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Skill-Building: David Headbird (second from left) was one of three Leech Lake Tribal College students sponsored by an Initiative Foundation construction trades grant. Headbird, pictured with his family and Initiative Foundation staff, helped to install the solar array. 

A Sunny Future

A Leech Lake solar project provides low-cost power and training for high-paying jobs.

By John Reinan

A first-of-its-kind project on the Leech Lake Reservation is demonstrating the power of solar energy, both as an energy source and as an entry point for young workers into a fast-growing sector of Minnesota’s economy.

This fall, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe collaborated with Backus-based Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) to complete a 200-kilowatt community solar grid. Power generated from the grid will be sold back to electrical utilities. In turn, the money from those sales—expected to be around $20,000 a year—will be earmarked for an assistance fund to help low-income residents with their power bills.

It’s the first community solar project on any reservation in the United States that’s dedicated to low-income energy assistance. But what may turn out to be even more important is the job-skills training the project is providing to young workers from the area.

The Initiative Foundation provided a grant to support training for three students at Leech Lake Tribal College in Cass Lake. Each went on to work on the solar grid installation. All three students earned an entry-level professional certification, which allowed them to work on solar installations under the supervision of a master electrician. And all three have continued to work for the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) after the completion of the Leech Lake project.

“Every community in Minnesota is dealing with a skilled worker shortage right now,” said Don Hickman, Initiative Foundation vice president for community and workforce development. “These are the first three graduates of Leech Lake Tribal College to get this certification. There is a great demand for their skill set.”

Exploding Opportunities
Indeed, the alternative energy sector in Minnesota is booming. Renewable energy jobs, most of which are in wind and solar, grew by 16 percent to around 6,200 in Minnesota from 2015 to 2016, according to a recent study by Clean Energy Economy Minnesota. Clean-energy jobs of all kinds in the state—including bioenergy, wind power, solar energy, smart grid and energy efficiency initiatives—total more than 57,000. With a growth rate of 5.3 percent, clean energy is the fastest growing of the 11 major industrial sectors tracked by the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Renewable energy “is not something that is on the periphery anymore,” said Rochelle “Rocky” Carpenter, chair of the tribal college’s Career and Technical Education Department. “There’s such a trade shortage right now. We are getting bombarded by companies that are seeking our students.”

The college is getting national recognition for the quality of its programs. This summer, Leech Lake was rated No. 1 in Wallet Hub’s annual survey of more than 700 two-year schools across the country.

“To watch this rapidly maturing institution really gives me hope,” said Hickman, noting that the college primarily serves an area with a historic unemployment rate of 40 percent. “It is opening pathways to the underserved, the underemployed, the undercredentialed and helping them become more valuable as employees.”

The long-term outlook for solar jobs is “immense, vast, exploding,” said Edens, director of RREAL, which oversaw the Leech Lake solar installation. “The future of solar is rosy. These are skilled tradespeople who can expect to make a better-than-average living.

“We are quite interested in the workforce development aspect of the Leech Lake solar project,” he said. “It is more than an ancillary benefit.”

In fact, Edens says the clean energy workforce needs to become much more inclusive. “So it’s been a real pleasure to provide the graduates of the Leech Lake College program with meaningful opportunities.”

Sustainable Future
The community solar grid is just one of many projects the Leech Lake Band has supported in the interest of sustainable living, said Brandy Toft, the band’s deputy environmental director. Others include cultivation of local food, energy conservation and wind power feasibility studies.

“We’re training our younger generation to be self-reliant,” she said. “We can maintain these things and build more within our community. And that is a strong statement that we’re being sustainable from within.” The solar project, Toft said, “is about cutting that divide, where you can only be renewable and sustainable if you have money.”

The tribal college’s technical programs strive to introduce students to housing as an interrelated system. “We try to develop skills relating to the whole house and the site,” said Carpenter. “I felt that a lot of the trades were being segregated out. A plumber wasn’t really encouraged to learn how the whole building was set up. Back in the day, you would know a little about the whole house system, and I felt that was going away.”

That broad knowledge base can include simple things, such as how placing a house on a south-facing footing can bring immense benefits in energy efficiency. “Native Americans for all time have positioned their buildings in accordance with the sun,” said Carpenter. “There are all these underlying things that have been lost because we’re stuck in these cookie-cutter houses.”

One potential drawback for Leech Lake grads: As things stand now in Minnesota, many of the solar projects are concentrated in the southern third of the state. “We need to address the fact that our students may need to leave the area if they really want to pursue a career,” Carpenter said. “But as prices (for installations) come down and the market grows, there will be more jobs up here.” And students armed with solar skills will be well positioned to create local, off-grid systems no matter where they are.

That’s what Hickman is hoping for.

“The more people we can get into these high-demand, high-pay jobs, the more we can reward the worker and meet a community need as well,” he said. “Communities need to make their own decisions on what energy makes sense for them. And Leech Lake said, ‘This makes sense for us.’”

The community solar grid is the first step toward what promises to be an exciting future for the college and the community. “Check back after a year,” said Carpenter. “The landscape is changing so fast. There are so many projects being developed, groups being formed—it’s just going to take off.”

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