It's Friday night in a diner just off the interstate in Clearwater. It’s the last throes of summer so it’s jammed with travelers in the weekly exodus from the metro trying to reach their weekend lake homes.
Needing a quiet spot to talk, and showing the same tenacity he used as a bodyguard for Prince, Robert Blake commandeers a private meeting room to talk about his passion — solar energy.
A lot of business leaders talk about vision. But few admit their business began with one.
Blake says for him it all began in a dream shortly after his brother Bill's death. That’s when he was visited by a polar bear wearing sunglasses named Solar Bear.
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“I was literally talking to an invisible thing. But to me, he was real,” Blake recounts.
He credits Solar Bear with giving him guidance while creating his first renewable energy venture.
“It was just very comforting to have something like that, or a vision or an idea, in my mind, that was constantly pushing me in this direction,” Blake said.
He wanted to create jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities for Indian Country and sees solar energy as a way to give purpose to community members.
“With climate change and everything that's happening, I think it's in our cultural beliefs to take care of the planet,” he said. “To take care of the environment.”
In 2017, Blake founded his solar panel installation service. He named it Solar Bear, in honor of his guide. Then in 2020 he started the nonprofit Native Sun Community Power Development. Now, he's partnering with the Eagan-based industrial electrical company Knobelsdorff to create a pilot training program within Indigenous communities.
The initial idea is to have tribal members train hands-on building solar gardens for their communities. According to a Knobelsdorff representative the project is being funded through federal, state and tribal dollars.
First up: Prairie Island
The Prairie Island Indian Community southeast of the Twin Cities is the first to take part.
Megan Ramaker is director of marketing with Knobelsdorff. She reached out to Blake for help forming the training program after hearing him speak.
“We said 'Hey, we have an idea. We want to partner with you. And we want to include the community and have them be a part of the project,” Ramaker said. “Literally hands-on help build the project. And we want to bring this out to other communities across the state as well.”
Initially they wanted to recruit 10 students, however, only five signed up. But as the first project wrapped up, Knobelsdorff Superintendent Chad Lexvold said the crew exceeded all expectations installing solar panels or modules as they are known in the industry.
“We were getting about 250 modules installed a day. Yesterday, they actually had 780 in one day,” said Lexvold. “So, it was very exciting to see and just see them all work together. And everyone gets along really well. So that obviously helps to the efficiency and the productivity.”
Once complete the Prairie Island community solar garden will contain 49 rows with 10,192 panels — producing enough energy to power 700 homes.
“Our number one goal was we want people to want to have a career in solar,” Ramaker said. “We want them to see this and be like, 'Yes, I'm behind this. I'm going to do something in this, and it happened.”
Ramaker says three members of the trainees are sticking around after the training program is finished to help complete the job.
Timothy Sever was one of those first five students. He identifies as Ojibwe and his husband is a member of Prairie Island. On a tour of a Knobelsdorff community solar garden in Red Wing, he said the project aligns with local needs on a number of levels.
“Being Indigenous I know that the current modern society that we live in relies too much on fossil fuels, you know, dirty energy,” he said. “And we are out of sync with the world around us. Our planet is suffering each and every day.”
Sever is grateful to be among the first trainees of a pilot program that could one day bring energy sovereignty to other tribes across the state.
“It was really eye-opening to be able to experience something like this before everyone else,” he said. “To kind of be a part of working out some of the hiccups and helping improve things for those future programs.”
Solar Bear’s Ralph Jacobson has been called the grandfather of solar in Minnesota. After 30 years in the industry, he even has an energy award named after him called a “Ralph.” Jacobson’s experience was vital for the training aspect of the program.
“In Indian Country, everybody watches what everybody else is doing,” Jacobson said. “And if somebody comes along with a good idea, people want to know about it. There's a sharing culture there, where it's like, ‘I'll help you, pull you up by the bootstraps, you help me pull me up by the bootstraps and we all benefit. And I think that's, that's a cultural thing that in the white world, we don't recognize that there is, that benevolent interest in other people.”
Back at the diner, Blake said the training is part of a larger vision, something he calls energy sovereignty. He believes it's integral for getting Minnesota to green.
“We need these Indigenous values right now more than ever, and I think that's the only way that we do it,” Blake said. “We leverage tribal sovereignty on a policy level, on a political level, and we create these economic models within our communities, and we start bringing our values to the table.”
And what about the Solar Bear Blake used to talk to? He discovered a unique connection involving his late brother.
“I imagined Bill now turning into Solar Bear. And that was that kind of good angel on my shoulder telling me to do the right thing. Guiding me,” he said. “I got to tell you; I don't see Solar Bear anymore. And I kind of miss him sometimes. But I guess I don't really need it now as much as I did in the beginning.”
Blake's next endeavor will be a collaboration with the state, to build a community solar garden on the Red Lake Nation this spring.