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Can solar power lead the Red Lake Nation toward energy independence?

In September, the Red Lake Band of Chippewa started working on the second phase of a 12-step solar project, a 240-kilowatt array atop the reservation’s workforce center in Red Lake. 

The Red Lake Nation Government Center stands on the shores of Lower Red Lake in the town of Red Lake.
The Red Lake Nation Government Center stands on the shores of Lower Red Lake in the town of Red Lake.
Courtesy of Clean Energy Economy Minnesota

Two years ago, when Robert Blake put 10 people to work fastening solar panels to the roof of the Red Lake Nation Government Center, the solar entrepreneur hoped it would be the start of a lasting development. 

The panel installations completed the first phase of a planned 12-step solar project with big goals: Leading the Red Lake Band of Chippewa toward an energy independent future while protecting the environment. 

Project organizers also think the initiative could pave the way for some green-energy jobs.  Seven Clans Casino certainly generates significant income, but at a cost, according to Blake, who is an enrolled member of the tribe. “Gaming just brings a negative energy,” he said. “Solar is bringing a different kind of energy to Red Lake – more than anything gaming could ever do.”  

In September, the tribe started working on the second phase – a 240-kilowatt array atop the reservation’s workforce center in Red Lake. “With solar, Red Lake is kind of like this giant petri dish,” Blake said. “Let’s see if we can make a distributed renewable energy system right here, turn it into a utility and see if we can power the community.”

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Solar energy has its limits, organizers acknowledge, especially during Minnesota winters, when the days are short.  But organizers see it as the beginning of an independent energy grid that could incorporate other green technologies. “Tribal Chairman (Darrell) Seki is the kind of chairman who thinks seven generations ahead,” Blake said.  “That’s what the community needs to do.  It’s what we used to do.”

Energy independence        

About 5,900 people live on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, which covers 1,200 square miles in far northern Minnesota, including the majestic Lower Red Lake, a major walleye fishery, and part of Upper Red Lake.

Robert Blake
Courtesy of Clean Energy Economy Minnesota
Robert Blake, whose company is installing panels for Red Lake Nation’s solar project, is the founder of Native Sun, a nonprofit organization that promotes green energy.
Tribal leaders announced plans for the solar initiative about five years ago. Projects on deck after the government center include the tribe’s three casino branches – one in Red Lake and two off the reservation near Thief River Falls and Warroad; the Red Lake Nation College, a two-year college that serves about 150 Native American students; and schools in Ponemah.

Several factors led to the project. One was concern about the long-term environmental health of Red Lake, a source of income and cultural pride for the tribe. Another was the desire for a power source that would free the tribe from what Blake called the “colonial capitalism” of electricity supplier Beltrami Electric Cooperative, including frequent power outages related to unpaid fees. (The co-op’s director of member and energy services, Sam Mason, told MinnPost that the utility does its best to help people tap into energy assistance programs if they can’t pay their bills).

Securing financing for the initial project, however, proved to be difficult.

Ralph Jacobson, an early solar proponent and the founder of Impact Power Solutions, a panel installation company based in Roseville, said several banks declined to get involved.  As he pondered how to help, he thought, “as a white guy, I didn’t want to be involved in some kind of financial scheme that fell through. Native Americans have had the rug pulled out from under them enough times.”

Jacobson recalled a conference he had attended at Macalester College that introduced him to “crowdfunding,” the strategy of raising money by garnering small contributions from a large pool of people. Seki, the tribal chairman, liked the idea, so Jacobson reached out to family members and friends in his church community. He characterized the venture as “an easy sell” and raised $115,000. He kicked in $15,000 of his own money.

Federal tax credits for such investments will help Jacobson pay off the lenders, probably in about five years, he said. Jacobson also turned to crowdfunding for the project that is currently underway.

Creating momentum        

The 67-kilowatt government center array in Red Lake is generating about 25 percent of the building’s electricity, organizers said, while the workforce center panels are expected to provide about half of that complex’s electricity. Two batteries for storing solar energy, ordered from China, are scheduled to be installed in the buildings in April.

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Jacobson, who has been involved in solar projects for 30 years, remembers when most projects involved “wealthy people with ideals” who wanted to put panels on their roofs. Solar power has become much more popular in recent years, however, both among utilities and individual investors

That has created some optimism about the trajectory of the Red Lake project. He noted the involvement of other tribes in green energy projects, such as a solar utility run by the Navajo Nation in Arizona and projected wind farms on Sioux land in South Dakota.

Solar pioneer Ralph Jacobson used crowdfunding to raise money for the first two phases of Red Lake Nation’s solar project.
Courtesy of Clean Energy Economy Minnesota
Solar pioneer Ralph Jacobson used crowdfunding to raise money for the first two phases of Red Lake Nation’s solar project.
“What I have learned over the years is that it’s important to create some momentum by getting something done,” he said, speaking of the completion of the first phase of the project. “Getting something built can really raise that public awareness.”

Mason, of Beltrami Electric, said the utility has worked with about 50 solar projects in its service territory, such as panels on homes and schools.  He has consulted with workers on the Red Lake projects.  Losing the Red Lake Nation would be a significant loss for the cooperative, but he wonders whether solar energy can really power the entire reservation.  More likely, he said, the utility will continue to provide some level of energy, even as the tribe taps into other green technologies.          

‘What I have to do’

“Equity,” “power,” “independence.” Blake uses these words to reflect the cultural moment in his discussion of the project. Besides his installation company, he also runs Native Sun Community Power Development, a non-profit that promotes what it calls “a just energy transition” from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. 

Blake grew up in Minneapolis but, as an enrolled member of the Red Lake Nation, spent his senior year of high school in Red Lake, developing a fondness for the tribe, its land and the big lake.  As the project grows, he envisions tribal members training in solar technology at Red Lake Nation College and then staying on the reservation to live and raise their families, rather than moving elsewhere to find work.  (More than one-third of the households on the reservation have incomes that are below the poverty rate, according to the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis).  He credits Seki for jumpstarting the project, which had been bandied about for a few years. 

It will be a long project – if it is indeed ever finished – but Blake is undeterred.

“I just feel like this is what I have to do,” he said. “This project is so important not only to Red Lake but to tribal country and, I want to say, really to all of us as a whole.  It not only will help native people and Red Lake, but it could be an example for the rest of us to look to for what is possible.”

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Jacobson, too, thinks the lessons of the effort can be applied elsewhere.

“We really looked at this as not just a chance to get some renewable energy into the community, but to what is even larger – that people get their hands on (the technology) and familiarize themselves with it,” he said. “There is a lot of opportunity here, but you have to understand (solar power) and how to be involved.”

He added: “It’s fortuitous that the second project is at the workforce development center.”