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Leech Lake Environmental Deputy Director Brandy Toft speaks at an unveiling ceremony Monday in Prescott for newly built solar arrays across the Leech Lake reservation. Matthew Liedke |Forum News Service

Leech Lake tribe unveils new solar panel arrays to benefit low-income communities

CASS LAKE, Minn.—The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe celebrated a big step forward Monday in its push for sustainability.

At a ceremony, fittingly under sunny skies, Leech Lake officials and representatives from the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance unveiled a new solar array at the Prescott Community Center. The walls of solar panels at the community center are one of five spread throughout the reservation, with others at the Palace Casino, Leech Lake Tribal College, the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance office in Pine River and a fifth in Jackson Village.

"They've been installed to serve low income, energy assistance community members," said Brandy Toft, Leech Lake environmental deputy director. "It's not just for the people here at Prescott, it will serve the whole Leech Lake reservation."

The effort began about two years with the goal of making energy more accessible to low-income communities. Leech Lake partnered with the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, or RREAL and received funding from numerous sources, including:

• The Minnesota Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund.

• The Initiative Foundation.

• The Bush Foundation.

• The Headwaters Foundation.

• The McKnight Foundation.

• The Carolyn Foundation.

As the project developed, it became a benefit in more ways than one, providing an opportunity to give training and renewable energy employment to area resident. For example, Leech Lake Tribal College students were involved and select construction trades trainees obtained licenses with hands-on training.

Because of the project's progress since its inception, it was the recipient of a 2016 Clean Energy Community Award from the Minnesota Department of Commerce. Now that it's finished, the project is the first, 100 percent low-income community solar installation in the state, as well as the first in the country on tribal lands.

"It was a long road and we had a lot of obstacles thrown in our way, but we made it," said Toft, who also talked about how the project fits into the band's sustainability plans.

"Next to the solar array is a 300-tree apple grove; we have 17 solar panel furnaces on the reservation; we're working to become Styrofoam free; and we're involved in a guaranteed energy savings project that will decrease energy usage by 40 percent at 22 buildings," Toft said. "These are all little aspects of what we're doing. I know today is all about solar, but this is part of a complete package that we're doing."

Jason Edens, RREAL Director, said the project will play an important part in combating what he called energy poverty.

"People around this area are starting to think about the heating season and about the choices they will make. Many people hear about the heating season, though and think about cross country skiing or snowmobiling," Edens said. "Those aren't the choices that I'm talking about. I'm talking about those people who have to choose between paying their home energy bill or their health care bill. Families with those choices are living in energy poverty.

"What we are advocating is that clean energy, like this solar energy, is a powerful tool in the fight against energy poverty and we can permanently address it by delivering solar power directly to low income communities."

Matthew Liedke

Matthew Liedke is the city, county and state government reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He also covers business, politics and financial news.

(218) 333-9791
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