Climate

Minnesota Group Works To Help Low-Income Families Go Solar

CREDIT: Rural Renewable Energy Alliance

A solar garden built by by Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) in Rockford, Minnesota.

The Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, a 15-year-old organization that’s made increasing access to solar power its mission, is taking that goal one step further. The group is creating a system in which families on the federal government’s energy assistance program can get their power from solar, instead of from fossil fuels.

Jason Edens, founder and director of RREAL, told ThinkProgress that the project, dubbed Community Solar for Community Action, would be the first to create a system in which low-income families could gain free access to free solar power. Right now, families who receive energy assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which is federally funded but whose funds are distributed among the 50 states, don’t have a say in where that energy comes from — their utilities simply receive money for the heating and electricity bills they aren’t able to fully pay.

“Utilities are among the single biggest beneficiaries of energy assistance,” Edens said. “Frankly, energy assistance is yet another fossil fuel subsidy.”

But, Edens says, it doesn’t have to be. Under RREAL’s plan, these families would instead be able to get their energy free from a community solar garden. RREAL is planning on building a solar garden that will be owned by a community action organization — the specific one, Edens said, is yet to be decided on. That community action group will allocate shares of the garden’s power to families eligible for federal energy assistance. Then, instead of the federal energy assistance dollars going directly to utilities, those families will see the credits they get from the solar garden show up on their electricity bill.

Edens is still hammering out the details of the project — RREAL is planning on partnering with a yet-to-be finalized Minnesota utility on the project, and Edens is hoping to also gain the support of the federal energy assistance program. He’s not sure yet exactly how many families could benefit from the project — no fewer than 40, he thinks, but it will depend on the size of the community solar garden. On the funding side, RREAL got a grant from the McKnight Foundation in December to help jumpstart the project’s creation.

But though there’s still work to be done, Edens says he’s “convinced” that the Community Solar for Community Action model will eventually move beyond Minnesota to “transform the way that our nation delivers energy assistance.” The model makes sense, he said, not only because it increases the amount of clean energy used in Minnesota, but because it’s beneficial to low-income families in multiple ways.

“Low income communities are among the most profoundly affected by volatile nature of fossil fuels,” Edens said. When a family is struggling to make ends meet, he said, even a small increase in energy costs can greatly impact their ability to budget.

Ryan Burns, a Minnesota business-owner who also works for RREAL, understands that struggle. In 2007 — before he started working for RREAL — he signed up for the organization’s Solar Assistance program, which installs solar heating systems in the homes of families receiving energy assistance. The heaters help shield the families from rising costs of fuel by providing a more efficient heating system. Burns said the Solar Assistance program made it possible for him and his two children to stay in their home after he got divorced and became a single father.

Dan Bye, a Peaquot Lakes, MN resident who’s been on RREAL’s board for about a year and a half, got his solar heating system through the Solar Assistance program about five years ago. He said the heating system has made life easier: before he had it, he and his wife relied mostly on a wood-fired stove and electric heaters to heat their home, so if they left the house for a few hours, the wood would run out and the house would turn cold. Now, the solar heating system keeps the house consistently warm.

Bye also appreciates the system from an environmental standpoint, and he’s certain that other Minnesota families do too.

“We’re not the only low income family concerned about our impact on the environment, and we’re not the only low-income family that wants to see less mercury in our fish from coal plants,” he said.

Bye said he was excited to see the Community Solar for Community Action project take off in Minnesota, and eventually spread around the country.

RREAL isn’t the only local group that wants to make solar more accessible for people and organizations, regardless of their financial standing. In West Virginia, an organization called Solar Holler is helping churches and other nonprofits install solar for just $1. The installations are all community-funded: in the church’s case, local families agreed to contribute the $100 they received for installing controllers on solar water heaters towards the church’s solar panels.