) then it certainly seems that the energy savings is much more significant on the size of dwelling for a single family. A McMansion that houses a family of four vs. a 3 bedroom condo, even if that mcmansion had solar array installed, would be fair to assume has a larger carbon footprint than the condo dwellers.

      1. Janne Flisrand

        Yes. And, if this super-superficial analysis, limited to such a narrow aspect of climate pollution, is so overwhelming, the apartment building is a total gimme, climate-wise.

        1. katjana06

          This is precisely my point.

          I wanted to show a clear link between energy generation and transportation climate pollution impacts because those comparisons are less often made.

          I’m working on another piece regarding the energy efficiency side of things.

  4. James Burnley

    This article fails to take in account any other homes around the property that may want to do solar. Katie needs to think more macro instead of staying in her own bubble and come up with antidotes that suit her opinion.

    1. Josh

      Facts do matter, even your focus on the least important ones shared in this article. Unfortunately for you, your claims are wrong. Consider using better data sources in future attempts to discredit columnists. Daily records were set statewide in June of this year. Also last week.

      The DNR has a handy resource (not yet updated for November), but I recommend NOAA’s Local Climatological Data Database if you’re seriously committed to distracting minutia; their data are usually available within 3 days.

      https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/climate/twin_cities/extremes.html
      https://files.dnr.state.mn.us/natural_resources/climate/twin_cities/ccjune1991_2020.html
      https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/climate/journal/record-warm-november-2-2022.html
      https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/datatools/lcd

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