New Midwest nonprofit is building a just energy transition

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Midwest BDC staff

The Midwest Building Decarbonization Coalition officially launches as a 501c3 nonprofit with Marnese Jackson as inaugural Executive Director

As the U.S. has made great progress on cutting greenhouse gas emissions in its power sector, emissions from commercial and residential buildings continue to rise. In fact, burning natural gas and propane in buildings now accounts for 14% of greenhouse gases released in the Midwest, and 79% of residential buildings in the Midwest use natural gas, propane, or wood for heat. To reverse this trend, we need to use every tool in our toolkits to “decarbonize” our buildings—which is why Fresh Energy has been proud to incubate the critical work of Midwest Building Decarbonization Coalition (Midwest BDC) for the past four years.

Transitioning our buildings to carbon-free, renewable electricity has the potential to reduce utility costs, increase housing affordability, improve community health and safety, and help state and local governments achieve climate goals. Switching from gas appliances to air-source heat pumps, heat pump water heaters, induction stovetops, and energy-efficient building materials is all a part of the Midwest’s energy transition from fossil fuels to carbon-free, renewable energy—and it’s important this transition be just and equitable.

For the last four years, the Midwest BDC has been one of the leading groups to develop and implement equitable strategies to achieve zero emissions in the Midwest’s buildings sector by 2050 in a way that addresses the regional challenges of a cold climate. At Fresh Energy, we’re thrilled that the Midwest BDC’s critical work will continue as the coalition officially becomes its own 501c3 nonprofit.

The bold, equity-focused, and meaningful policy, grantmaking, and education work done by the Midwest BDC will continue to push the Midwest toward deeper decarbonization and ensure everyone in our region has access to clean, healthy, and affordable buildings. In this post, we’d like to highlight the important work the Midwest BDC has done over the past four years with an eye to the future as it begins its fifth year decarbonizing Midwestern buildings.

Origins of the Midwest BDC

The Midwest Building Decarbonization Coalition was conceived by Fresh Energy in 2019 in an effort led by Margaret Cherne-Hendrick, senior lead, innovation and impact, after we identified a need for local, state, regional, and national stakeholders to come together, learn from one another, and seize the opportunity to affect a just energy transition by centering Environmental Justice communities who have been ignored, polluted, and pushed into unaffordable housing and debt.

At the time, building decarbonization activity was primarily proceeding on the east and west coast, and the Coalition helped to create a new and innovative model for how to advance this work in the Midwest, in terms of our colder climate, different political landscape, and most importantly, with respect to employing an equity-first lens to change-making.

Fresh Energy received generous seed funding from the Energy Foundation and soon found support from the McKnight Foundation, Climate Imperative Foundation, and Kresge Foundation. In 2020, the Midwest BDC was officially established in eight states (Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin) and is now made up of over 75 organizational members and 95 individual members. It currently conceives of work in five core areas: equity, market transformation, consumer inspiration, public policy, and research.

“Midwest BDC is not only figuring out how to equitably decarbonize buildings in the Midwest, but also to establish a just, democratic process for advocates to convene and collaborate with each other in this critical work,” said Margaret Cherne-Hendrick. “It’s been incredible to see how the Coalition has grown over the past four years, especially under Marnese Jackson’s leadership, and I’m excited to see where it’s headed next.”

“Fresh Energy’s leadership team and Board of Directors are thrilled at the successful launch of the Midwest Building Decarbonization Coalition as an independent nonprofit and the selection of Marnese Jackson as inaugural executive director,” said Brenda Cassellius, executive director of Fresh Energy. “As the United States and the Midwest strive to decarbonize the buildings sector, where emissions are on the rise, we will need every tool in our toolkit to advance this work and take on the climate crisis at scale. The bold, equity-focused, and meaningful policy, grantmaking, and education work done by the Midwest BDC will continue to push the Midwest toward deeper decarbonization and ensure everyone in the Midwest has access to and participates in the transition toward clean, healthy, and affordable buildings.”

“I am so ready to move Midwest BDC to the next level,” said Marnese Jackson, executive director of Midwest BDC. “Everyone has a place in advancing clean energy inside the places where we spend most of our time: our homes, our schools, our places of employment, and our places of worship. It’s time to show the world that this is an intersectional movement that impacts us all.”

Grant program funds participation, empowerment throughout Midwest

One key success of Midwest BDC’s has been its unique sub-granting program, disbursing both Participation Stipends and Empowerment Grants on an annual funding cycle, prioritizing investment in BIPOC-led organizations and/or organizations building power in BIPOC communities. This model is run by a committee of Midwest BDC members aimed at energizing local work across the Midwest in equitable building decarbonization. Since 2021, the program has provided grants (ranging between $35,000-$50,000) and stipends (ranging from $3,000-$8,000) to help build the Coalition in each state and ensure it operates with equity first. 40% of Midwest BDC’s operating fund is used to support partners in this work across the Midwest.

One Empowerment Grantee is Lee Ringo, energy efficiency program manager for the Community Development Corporation of Pembroke and Hopkins Park (CDC-PHP), who is enthusiastic about utilizing grant funds to advocate for renewable energy upgrades, address health concerns linked to energy choices, and promote future energy reduction solutions in Pembroke Township, Illinois. Once home to the vast Grand Kankakee Marsh, often referred to as the “Everglades of the North,” the area has undergone significant changes due to industrial resource extraction, leading to economic challenges and a diminished quality of life.

CDC-PHP’s Pembroke Energy Efficiency Program (PEEP) aims to counteract decades of neglect and injustice by assisting residents in reducing energy consumption and enhancing environmental health by employing retrofits, weatherization, and electrification to transition from fossil fuels to carbon-free energy, serving as a beacon for other communities. This program serves as a model for how technologies like air-source heat pumps, heat pump water heaters, and induction cooktops can help communities thrive in the Midwest.

Since 2020, Midwest BDC has funded 161 Participation Stipends and 23 Empowerment Grants, investing over $1.5 million back into our Midwestern leaders and advocates on the frontlines of the equitable building decarbonization movement.

Big things on the horizon for the Midwest BDC

In addition to becoming an established and independent nonprofit on February 1, 2024, Midwest BDC also appointed long-time Midwest BDC leader Marnese Jackson and inaugural executive director. As executive director, Marnese will continue building on the foundation of partnerships and relationships she has established over the past four years. Marnese is a leader who embraces the revolutionary thinking and radical practices needed to equitably achieve net zero emissions across the Midwest building sector. Her vision for the next phase of Midwest BDC is to show that centering marginalized communities and honoring the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing are not just ideals, but practices that will grow the Coalition’s impact, sustainability, and effectiveness.

Midwest BDC will continue to provide resources to grow and establish new capacity to help decarbonize buildings equitably across the Midwest, providing funding, resources, and best practices for advocates to engage and participate in the energy transition that affects all our lives. Learn more about the coalition and sign up for their newsletter to plug into their exciting work.