The Red Lake Nation, a tribe whose reservation is more than four hours north of the Twin Cities in Minnesota, is named for its central body of water — one of the largest lakes in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” The tribe operates the country’s oldest and largest commercial walleye fishery dating back to 1917 in the Red Lake. When the tribe noticed their walleyes’ mercury levels were on the rise in large part because of surrounding power plant emissions, they decided it was time to take action to protect their livelihood.
“The problems that we’re seeing with climate change is an exact consequence of the fossil fuels that we are burning, and when that goes back and connects to the energy that we’re producing, then we know where we have to start,” said Red Lake tribal member Bob Blake.
The tribe reached out to Twin Cities installer Impact Power Solutions (No. 80 on the 2021 Top Solar Contractors list) to draw a feasibility study for adding as much solar as possible to 12 tribal buildings — every casino and government building, in addition to the Red Lake Nation College campus in Northern Minnesota. IPS Solar founder and current chief JEDI (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion) officer Ralph Jacobson led the effort.
“I got brought in to do a site assessment and just say, ‘OK, how much could fit on the roof?’” Jacobson said. “Then, looking at the bills and the previous energy usage, how much of the load could that carry?”
The tribe had a financier in place, but then lost him.
“He had a great-sounding scheme that was going to bring a lot of corporate money in and it never materialized,” Jacobson said. “The corporations backed away and it was sort of like we were all dressed up with no place to go.”
But he wasn’t going to give up on the tribe’s portfolio. Although IPS Solar had no official role after the initial design and site assessment process, Jacobson said his job as JEDI officer is to create market opportunities for the company in BIPOC communities. He saw this as a great way to both create a relationship with the tribe and try something new.
Jacobson learned about crowdfunding techniques at a Transition USA meeting, a group of people committed to localizing every aspect of life, from the power grid to agriculture. He felt confident his connections in the Twin Cities Quaker church community could help get the first project of the portfolio done.
“So I went to the [tribal] chairman and said, ‘How about if we try crowdsource funding?’” he said. “And his quip was, ‘Well, while the people are waiting to beach the whale, we might as well go catch a few fish.’”
Jacobson created a PPA with the tribe, then raised $115,000 in “micro-loans” from his community that he will personally pay off with help from tax benefits, and contributed $15,000 of his own tax equity money for a total of $130,000. He then helped the tribe assemble its own installation team to build the first 67-kW array on the tribal government building, led by Blake. Blake recruited tribal members to learn how to install solar and formed his installation company Solar Bear as a result of this project.
“It’s empowering people that have never been in power before,” Blake said. “I’m seeing a lot of pride. They’re so excited. I remember the first job we did when one of the guys told me, ‘Boy, this feels really good that we did this for our community, but this also feels really good that we did this for the planet too.’”
After the first array was finished, Jacobson helped finance and facilitate the installation of the second 240-kW array on the tribe’s workforce development center. COVID halted progress in 2020, but installers were able to begin work again in Spring 2021.
As the sole financier, Jacobson will own both projects for at least six years, then will sell them to the tribe. He believes these initial successful projects — plus the notoriety Blake has garnered by speaking about tribal solar installations to a national audience via groups like the Sierra Club — will provide the momentum the tribe needs to get the funding to complete the entire portfolio.
“The vision about getting into doing solar and training people up there is that if there is going to be a movement away from fossil fuels and their dependence on fossil fuels, they’re going to have to step up and develop the trained people — crews, designers — so that they can apply it to their buildings and not have to hire outsiders to come in and do it for them,” Jacobson said.
He not only wants to empower the tribe to do the installations themselves, but find the financing too.
“I’m taking my experience in the industry and creating that finance organizing role. What I really want to do is spin that off to somebody in the tribe,” he said.
Jacobson believes the relationship and experience of helping the tribe go solar is invaluable and will pay off in the future. IPS Solar is already working with Blake on some future initiatives.
“I’ve built a trust relationship with the tribe that will bear fruit in the future,” he said.
Jacobson’s financial assistance set the Red Lake Nation on the path to accomplishing its end goal — powering at least half of the tribal energy needs with solar power. The tribe is even working on forming its own tribal utility.
“What the tribe wanted to do was create some entrepreneurial opportunities off of this, along with some employment,” Blake said. “I always tell Native people that gaming is a billion-dollar industry, [but] energy is a trillion-dollar industry. I’m telling the people right now, ‘We are in the wrong industry. We need the energy game.’”
This story was featured exclusively in our 2021 Top Solar Contractors issue. See the issue and full list of top U.S. solar installers here.