A tribal solar project proposed for Leech Lake, Minnesota could set a national precedent.

Tom Kelly / Creative Commons

A tribal solar project proposed for Leech Lake, Minnesota could set a national precedent.

Q&A: How solar could change the face of low-income energy assistance

Jason Edens is the director of the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance.

Jason Edens is the director of the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance.

A north-central Minnesota solar nonprofit is creating a community solar garden for low income residents of a Native American reservation that it believes could become a national model.

The 200 kilowatt community solar garden will be built by the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance for low income residents living in the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. It would serve from 100 to 150 families.

The nonprofit plans to build the solar garden using money from a $500,000 state grant and then donate it to the tribe.

Jason Edens, RREAL’s director, said the solar garden owner will likely be the tribe, which would distribute energy through its Leech Lake Energy Assistance Program.

The Leech Lake office is funded by the federal government’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which is operated by the United States Department of Human Services.

“It’s the first low-income, Energy Assistance-integrated community solar project in the nation,” he said. “This is a more fiscally responsible model of energy assistance because it has a return on investment for the taxpayer. It’s a much more appropriate way to deliver energy assistance.”

The project was announced months ago and Edens had previously planned for installation to have begun by now. However, a partnership with a local utility still has to be worked out, he said, and that has been a challenge.

Edens spoke to Midwest Energy News about the project and its implications for providing electricity to low income residents in Minnesota and elsewhere.

Midwest Energy News: You think solar is a game changer. Why?

Edens: We think solar is a much more fiscally responsible method of delivering energy assistance rather than (the current practice) of paying a low income household’s energy costs.

What is wrong with the current LIHEAP practice of paying utility bills?

LIHEAP spends about $5 billion a year on a wound that needs a tourniquet. We’re not empowering the families, we’re not providing a long-term solution. It begs the question of whether energy assistance is providing or postponing a solution.

How would solar, and community gardens, be a better solution?

Solar represents a more fiscally conservative model of low income energy assistance because the way it’s practiced now means we’re hemorrhaging taxpayer dollars. This is a more fiscally and environmentally appropriate model to deliver the same service. How do we know energy assistance is going to be solvent in five years, or 10 years? We don’t.

Is now the time for change?

Low income assistance started in 1965. We think the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is at a perfect inflection point to start to integrate clean energy.

So how does your approach work?

The tribal energy assistance office would be given the community garden. It’s really a departure from the Xcel Energy model. No one is actually buying the subscription. RREAL is paying for the asset itself and donating it the Leach Lake community and the subscriptions are baked in.

How has the local utility responded?

That’s a great question because five utilities transverse the reservation, and three have been excited and receptive. But there is a question of ownership of the solar garden. This is uncharted territory, and there are some challenging conversations over ownership.

Can community solar work in conjunction with energy efficiency efforts?

We’re on a parallel path with the Department of Energy’s weatherization program. Those two programs (LIHEAP and weatherization) converge at the community action agency level. If a family is eligible for energy assistance they’re automatically eligible for weatherization. It doesn’t mean they receive the service, it just means they’re eligible. We can serve them together but at least we’re addressing the energy burden on two sides, on the generation side and the conservation side.

What are the barriers of doing more of these projects?

Utility buy-in is one. Another is, outside of tribal communities, the community action agency network is not particularly nimble, and somewhat calcified. The War on Poverty has a 50-year history and there are not a whole lot of entrepreneurs in that community. That program has been practiced the same way for decades and departing from it has created some heartache and heartburn.

What other projects have you been doing?

We’re working with nonprofits on tax equity finance projects on their behalf. But our core mission is the kind of project we’re doing with Leech Lake. Our end game is really to see the formal integration of solar into energy assistance, and I would bet my life savings it is going to happen.

How so?

We’ve been told (by federal government officials) that states can add a carve-out for solar within the energy assistance program. If we do this nationally other states will pick this idea (community solar) up.

What could be the impact be?

If we can prove this project is effective in a “heating” state like Minnesota it will instantly become the model in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico and in the “cooling” states. There’s two sets of states in energy assistance, heating and cooling. The cooling states could easily do community solar tomorrow for their low income communities for cooling loads. That’s a perfect match, it couldn’t be better.

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