Rural Renewable Energy Alliance

Report date
April 2018

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

RREAL and its partners have worked with a panoply of partners to design, deploy and deliver the first low-income community solar array integrated into the low-income home energy assistance program (LIHEAP) in the nation. Delivering the low-income community solar array in Minnesota to the Leech Lake Nation would not have been possible were it not for the collaboration with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and numerous other stakeholders. Our solar solution to low-income energy poverty is an innovative but disruptive program, and the success we are achieving is a direct result of intensive but productive community dialogue. The first system is now owned and operated by the energy assistance program and it is augmenting the tribal energy assistance program's ability to meet the significant community need. Nearly half of all the residents of the Leech Lake community struggle with energy poverty. The newly built solar array will mitigate the endemic energy poverty in a community with a very high cost of energy. More importantly, it is a model of a collaborative effort to create an innovative paradigm shifting solution.
In addition to the delivery of the low-income community solar project, we were able to provide meaningful workforce development in a community with fewer employment opportunities. Although the clean energy industry is booming throughout the nation, many of these well paying jobs in the solar industry are least accessible to rural, tribal communities. Working with the Leech Lake Tribal College to integrate a workforce development component into the project was instrumental to making progress. We are delighted to report that three graduates of the Leech Lake Tribal College were an integral part of the design-build team for the low-income community solar asset. One of those graduates is now a permanent member of RREAL's team. Our efforts with the Leech Lake Tribal College have facilitated that we are working towards a more inclusive solar workforce. Minnesota has the strictest laws in the nation regarding who can and can't install solar, and our collaboration provided the entry level certification to work in the field. Three band members have now acquired an on ramp to a career in the clean energy sector while building a solar asset that'll benefit their own community.
The community and community dialogue was instrumental to our success. Given the fact that the project represents a milestone in low-income solar programming at the national scale, the project was complex and required the engagement and buy-in of numerous stakeholders. Convening the various stakeholders over the past year was a heavy lift, but without everyone's contributions, we would not have arrived at the innovative and impactful community asset. Utilities, Tribal Government representatives, low-income energy assistance recipients, community leaders and numerous educational institutions were a part of the dialogue that has resulted in our significant progress so far.

Key lessons learned

Since we've commenced the project, we've learned key lessons about persistence and optimism. Despite the fact that RREAL and its partners were optimistic about the practical and empowering solution that we have proposed, we learned that optimism alone is far from sufficient to succeed. The vast majority of solar projects require significant utility engagement, and we learned a hard lesson that utility investments in legacy fossil fuel generation assets creates a culture of obstructionism to the adoption of solar energy. Despite enormous value to tribal, low-income utility customers, the utilities we approached had little to no interest in partnering. Because the project was not being embraced by the numerous utilities that serve the Leech Lake Nation, we were able to create a unique workaround that meets our service, environmental and workforce objectives. This workaround is now becoming a model for how low-income community solar can be integrated into utility ecosystems that are unfriendly or resistant to clean energy.

Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving

Unequivocally, all three elements of community innovation process were important in making progress. Our collaborative included myriad voices across multiple sectors including but not limited to the Leech Lake community, Leech Lake Nation leadership, various Leech Lake departments, low-income Leech Lake households, utility representatives, community organizers and several post-secondary educational institutions. Our progress has been collaborative in that all project stakeholders have been involved in all levels of decision making. Finally, our project has been resourceful in that we've built upon existing programs and investments in low-income communities. Rather than simply reinventing a program, we are innovating within the Leech Lake and national energy assistance program with the program leadership at Leech Lake.

Understanding the problem

Our work has revealed that in fact low-income community solar projects can have a significant and indelible impact on the well-being of a low-income household. The system that we have already installed on behalf of Leech Lake will be generating $25,000 dollars on an annual basis for the Leech Lake Energy Assistance Program and its low-income clients. This additional revenue will augment the ability of the tribal energy assistance program to serve its clients. We've also learned that the energy assistance program, supported by the State of Minnesota, is inadequate to meet the needs of the families. However, the newly commissioned solar assets now owned by the Leech Lake Energy Assistance program will help make up the difference and mitigate energy poverty. Finally, we have realized that our efforts with our critical partners has generated enormous interest and additional projects are being developed with other tribal energy assistance providers in northern Minnesota as a part of this effort.

If you could do it all over again...

If we had the opportunity to travel back in time and provide guidance or advice to our team prior to starting the project, I would have advised myself and our collaborative team to not be naïve about utilities' willingness to participate in an innovation on behalf of their low-income energy assistance "rate-payers". Although utilities claim to have an interest in serving their low-income customers and an interest in adopting innovation and clean energy, their actions belie that statement. Our team was not prepared for such stiff resistance from the moneyed interest within the utility community. The resistance to serving low-income tribal customers raise some very difficult questions about their motivations and resistance. We didn't enter the project with our eyes wide open about that reality.

One last thought

Our project has catalyzed a national conversation about the use of solar within the federal energy assistance program. Stakeholders from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon have reached out to learn more about our experience and how entities in other states and regions can customize and replicate the model on behalf of low-income communities and households. We have developed a compelling case study about the projects and its costs and benefits. We'd like to share this case study with you and upload it for your consideration. Furthermore, the project has created a very exciting conversation about a finance instrument that can de-risk the innovation for other parties interested in developing similar programs. Pay for Success is an emerging financing instrument that is specifically for disruptive but innovative social service solutions that represent a better and more fiscally responsible approach to existing public programs. In our case, we are forging a new model of low-income energy assistance that is well suited for Pay for Success financing, and we elevating the finance model in the context of our Community Solar for Community Action program model to spur additional projects.