Red Lake Nation goes solar

Red Lake government center
The Red Lake government center is one of a few buildings the tribe plans to cover with solar panels.
John Enger | MPR News

The Red Lake Nation is getting into the solar business.

Tribal leaders announced plans Thursday to install 15 megawatts worth of solar panels across the rooftops of their largest buildings. When they're done, the panels will generate enough power to light every bulb in the tribe's three casinos, the tribal college and all government buildings.

It's one of the largest solar projects planned in northern Minnesota, and tribe leaders said it is a big step toward energy independence for the Red Lake Nation.

"Grandfather sun and mother earth are the foundations of who we are as native people,"said Red Lake development director Eugene McArthur. "With this project, we're harnessing the forces of nature."

McArthur set the solar plan in motion over the last several months.

He said the project will break ground this June, and save the tribe roughly $2 million a year in energy costs.

The installation won't be cheap. David Winkelman, who is working with St. Paul-based Innovative Power Systems to design the Red Lake solar project estimates the cost at upwards of $20 million.

The band itself will only pay $100,000 for the project, with the vast majority of costs shouldered by the Olson Energy Corporation, which specializes in shuttling solar developers through the government incentive system.

Robert Olson said his company will use government tax credits and incentives to recoup their investment, and gift the solar arrays to the tribe after five years. At that point, the tribe will own the panels free and clear.

"We can talk about the cost savings," McArthur said, "but that's not the whole story."

Red Lake development director Eugene McArthur
Red Lake development director Eugene McArthur announced plans Thursday to install acres of solar panels on the rooftops of the tribe's largest buildings. Construction of the project will begin this June and save the tribe roughly $2 million a year in energy costs.
John Enger | MPR News

He said the use of outside power has chaffed the Red Lake Nation for some time. It's a sovereign nation, but they rely entirely on electricity generated outside their borders, by means they believe are harmful to the earth.

That might not always be the case. The 15-megawatt rooftop installation is just the first step of a larger renewable energy plan. The band is also in negotiations with Minnesota Power to build and operate a 20-megawatt solar farm on ceded lands north of the reservation.

Tribal Chair Darrell Seki hopes to leverage income from that solar farm to set up a solar panel factory on the reservation and build electrical infrastructure.

In five years, he plans to generate enough solar power on tribal land to supply every home on Red Lake.

"We'll provide our own energy for our people," Seki said. "Not from the power plants that pollute our lakes."

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