Federal grant helps bring solar heat to Ojibwe

Installing solar panels
A crew of workers from the Leech Lake Indian Reservation prepares a home for installation of two large solar panels. Air heated by the panels is circulated in the home using fans and ductwork. The unit could cut winter heating costs by as much as a one-fourth.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe is putting some cutting-edge solar technology on the homes of low-income tribal members. With help from a federal grant, the tribe is installing solar air heating systems in eight low-income homes.

For participating households, it's going to mean significantly lower heating costs this winter.

Roy Donovan is part of a small crew of band members who've been trained to install the units, which include two 4-feet by 8-feet solar panels. He said he's excited to work with green technology.

"It's a field I think we should all be interested in," Donovan said. "With the cost of high propane and electric and all that, it's just beneficial all the way around. It does help families too on the reservation that are not so well off as some other ones."

The pilot project targets eight households that rely on government heating assistance. Crews hope to finish the last installation in a few weeks, and the hope is that solar heating will catch on everywhere.

Brandy Toft is an air quality specialist with the Leech Lake tribe. Toft said when people see the solar panels, they're like little billboards promoting clean, renewable energy.

Solar panels
Tim Ollhoff, left, and Roy Donovan hold up one of two solar panels that will be installed on a home in the tribal community of Onegum. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe got a $50,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to install solar heating units on eight low income homes on the reservation.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"People can come look at them and say, 'Oh, that's what that looks like. Well, that's not bad at all. That's not an eyesore,'" Toft said. "Then they come in and feel how much heat is coming out of it, and they get really impressed."

Toft said if the test program is successful, the federal program could be replicated in tribal and non-tribal communities across the country.

A non-profit organization called Rural Renewable Energy Alliance produces the sun-powered heaters in the small town of Pine River.

The technology is simple. The solar panel is basically a thin, aluminum box mounted on the south side of a house. It's got layers of glass that collect sunlight and warm the air. Fans and ductwork circulate the air through a home. When the sun is shining, heat can be flipped on or off with a thermostat. It's used as a backup for traditional heating sources.

Roy Donovan
Leech Lake Tribal Housing Authority employee Roy Donovan is among about a dozen tribal members who've been trained to install solar heating units on the reservation.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

So far, about 100 units have been installed in Minnesota. Half were sold to make a profit and the proceeds were used to subsidize 50 solar heaters on low-income homes, free of charge.

Energy Alliance spokesman Tim Olloff said the group targets low-income people because they're the ones who struggle the most to pay their winter heating bills.

"If we're going to make a transition as a society to a renewable future we need to bring everybody along for that trip." Olloff said. "[The] technology that has existed to date has been expensive; if we're going to be able to bring everybody along, we need to start with low income families."

Traditionally, tapping into solar energy hasn't been cheap, but the solar air heating technology is less expensive. Rural Renewable Energy Alliance officials say a heating system with 4-by-10 ft. solar panels typically costs around $2,100, including installation. That amount varies, depending on the size and layout of the home.

Brandy Toft
Brandy Toft is an air quality specialist with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. Toft says if the eight-home solar heating project on the reservation is successful, it will likely be duplicated in communities across the country.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

The systems can cut heating costs by as much as one-fourth, and when you add up the savings, the unit pays for itself in anywhere from nine to 15 years.

Tim Ollhoff said the solar heating system could actually save taxpayer money. Last year, the State of Minnesota spent about $78 million on heating assistance. Olloff said solar heat could turn that around.

"It's a train wreck," Olloff said. "We have to do something different, and doing solar air heat to try and bring that cost down is just part of the matrix for what's going to be a solution for low-income families."

In 2007, the Minnesota Legislature established the Renewable Energy Equipment Grant Program, which provides grants of up to $4,700 for low-income households for the purchase of solar air or bio-fueled heating systems. The program is administered through the Community Action Program network. Recipients must meet the eligibility guidelines for energy assistance.

Dan Evans
Dan Evans is a special projects consultant for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. Evans says the tribe is in negotiations with the non-profit Rural Renewable Energy Alliance for a potential solar heating manufacturing plant on the reservation.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

The partnership between the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance might continue. The two are in negotiations on a joint venture to manufacture the solar air heaters right on the reservation. The deal would give Leech Lake exclusive rights to market them to Indian tribes throughout the Midwest.

"It'll be a for-profit business that they'll establish, so you've got the profit motivation, of course, but creating jobs is a key," said Dan Evans, a special projects consultant for the tribe. "With unemployment over 50 percent on the reservation, and even 12, 13 jobs, which this would initially create, that means a lot here."

Evans said a plant at Leech Lake could probably produce 3,000 solar heaters in its first year. The tribe plans to seek federal economic stimulus dollars to help finance the deal.

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