WASHINGTON – The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe has been interested in installing solar panels on the reservation — which has soaring northern sun even in the winter — to help defray the costs of energy for low-income households.
In January, the tribal council's community development arm decided it would be helpful if those who lived on the reservation could also assemble the panels, which would provide a few jobs for the area.
A proposal by U.S. Sen. Al Franken that just got a bipartisan green light on Capitol Hill may actually make that a reality.
Franken pushed Republicans and Democrats to adopt a measure last week to fund a long-existing program that would enable millions of dollars in new infrastructure investments to help Indian Country get loans for electricity generation projects.
Franken's measure utilizes $9 million of previously allocated money. It will specifically go to help tribes access capital to develop energy projects — a program that's been around since 2005 but has never had any funding.
"I have been shocked by what I hear almost every week from tribal leaders about the challenges in Indian Country. Tribes struggle with crumbling schools, dilapidated roads, inadequate housing and lack of basic infrastructure," Franken said on the Senate floor last week. "Many of the crises we hear about come from lack of opportunity — lack of hope."
The measure sailed through the Senate, 76-19, with many Republicans supporting it. Whether it goes to President Obama's desk depends on the House of Representatives, but Senate leaders are hopeful it will eventually get tucked in the government spending bill that Congress will likely pass in September.
Rob Aitken is the director of Leech Lake Financial Services, which works directly with the tribal council's economic development division for community development. They've been talking about solar energy on the reservation for more than a year.
Aitken says right away, up to 10 people could be employed as solar installers on the reservations, earning $20 to $30 an hour. But Leech Lake was hoping to take it further and create a start-up solar assembly operation that could swell that to 20 to 30 jobs.
"If there is a real demand for solar, we want it to be on the reservations, we want to make sure we have the ability to make our own solar panels," he said.
Aitken previously was looking at higher-interest private loans to launch the start-up costs — a higher burden in Indian Country because some banks don't want to deal with issues of sovereignty.
"Nation-building has the fundamental concept that private sector employment is the key to economic success," Aitken said. "And this potential loan source through the Department of Energy goes right to the heart of nation-building. It provides start-up capital for this private-sector type of employment."
Franken's office estimates the $9 million could be leveraged into $50 million to $85 million in loans for energy projects.