What a renter can do to fight climate change

Illustration by Brock Kaplan, Star Tribune

Behavioral change, personal investments and even a conversation with your landlord can help reduce the carbon emissions from your rental home or apartment.

MMaybe you've looked around at Minnesota's record-warm winter this year and finally decided: It's time to stop pollution from your home.

It feels like the perfect time to act. The government is throwing money at people to beef up insulation, replace gas-burning appliances and install electric vehicle chargers.

But you can't do any of that. You rent your place, and it's hard enough to get your landlord to react when something breaks.

The Star Tribune went on Reddit to ask whether anyone had ever persuaded their landlord to make climate-related improvements. One St. Paulite responded, "I think my last landlord before buying my own home would have laughed in my face. They barely did anything to fix the leaky roof."

So what's a renter to do?

Experts in energy efficiency, electrification and landlord-tenant rights said there are plenty of ways for renters to shrink their carbon footprint. And those actions could add up, considering how many of you there are — about half of the population in Minneapolis and St. Paul are renters.

"Typically, we focus on behavioral things with renters, so focusing what they do have control over," said Carmen Carruthers, outreach director for the Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota, or CUB.

From a landlord's perspective, it can be hard to justify raising the rent to cover the cost of an improvement like better insulation, Carruthers said.

But more than half the energy use in a typical Minnesota home comes from heating and cooling, and small actions can pay off. In winter, use draft blockers under doors or on windowsills and cover energy-leaking windows with plastic. In the summer, run fans before air conditioners.

You can save energy by waiting until dishwashers and clothes washers are full before running them, and then use cold water settings.

Installing weatherstripping or using caulk to seal cracks in a wall can also save energy. But it's important to talk to your landlord before making any alterations, and ideally to get permission in writing, said Rachael Sterling of Home Line. The nonprofit gives free legal advice on housing law to the public.

Even items that seem removable might take paint off a wall, door or window frame. And if something in the home is broken, "We do not encourage tenants to fix it themselves. Because they can get into some issues if things go wrong," Sterling said.

Landlords are required to keep a home maintained, but that can be subjective. The only standard for heating and cooling is a law that mandates an apartment is kept at a minimum 68 degrees from October through April.

The state's foundational landlord-tenant law also requires landlords "to make the premises reasonably energy efficient by installing weatherstripping, caulking, storm windows, and storm doors when any such measure will result in energy procurement cost savings."

Sterling said she was not aware of any tenant ever bringing a court action that would enforce the provision. It's a challenge to prove, but a home energy audit could help, she said. Owners have to give permission for that.

Finding benefits

When it comes to swapping out appliances or improving insulation, "the property owners have absolutely no incentive to do so because they're not the ones paying the [utility] bills," Sterling said.

But she said that with the right research, it might be easier to persuade a landlord to take advantage of money-saving programs. Showing you're committed can go a long way too.

"A lot of times landlords just don't want to have to deal with it, because making upgrades can be also pretty intrusive to the residents that are there," Sterling said.

The gas utility CenterPoint Energy offers programs to improve insulation and air sealing in buildings with four or fewer units, and incentives to switch to more efficient gas appliances in all kinds of rental buildings, said Carter Dedolph, who works on the utility's energy conservation and optimization programs. Rebates reach a maximum of 75% of the total cost of an improvement.

Some additional rebates from the Inflation Reduction Act will also arrive later this year, targeted to rental building owners — they are worth from $2,000 to $8,000 per unit, depending on the efficiency gains and income levels of the tenants.

Rewiring America, a climate advocacy group that focuses on switching home fixtures to electric, also has a guide on how to approach your landlord about making upgrades.

Going electric

Renters who have the means can invest in some small electric appliances, an electric bike or even an electric vehicle.

In Minnesota, some power still comes from burning gas and coal, but emissions from electric utilities have fallen by 54% since 2005, according to the state Pollution Control Agency. Power should become cleaner over time, too, because of the state's mandate for carbon-free electricity by 2040.

So finding ways to go electric can be a key step. Renters with a gas stove might use it less by buying a countertop induction burner that plugs into an outlet, said Jamal Lewis of Rewiring America.

Tenants might also be able to band together and ask for bigger shared infrastructure, like an EV charging spot.

At Lewis' apartment building, "[We had] a garage, and it didn't come with a charging station, but probably about a year and a half in, they installed it because there were people in the building who had EVs who needed a place to charge."

If there isn't a designated charging spot, it's important not to plug an EV or electric bike into a random outlet — a tenant could get in trouble for stealing power, Sterling said.

Some EV owners rely on a public network of chargers, with sometimes mixed results. Abby Hornberger, who lives in south Minneapolis and doesn't have a charger at her apartment, said that she uses the EV Spot Network charging stations.

Those same stations have had a recent problem with vandals cutting the charging cords, including at some stations closest to Hornberger's home. She has managed in part by using another charging station close to her job, in Prospect Park, and she suggested that EV owners should research whether there are chargers close to other places they often drive to.

Hornberger said she had tried to talk to landlords in the past about installing chargers or upgrading the electrical panel in her building. The conversations went nowhere — but with enough planning, she has managed to maintain her greener mode of living.

Resources to get started

Rewiring America's guide offers tips on how to talk to a landlord about electrifying your home.

The U.S. Department of Energy also offers a map of publicly available EV chargers.