Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) is no stranger to charitable solar work. The non-profit company was founded in 2000 to address low-income energy poverty throughout the Midwest and often completes donated solar projects throughout the region through its Solar Assistance program. RREAL has provided more than 500 solar energy systems to low-income households and has recently started installing larger, shared solar projects for entire communities. The company’s efforts on a 200-kW community solar project in Cass Lake, Minnesota, for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe is the reason it’s this year’s 2017 Brian D. Robertson (BDR) Memorial Fund Award winner.
The annual BDR Fund Award celebrates a philanthropic solar project installed by a Solar Power World Top Solar Contractor. This year’s winning project was completed in July 2017 through RREAL’s efforts to bring solar to its tribal neighbors in Minnesota.
“Some of our very early installations were with tribal communities,” said RREAL director Jason Edens. “We’ve developed a long-standing, successful relationships with them. Most recently, our program has pivoted to shared solar on behalf of low-income communities. Because we had this relationship with Leech Lake, it made sense. We reached out to them and they were all in.”
The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe is a federally recognized tribe in central Minnesota that includes 9,000 members. Edens said 42% of the tribe is below the poverty line, so this solar array is extremely valuable as a relief to energy bills.
“When the cost of energy increases, it is our lower income communities that are most gravely affected due to the fact that low-income families typically devote a greater percentage of income to the necessities of heat and power,” said Erica Bjelland, AmeriCorps VISTA at RREAL. Federal energy assistance is offered to low-income families that can’t afford their heating or cooling costs, but Edens describes the program as “putting a Band-Aid on a wound that needs a tourniquet.” Families do not feel empowered in the process, nor are the root causes of energy poverty addressed.
Solar arrays may not be the tourniquet needed, but they work a lot better than bandages. RREAL’s 200-kW project will assist nearly 100 families in the tribe as an additional resource to serve their energy needs.
“It’s modest in the case of community solar, but it’s done a lot,” Edens said. The total project consists of five 40-kW arrays. All are ground-mounted in an effort to make sure they’re visible to the community.
“The Leech Lake community has five jurisdictions within it,” Edens said. “We wanted to equally distribute the capacity among those [areas]. We put them at housing communities, and they’re visible to the beneficiaries of the system. A lot of families who are eligible for energy assistance don’t get it because there are only enough dollars to go around. This array allows [the tribe] to serve more families with clean energy.”
RREAL received a grant for the solar project from the McKnight Foundation and also received help from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources. The Initiative Foundation helped RREAL fund three tribal college students’ solar installation training and certification who later assisted with the installation in their own backyards.
RREAL is implementing a similar shared-solar model in Vermont and is working on solar microgrids in West Africa. The company also does market-rate residential and commercial installations to support its low-income efforts. Proceeds from traditional solar installations feed into funds for donated projects and RREAL’s mission of addressing energy poverty.
“Annually, billions of energy assistance program dollars flow to electric and gas utilities on behalf of low-income households and communities. Solar energy presents an opportunity to address energy poverty,” Bjelland said. “RREAL’s Solar Assistance program delivers no-cost solar energy systems to low-income families on public energy assistance as a lasting, clean and domestic solution to low-income energy poverty. This installation helps more people out of energy poverty.”
RREAL and its BDR Fund Award win will be celebrated at the Top Solar Contractors gala next week in Las Vegas.