Early investments in workforce development in Minnesota's tribal communities are paying off in employment — and acceleration of solar energy.

"There's plenty of opportunity for tribal nations to save the planet," said Robert Blake, a member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa. "Its incumbent upon us. We have [Indigenous] communities taking charge of their own energy."

Duluth-based Minnesota Power has struck partnerships with the Red Lake and White Earth nations of northern Minnesota.

Blake, 47, a veteran financial services professional, is the founder of for-profit Solar Bear and nonprofit developer Native Sun. The Red Lake tribe, with Blake's organizations, started an apprenticeship program a couple of years ago with Minnesota Power, as part of an agreement to let a power line cross its reservation.

Minnesota Power, hungry for more clean energy and trained workers, is working to develop projects and train tribal members as solar installers, electricians and more.

Red Lake has built solar arrays atop key buildings and is looking to expand as it gains expertise and capacity. A key ally of Blake is Ralph Jacobson, 70, a 33-year pioneer of Minnesota solar. He retired from IPS Solar, which he founded in 1991, after its 2020 acquisition by Smart Pitch, a private-equity firm focused on renewable energy. He remained a minority shareholder until publicly held Allete, the Duluth-based holding company that owns Minnesota Power, bought Smart Pitch this year.

Jacobson, a materials scientist from St. Paul, has dedicated himself to spreading solar to tribal reservations. He also raised $400,000 in private, low-cost capital for the inaugural Red Lake solar demonstration projects. He's also assisting north Minneapolis-based Renewable Energy Partners, which has raised several million dollars to turn a once-vacant, 22,000-square-foot building into a renewable energy-producing education and training center.

Jacobson's mission is to spread the environmental and economic benefits of solar to low-income communities.

At Red Lake, tribal Chairman Darrell Seki grasped the solar future as envisioned by Blake and Jacobson and the importance of tribal energy generation and workforce development to combat poverty and unemployment.

The recently passed federal Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) has expanded the 30% solar investment tax credit to more than 50% in some cases to stimulate training and development that benefits reservations and other low-income neighborhoods. And it locked in previously year-to-year tax incentives for a decade.

Overall, Minnesota renewable energy employment slowed to 5% in 2021 from pre-pandemic levels and amid supply-chain disruptions and a historically tight labor market.

But the federal tax credits and investment could accelerate plans announced by Minnesota solar industry and utilities to increase from 2% to 10% the amount of electricity produced by solar, including battery storage, by 2030.

The federal incentives are designed to accelerate the transition to nonpolluting energy that slows climate change and the environmental and economic disasters of weather volatility. And stimulate local economies that will produce energy for the electrical grid and jobs.

The accounting, law firms and investors are starting to engage.

"Banks wouldn't lend to us earlier," Blake said. "We still don't have a lot of capital. But we're talking now to Wall Street. Tribal solar is among the most lucrative [sectors] in the country."

Blake said Red Lake's planned projects will generate 200 to 400 megawatts; enough to export power to the electric grid and generate serious revenue. His organizations will need 50 to 100 people to build it out and 30 tribal employees to run the installations.

"We've trained about 20 citizens of Red Lake," said Blake, who met Jacobson in 2017 and considers him his solar mentor. "They all got good jobs. We still don't have a lot of capital. With IRA, just the projects we plan on building on Red Lake will take three or four years."

Jacobson said Red Lake plans to add about 100 megawatts every two years.

"The tribe is forming the important business relationships," Jacobson said.

Meanwhile, the White Earth Band of Chippewa, also in northern Minnesota, has trained a couple of dozen workers so far. And it plans to train up to 200 workers over three years through a partnership with White Earth Tribal and Community College for entry-level renewable-energy jobs with Minnesota Power and elsewhere, said Bridget Guiza, customized-education coordinator at the college.

Reservation renewable energy got a boost in March, when the Biden administration announced more than $9 million in grants to tribal communities for solar-and-wind projects.

Tribal nations control more than 50 million acres of land of which an estimated 6.5% is well-suited for development of renewable energy, according to a 2018 report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

"I hope all tribes develop their own energy plans,'' said Tanksi Clairmont, a citizen of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and director of the Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund, told online publication GreenBiz this year. "The energy-generation potential on tribal lands is huge."

Clean energy jobs in Minnesota

E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs) and nonprofits Evergreen Climate Innovations and Clean Energy Economy MN (CEEM) recently came out with their annual report on renewable energy employment in Minnesota. Here are some of the findings.

  • Overall jobs in 2021 increased 5% year over year to 57,931, but are still fewer than the 61,000 jobs before the pandemic hit the state.
  • Clean energy occupations accounted for 28% of construction jobs and 2% of manufacturing jobs in Minnesota.
  • Businesses that employ fewer than 20 people account for 69% of the state's clean energy businesses.
  • The advanced transportation sector, which includes businesses related to electric vehicles, saw 23% growth in jobs to 3,994 workers.
  • Solar energy jobs grew by 9.7% to 4,873 workers.
  • Businesses working on "energy efficiency" — whether they are manufacturers and installers of equipment or devices in existing buildings or new construction — represented the biggest part of the renewable energy workforce, with 42,218 workers.