Ask the building manager of any one of this area’s 30-plus houses of worship and they’ll tell you it costs a small fortune to heat and cool those big old buildings. It’s a fact of religious life in Minnesota that the users of the Abu Huraira Islamic Center, 3055 Old Hwy. 8, St. Anthony, learned soon after their purchase of the 100,000-sq.-ft. building that once housed product testing facilities for Medtronic, Inc.
According to a Northeaster article dated January 28, 2015, the building’s systems were failing when Abu Huraira bought the building in 2012 from Jeffrey Wirth, the real estate developer who entered federal prison for tax evasion the same year. In addition to costly upgrades to the building’s heating and cooling systems, leaders of the mosque found themselves saddled with utility bills running around $10,000 per month.
Many churches and businesses would have sought a low-interest loan, but the rules of Islam forbid unjust or exploitive gains in business in trade. Charging interest on a debt is considered “riba,” or usury. Yet, with energy bills totaling more than $173,000 per year, the members of the community knew they had to do something.
They turned first to Xcel Energy, which introduced them to the clean energy nonprofit Center for Energy and Environment (CEE) and EnerChange, a nonprofit energy advisor. With help from those three entities, the Islamic Center was able to fashion an energy program that not only upgraded its facilities without incurring interest charges, but dramatically cut its energy use. Fatah Abdi, Abu Huraira property manager, said they approached the project with caution. “We were not sure how this would be possible,” he said.
To get the mosque the money it needed without violating the teachings of the Quran, CEE structured a loan that incorporated interest-equivalent amounts into the mosque’s up-front costs. Funding came through CEE’s Energy Savings Fund for Nonprofits, which offers financing through CEE and the Minnesota Department of Commerce.
EnerChange helped Abu Huraira set up a multi-year improvement project that started in 2014. “When the Islamic Center moved in, they started using the second floor as a large impromptu worship space with occasional use. The third floor was unoccupied, but many of the younger people would explore and hang out in these spaces,” explained Jeremy Davis, managing director of EnerChange.
He continued, “The building was originally designed for maximum occupancy, and comfort of the employees, with no consideration to energy. The very large air handlers that served these two spaces ran 24/7. In addition, the chiller chilled the water to 46 degrees, which in turn cooled the air that passed through it to roughly the same temperature. Then this cold air would be supplied to these two barely used spaces and the boilers would provide heated air to temper the air to around 75 degrees. These two floors accounted for about 25,000 sq.ft. of space; this was a huge waste. We installed lock boxes so that no occupant could change the thermostats, and the client manually turned these systems off in the summer.”
The result: “Huge savings on both the electric and gas side [$42,000], and it only cost $100 in lock boxes and a behavioral adjustment.”
In addition to the mosque, the Islamic Center also houses a staffing agency, several nonprofit organizations, a trucking company, medical supply company and children and adult daycare services. “Our tenants use the building every day of the week,” said Abdi.
In 2015 the center underwent a lighting audit conducted by CEE on behalf of Xcel Energy’s One-Stop Efficiency Shop. In 2016, after $34,000 in lighting improvements, the mosque received a $12,000 rebate from Xcel. CEE estimates an annual savings of $10,346, with a two-year payback on the project.
Perhaps the biggest challenge was the building’s HVAC system. In 2016, the center, with a $100,000 loan from CEE, installed a $108,000 building energy management system and improved the fan controls. Rebates from Xcel and CenterPoint Energy totaled $25,000. Estimated annual savings: $29,000-plus, with a project payback of under three years.
Abdi, who’s now looking at a $6,000-per-month utility bill, said, “The results are remarkable.”
Jim Hasnik, director of lending programs at CEE, said, “We were counting on good results, but the final impact has exceeded all expectations.”
Abdi said Abu Huraira will continue to tweak its systems. “There is still a lot of room for improvement,” he said.
Below: Merely installing covers over the thermostats at Abu Huraira Islamic Center reduced the center’s energy costs by $40,000. Other energy-saving measures helped the mosque cut its utility bills by more than half. (Photo provided by EnerChange)