In 2017, an exciting “first” happened on the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Reservation in northern Minnesota: the integration of community solar with an energy assistance program. In partnership with the Leech Lake community, the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance’s “Community Solar for Community Action” (C4CA) program demonstrated a model for improving the lives of underserved communities, increasing the number of households served by energy assistance, educating a solar workforce, and implementing equitable renewable energy solutions to benefit the climate. And the C4CA model is beginning to take off.
With grant assistance from the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, philanthropic organizations, and a tribal and social justice foundation, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe worked with RREAL to install five community solar gardens at various locations in the community. Under RREAL’s CS4CA model, the local LIHEAP provider, the Leech Lake Energy Assistance Program, will use the revenue generated by the solar arrays to supplement federal funding that it distributes to local families to help with energy bills. As a result, participating customers receive support in paying their utility bills, which increases their economic resilience and frees up money to pay for other needs like food. Approximately 83 families will receive this benefit each year.
“This is an opportunity to provide a social service while also making sure the energy economy is inclusive,” comments Jason Edens, the founder of RREAL. “Going forward, integrating solar into energy assistance will be a more fiscally responsible way to use energy assistance funding, because it has a return on investment for the taxpayer.”
Integrating solar into the Leech Lake Energy Assistance Program is spurring further efforts by the Band to explore increased clean energy use on the reservation. Based on the success of the project with the Band, RREAL is expanding its work to fully integrate solar into energy assistance programming through the CS4CA model for more communities.
In 2019, RREAL completed a 110 kilowatt (kW) community solar garden with Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA) to serve approximately 50 low-income residents in the Green Mountain State. The SEVCA CS4CA program utilizes virtual net metering to reduce participating households’ bills. Additionally, RREAL is forging a new CS4CA partnership with the Tri-County Community Action Partnership in Minnesota to provide solar assistance to veterans who are eligible for LIHEAP. RREAL is also developing a CS4CA project with the White Earth Nation in Minnesota and expects the 200 kW community solar garden to be operational in late 2019. The project will provide solar energy assistance benefits to up to 100 White Earth families, while providing education and training for up to 60 students and 10 interns.
More CS4CA partnerships are in development as the success of the model is making headlines. Check out www.rreal.org/cs4ca for more information.