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Local nonprofit builds solar arrays, empowers communities

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

Jason Edens knows from experience what it’s like to struggle to pay energy bills. While studying for a masters degree in environmental studies at Bemidji State University, he couldn’t afford to heat his home.

He reached out to the local energy assistance program with a hopeful idea. If they could provide him with a low interest loan for a solar energy system, he could become self sufficient. But in 1999, such a program didn’t exist.

In what Edens refers to as “serendipity,” he came across a free solar energy system the next day that someone was discarding. He installed it on his house and was able to save so much money that he no longer required energy assistance.

The following year, he founded Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) as a volunteer-based nonprofit on the premise that “choosing clean energy shouldn’t be a luxury for the upper echelon of society.”

RREAL is based in Backus but its impact extends far beyond the small Central Minnesota town. Since its inception, RREAL’s aim has been to tackle energy poverty head-on. Its mission is to make solar energy accessible to communities of all income levels.

Edens points out that the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) costs taxpayers $5 billion a year. “It’s a very important program. But that’s a huge price tag,” he says, noting that in many communities, the assistance doesn’t even reach all of the people who need it, because funding runs out.

At the time RREAL started, Edens says nobody was talking about solar for low income communities. The innovative nonprofit pioneered a new national model for energy assistance. It works with community action agencies, schools and other nonprofits to mitigate poverty and empower people through its programs.

“You can pay someone’s energy bill but you’re not changing the root cause of the problem,” explains Edens.

Since that first installation at Eden’s house, RREAL has gone on to install more than 1,000 systems in low income communities in 11 states and has earned recognition as a leader in the field.

A service model distinguishes RREAL from its peers in the solar design/build industry. The primary impetus isn’t to make money. Rather, RREAL’s market rate projects for moderate or upper income level homeowners and for local governments help generate funds so it can continue to work with low income communities.

“We’re focused on impact, and we’re service driven,” explains Edens.

RREAL works with community action agencies through a program called Community Solar for Community Action. The partners work to implement more sustainable solutions to energy assistance by installing solar energy systems for low-income families and communities.

These collaborative efforts include a solar array built in partnership with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. It was the first such project on tribal lands in Minnesota and it’s already generating revenue for the tribe. RREAL is also working on an array with a partner in Little Falls that will benefit disabled veterans.

RREAL also has initiated a number of community solar projects, where people who can’t install their own panels can still benefit from local solar energy generation. With this model, people collaborate to buy into support arrays in their area. Subscribers are then credited for their share of energy generated on utility bills.

Beyond the upper Midwest, RREAL is having a global impact. Through it’s “Skip the Grid” program, it’s bringing solar microgrids to Sub-Saharan Africa where many clinics rely on generators for electricity. Solar energy brings critical infrastructure to these clinics. It will vastly improve the delivery of important healthcare services and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

Solar for Schools

Education and outreach are integral to RREAL’s operations. It offers workforce development opportunities in most of the communities it serves. Community members of all ages are invited to participate in projects where they learn how to design, build and install solar energy systems.

Edens started his professional career as a high school teacher and he has an affinity for teaching at-risk youth, often through alternative methods. He found an effective way to integrate experiential learning into the nonprofit with the Solar for Schools initiative.

The program is a collaboration between RREAL and area schools, which was made possible through the support of the Region Five Development Commission (R5DC). Its goal is to reduce energy costs for schools while providing important learning opportunities for students.

Through Solar for Schools, RREAL developed six solar arrays for the Pine River-Backus and Pequot Lakes school districts as well as Central Lakes College campuses in Brainerd and Staples. Students will be enlisted in developing curriculum to support education about solar energy.

The school Edens used to teach at is one of the program’s beneficiaries. He’s excited to see his vision come full circle in this way with this ambitious project.

“One of our mantras is that today’s youth are making tomorrow’s energy choices,” he says.

“That’s why we want to work with youth in general to ensure they’re fully aware of the cost and benefits of solar energy.”

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