Five groupings of solar panels are now catching sunlight around the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, producing electricity that will ultimately help tribal families in need.

The shared community solar garden is the first of its kind dedicated to help low-income people in Minnesota, and the first in the nation formally integrated with an energy assistance program.

"There's a disproportional impact on our low-income neighbors when the cost of energy goes up," said Jason Edens, director of the nonprofit Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, which led the project. "If we can stabilize the cost of energy on behalf of our low-income communities, we can address one of the root cases of energy poverty."

Through a partnership with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, the Backus, Minn.-based Alliance developed, designed and built the $887,000 project with the help of a $490,000 state grant as well as donations from various foundations.

The 200-kilowatt capacity system is expected to produce about 235 megawatt hours per year. Part of that electricity will feed directly into tribal buildings, energy that the tribe will pay for; the rest will be sold to local utilities, Edens explained.

The reservation expects an estimated $23,500 in revenue from the project each year. The tribe's energy assistance program will use that revenue to supplement federal funding that it distributes to help with heating bills for low-income households.

Officials hope the solar energy project will help up to 100 families each year, as well as show that environmentally friendly energy can be incorporated into assistance.

Eye-opening project

"It is opening the eyes of the community, the government and everyone around that this is doable here," said Brandy Toft, environmental deputy director of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

Leaders of low-income households don't usually have a way to support solar energy if they want to, Edens said.

"That really begs the question," he said, "Is solar something that's only going to be a choice that affluent communities can make?"

Groups contributing money to make the solar project possible at Leech Lake include the McKnight Foundation, the Bush Foundation, the Carolyn Foundation, the Initiative Foundation and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and the Headwaters Foundation for Justice.

The alliance, which includes a mission of fighting poverty with solar power, hired graduates of Leech Lake Tribal College.

Toft said area residents are encouraged by the production of clean energy around them.

"I know a lot of low-income folks who are environmentally friendly and want to do the right thing," Toft said.

The solar energy project fits in with a larger environmental effort at Leech Lake, including efforts to make the government and gaming Styrofoam-free, making government buildings more energy efficient and adding solar furnaces to buildings and houses.

"This is proving already to be successful in that we can move forward and continue our strive for sustainability for the Leech Lake reservation," Toft said.

Edens said he and others hope the solar project will become a new model for energy assistance across the country.

"Energy assistance is a stopgap, and a stopgap is not a solution," he said. "By integrating solar into energy assistance, we can create both a fiscally responsible and environmentally appropriate solution to energy poverty."

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