Energy & Climate Winners: Community Solar for Community Action

  • March 29, 2018
  • |
  • Rachel Dupree

You may have heard that we’ve officially kicked off Environmental Initiative Awards season by announcing the 2018 winners. If you missed it, our ceremony will be on May 23 where we’ll honor the amazing state-wide work that’s benefitting our environment, economies, and communities. Make sure you get your tickets to the party!

In the meantime, we want to give you a sneak peek as we get to know our eight outstanding award winners. First up: The Energy & Climate category winners. Managed by the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL), the Community Solar for Community Action (CS4CA) project is a nationally relevant and scalable model for energy assistance.

CS4CA is a community-based solar project that aims to develop place-based, low-income community solar assets, which are also owned by the community. The goal of providing assets is to alleviate reliance on federal assistance programs by integrating renewable energy into energy assistance programs to more fully meet the needs of low-income community members.

Overcoming Obstacles, Addressing Critical Needs

More than 40 percent of households in the Leech Lake nation are living in poverty. Every winter, eligible households on the Leech Lake Reservation are denied Federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) benefits because the federal funds available are insufficient to serve economically distressed communities. With sufficient access to clean energy, low-income communities can stabilize energy costs, reduce household energy burdens, and benefit significantly.

One answer to this problem is community solar. However, Minnesota State law only provides legislation for community-owned community solar arrays in Xcel Energy service territories. Additional electric utilities have adopted voluntary community solar programs, but are required to own the solar garden.

One of the utilities that serves the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe was in the midst of planning a for a solar garden, and the project was languishing with less than 50 percent of their subscription target. Additionally, ownership of the array remained with the utility, which was unacceptable to the Tribe, the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, and other stakeholders.

With creative problem-solving, partners developed a revised plan of installing five, 40kW AC or less systems in multiple sites— a scattered community solar array. With heavy coordination between site owners, this plan resulted in the same amount of pollution reduction and capacity to supply the same amount of renewable energy to low-income residents. The systems are located in Cass, Beltrami, Hubbard, and Itasca counties. In the spirit of the original system design, grid integration, and while holding fairness and equality, benefits from all of these systems flow to low-income Leech Lake Band members.

Powerful Outcomes through Partnership

This project utilizes partnerships between the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, RREAL, multiple utility companies, local governments, Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, and foundations such as McKnight and Headwaters.

With all this coordination, RREAL designed and installed five solar arrays equaling 217.6 kWDC that are anticipated to generate an estimated 255,340 kWh of AC energy per year, with an economic value equaling $25,533 during its first full year of energy production. More importantly, the energy production over the life to the combined systems will…

  • Generate an estimated 6,426,316 kWh of clean renewable energy
  • Avoid more than $900,000 in electricity costs
  • Offset 5,588 MTCO2e of greenhouse gas emissions over a thirty-year time horizon
  • Provide clean reliable support for up to 100 additional low-income households annually, for 30 years, for the Leech Lake Energy Assistance Program (LLEAP)

What’s Next?

RREAL is planning similar projects in other states and forging a Pay for Success financing model to engage private/public investments for national integration into country-wide energy assistance programs as a means to provide clean energy to low-income communities in the United States. RREAL, the Leech Lake Band, and numerous other partners should be commended for their tenacity, economic and environmental innovations, and impactful achievements in making a difference in the lives of low-income communities. Learn more about Community Solar for Community Action (CS4CA) here »