Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe & RREAL

The solar solution for low-income energy assistance

“Heat or eat?” For many low income families in colder climates that can be a common — and sometimes very dangerous – choice during winter months.

For Jason Edens and his organization, the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL), the stable costs of solar energy offer an answer. They’ve been pioneering the use Federal Energy Assistance dollars to fund solar projects that allow low income households to have an affordable energy rate that stays fixed for a long time.

“Energy assistance has been practiced in the same way now for decades, and it hasn’t really solved energy poverty,” Eden explains. With solar, there’s a shift from needing constant energy assistance dollars year after year – which Eden says “postpones the solution” — to a one-time investment that he says “provides a solution.”

The Leech Lake Project

The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and RREAL have collaborated on many projects over the years and are now using solar to serve low-income members of the tribe. It took some creativity to get it done – and they had hoped for more support from the local electric cooperative.

The tribe’s and RREAL’s first choice was to work with Beltrami Electric Cooperative, which serves the majority of Leech Lake members, to build a 200-kilowatt community solar array owned by the tribe so that it could be integrated into the tribe’s low-income energy assistance program. Beltrami co-op staff were interested, but the co-op board decided against it.

“We had been working with Beltrami’s staff,” said Rob Aitken, Executive Director of Leech Lake Financial Services, “but when our project was presented to the Beltrami Board, we were told it was a closed door meeting. After the meeting we were told that the installation had no value to them unless they owned it. I’m personally a member-owner of Beltrami and so are many Leech Lake residents, and I want to know how our project was presented to the Board.”

With limited access and options at Beltrami, Leech Lake and RREAL created a work-around. Instead of one large array that needed co-op approval, they are instead building several smaller 40kW installations that can be done independently under Minnesota’s net metering laws – like a home rooftop project. As Edens explains, the meter owners for each installation will then do “a revenue transfer mechanism to energy assistance, and then those dollars are going to be set aside in a reserve account specifically for low income energy assistance recipient households.”

Last November, the first of the 40kW installations on Leech Lake tribal land came online and started generating electricity for low income customers.

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