IPS Solar empowers Minnesota tribe to take control of their energy and save their lake

Members of Red Lake Nation are installing solar in their communities.

The Red Lake Nation, a tribe whose reservation is more than four hours north of Minnesota’s Twin Cities, is named for its central body of water — one of the largest lakes in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” The tribe operates the oldest and largest commercial walleye fishery dating back to 1917 in the Red Lake. When the tribe noticed that the mercury levels of their walleye were increasing in large part due to emissions from the surrounding power plants, they decided it was time to take action to protect their livelihoods.

“The problems we see with climate change are an exact result of the fossil fuels we burn, and if that goes back and connects to the energy we produce, then we know where to start,” said Red Lake tribesman Bob Blake.

The tribe contacted the Twin Cities installer Impact Power Solutions (No. 80 on the list of the best solar contractors of 2021) to create a feasibility study for adding as much solar power as possible to 12 tribal buildings — each casino and government building, adjacent to the Red Lake Nation College campus in Northern Minnesota. IPS Solar founder and current chief JEDI (Justice, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) officer Ralph Jacobson led the effort.

“I was brought in to do a location assessment and just say, ‘Okay, how many would fit on the roof?’” Jacobson said. “Then, looking at the bills and past energy use, how much of the load could that carry?”

The tribe had a financier, but then lost him.

“He had a great-sounding plan that would bring in a lot of company money and it never materialized,” Jacobson said. “The companies pulled back and it was like we were all dressed up and had nowhere to go.”

But he wouldn’t give up the tribe’s wallet. While IPS Solar had no official role after the initial design and site review process, Jacobson said his job as a JEDI officer is to create market opportunities for the company in BIPOC communities. He saw this as a great way to both build a relationship with the tribe and try something new.

Jacobson learned about crowdfunding techniques at a Transition USA gathering, a group of people dedicated to locating every aspect of life, from the electrical grid to farming. He was confident that his connections in the Twin Cities Quaker church community could help get the first project off the wallet.

“So I went to the [tribal] chairman and said, ‘What if we try crowdsource funding?’” he said. “And his joke was, ‘While the people are waiting for the whale to beach, we might as well go catch some fish.'”

Jacobson created a PPA with the tribe, then raised $115,000 in “micro-loans” from his community that he will personally pay off with help from tax breaks, and contributed $15,000 of his own taxpayer money for a total of $130,000. He then helped the tribe assemble its own installation team to build the first 67 kW array on the tribe’s government building, led by Blake. Blake recruited tribesmen to learn how to install solar energy and as a result of this project founded his installation company Solar Bear.

“It empowers people who have never been in power,” Blake said. “I see a lot of pride. They are so excited. I remember the first job we did when one of the guys told me, “Boy, this feels really good that we did this for our community, but it also feels really good that we did this for the planet.” ”

After the first array was completed, Jacobson helped fund and facilitate the installation of the second 240 kW array at the trunk’s development center. COVID halted progress in 2020, but installers were able to return to work in spring 2021.

As sole financier, Jacobson will own both projects for at least six years and then sell them to the tribe. He believes these first successful projects — plus the fame Blake has garnered by speaking about tribal solar installations to a national audience through groups like the Sierra Club — will give the momentum the tribe needs to get the funding to launch the project. complete portfolio.

“The vision to start doing solar and educating people up there is that if there’s a move away from fossil fuels and their reliance on fossil fuels, they’re going to have to step up and develop the trained people — crews, designers — so they can apply it to their buildings and not have to hire outsiders to do it for them,” Jacobson said.

He not only wants to enable the tribe to do the installations themselves, but also find the financing.

“I use my experience in the industry and create that financial organizing role. What I really want to do is hand that over to someone in the tribe,” he said.

Jacobson believes that the relationship and experience helping the tribe sunbathe is invaluable and will pay off in the future. IPS Solar is already working with Blake on some future initiatives.

“I have built a relationship of trust with the tribe that will bear fruit in the future,” he said.

Jacobson’s financial aid set the Red Lake Nation on track to reach its ultimate goal – supplying at least half of the tribal energy needs with solar energy. The tribe is even working to form its own tribal utility.

“What the tribe wanted to do was create some entrepreneurial opportunities with this, along with some employment,” Blake said. “I always tell indigenous people that gaming is a multi-billion dollar industry, [but] energy is a multi-billion dollar industry. I’m telling people now, ‘We’re in the wrong industry. We need the energy game.’”


This story was featured exclusively in our Top Solar Contractors 2021 issue. Check out the issue and full list of the best solar installers in the US here.

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