The Intersection of Energy and Community

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The transition to an equitable, carbon-neutral economy will bring big changes to our communities. State and federal policies, utility programs, and the overall evolution from a world powered by oil and gas to a clean electricity-powered future, play out in our neighborhoods, workplaces, and homes. But it’s not just communities adapting to change. Cities, counties, and local institutions are often leading through model projects and Climate Action Plans to shape a new reality.

In summer 2021, Fresh Energy will be hosting a webinar series on to raise the question: How can we dramatically reduce carbon emissions in a way that improves our communities and benefits everyone?


Community Heating and Cooling: How can district-scale heat and power projects achieve big carbon reductions and new union jobs?

View more information about the Darcy System at Local 455.

Workforce of the Future: How can Minnesota ensure broad access to jobs in the clean energy economy?

  • Nina Axelson, Founder, Grid Catalyst
  • Robert Blake, Founder and CEO of Solar Bear
  • Jamez Staples, President and CEO of Renewable Energy Partners
  • Moderated by Fresh Energy’s Ben Passer, lead director, Energy Access and Equity

Sponsored by:

Authentic Community Engagement: What is the difference between public input and a co-created climate vision?

  • Russ Stark, Chief Resilience Officer at the City of Saint Paul
  • Adri Arquin, Youth Member on the Saint Paul Climate Justice Advisory Board
  • Moderated by Fresh Energy’s Janiece Watts, senior associate, Energy Access and Equity, who serves on the City of Saint Paul’s Climate Justice Advisory Board

Electricity Instead of Gas: How can communities embrace efficiency and electrification and avoid new fossil gas infrastructure?

Sponsored by:


Brian Larson, Co-Founder and CEO of Darcy Solutions
Brian found a love of the land as a child, while spending time on his grandmother’s farm near Willmar, MN. His studies in Economics at the University of Minnesota led him to pursue his MBA at Indiana University. In the early part of his career he was employed by various large oil and gas companies on the west coast and southern gulf coast, regularly working closely with geologists and geophysicists.

Brian’s passion for innovation and problem-solving brought him to work at the consulting firm McKinsey – gaining invaluable knowledge on how to build great companies and design growth strategies. His desire to use innovation to make the world a better place led him to a 14-year career at Cargill. Brian is always looking for an opportunity to do something impactful and use his 30+ years of business experience to elevate brilliant entrepreneurs. When Brian and Jimmy Randolph met, it became clear that the duo’s shared a desire to protect the planet for future generations inspires their partnership at Darcy Solution.

Tony Poole, Business Manager, Steamfitters/Pipefitters Local 455
Tony Poole is a 23-year member of the St. Paul Steamfitters Pipefitters Local 455 and is currently serving as Business Manager for the Union. Upon completion of his apprenticeship in 2004, Tony spent the better part of his career working at industrial sites welding on critical piping systems. He also has experience working on many commercial projects, including hospitals and schools. Tony was elected Business Agent for the Union in 2013 and Business Manager in 2018 and in this capacity is closely involved in contract negotiations, public relations, and more.

Nina Axelson, Founder, Grid Catalyst
Nina Axelson is leading the development of a clean energy accelerator, focused on demonstrating and scaling solutions for northern climates. The program will work with regional partners to connect entrepreneurs to project demonstrations, mentorship, and investments to help them grow their business. Grid Catalyst is under development, with a launch anticipated by the end of 2021. Previously, Axelson was the Vice President of Sustainability and Outreach for Ever-Green Energy, and has nearly 20 years of experience in the energy and environmental sectors. She holds a Bachelors of Science in Natural Resources and Environmental Studies from the University of Minnesota.

Robert Blake, Founder & CEO of Solar Bear
Robert Blake is the owner of Solar Bear a solar installation company located in Minneapolis, MN, the Ojibwe pronunciation is Gizis-o-makwa. Robert is the Executive Director of Native Sun Community Power Development a Non- Profit located also in Minneapolis, MN. Robert is a graduate student at the University of Minnesotan Carlson Executive Master of Business Administration (CEMBA) program. Robert is a tribal citizen of the Red Lake Nation. His passion is spreading the word of renewable energy through communication, cooperation, and collaboration.

Jamez Staples, President & CEO of Renewable Energy Partners
Jamez Staples founded Renewable Energy Partners after seeing how solar energy was being built in other parts of the country and after Minnesota passed its Solar Jobs Act in 2013.  He has lived in North Minneapolis most of his life and graduated from North High School where REP has installed a 365-kilowatt community solar garden. He has seen and experienced injustices in economic opportunity and environmental health in Minnesota but was also inspired by former Obama Administration Green Jobs Czar Van Jones’ idea of addressing climate change and poverty at the same time.

Russ Stark, Chief Resilience Officer at the City of Saint Paul
Russ Stark is the Chief Resilience Officer for the City of Saint Paul working in Mayor Melvin Carter’s Office. Previously, Russ Served for 10 years on the Saint Paul City Council including three years as Council President. Prior to his public service, he worked at nonprofits focused on community development, environmental advocacy, and improved transportation options, including early planning for what is now the Green Line LRT. Russ has a Bachelor’s in Political Science from Swarthmore College and a Master’s of Urban Affairs and Public Policy from the University of Delaware.

Adri Arquin, Youth Member, Saint Paul Climate Justice Advisory Board
Adri Arquin is a junior at Central High School and lives in St. Paul, MN. As a High School student, he worked with other young activists and organizers to create Minnesota Youth for Climate Justice, helping to bring thousands of young people to the Minnesota State Capitol on multiple occasions to fight against the climate crisis. He additionally works with COPAL MN and the Minnesota Youth Council in order to advocate for environmental justice both inside his community and in the Minnesota Legislature. With these roles, Adri also helps as a youth member on the St. Paul Climate Justice Advisory Board. When not working or organizing you can often find him on the soccer field with friends or trying to scout out a new thrift shop.  

Margaret Garascia, Associate Director, Research and Innovation at Elevate Energy
Margaret Garascia is Senior Manager for Research and Innovation at Elevate Energy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to designing and implementing programs that lower costs, protect people and the environment, and ensure the benefits of renewable energy reach those who need them most. As part of the Elevate research team, Ms. Garascia conducts research on whether low- and moderate-income households are equitably served by renewable energy programs. In addition, she coordinates Elevate’s research, policy, and demonstration projects on building decarbonization with a focus on the affordable housing sector. She also conducts quantitative and qualitative research on topics including energy insecurity, water affordability, and residential energy use. She was lead author of a report on the multifamily building stock in Chicago and the potential for energy savings. She has presented and written on the relationship between energy efficiency, health, and wellbeing in forums including Electricity Journal, Retrofit Magazine, American Public Health Association Annual Meeting, and others. Prior to this role, Ms. Garascia worked as an Analyst for ADI Consulting, where she advised mortgage lenders regarding potential race- and genderbased discrimination in origination and pricing. Before attending graduate school at the University of Texas, she was an organizing fellow with Environment America in Boston, MA. She is a proud graduate of Wellesley College.

Keith Kinch, Co-founder and General Manager at BlocPower
Keith Kinch serves as General Manager and co-founder at BlocPower. Keith received his undergraduate degree at John Jay College and his graduate degree at American International University. He spent eight years as a community organizer, and two years as Deputy Field Director in New York State for the Democratic National Committee under President Obama’s grassroots arm Organizing for America. He helped advance key pieces of legislation such as the Affordable Healthcare Act.

In the summer of 2016, Keith led the Solarize Brownsville campaign where more than 200
homes were outfitted with solar panels. Solarize Brownsville brought together community
partners, local residents, and the selected solar installer to successfully demonstrate that solar
power can make an impact in low-to-moderate-income communities. It still stands as one of the
largest solar projects in New York State history. In 2017 Keith led the partnership with the
Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, and Department of Housing Preservation and Development on
Community Retrofit NYC program to produce over 500 retrofits for 5-50 unit multi-family
buildings in Con Edison’s Brooklyn Queens Demand Management zone. The project has won a
national award and was completed one year ahead of schedule. In 2019 BlocPower partnered
with Con Edison and NYSERDA to launch “Green the Bronx,” a campaign to help hundreds of
multifamily building owners in the Bronx convert their fossil fuel heating systems to clean
heating & cooling systems. As part of the partnership, Con Edison, NYSERDA and BlocPower
will provide engineering, project management, customer education, financing, and no money
down equipment leases for building owners. Keith currently resides with his wife and two
children in New York.


American Institute of Architects Minnesota
Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs)
Climate Generation
Midwest Building Decarbonization Coalition
Minnesota Electrical Association
Sierra Club
The Nature Conservancy