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Red Lake Nation utilizes crowdfunding

ST. PAUL, (AP) — The Red Lake Nation is betting big on solar energy.

The Chippewa Indian reservation in northern Minnesota will soon be home to one of the region’s largest solar arrays, a 240-kilowatt installation atop a workforce training center that will generate about half the building’s electricity needs.

The real power, though, could be in the emerging model to use solar, microgrids, and a tribal-run utility as a path to energy sovereignty.

“We have to prove that we can do this and we have to do this not only for ourselves but for other tribal nations,” said Red Lake member Bob Blake, the founder and owner of Solar Bear installation company.

The workforce training center solar array is the second of 12 solar projects planned for the reservation. The first sits not far away atop the Red Lake Government Center, a building distinguished by incorporating a two-story face of an eagle with wings spread across the façade.

The projects are the first two solar installations in Minnesota to be financed through crowdfunding, in which dozens of small investors lend to businesses to support entrepreneurs and their products.

The nonprofit news outlet Energy News Network provided this article to The Associated Press through a collaboration with Institute for Nonprofit News.

The tribe has a separate initiative to construct a utility-scale 13-megawatt solar farm in partnership with Allete, one of the region’s primary electricity providers.

Ralph Jacobson, founder and chief equity officer of Impact Power Solutions (IPS) in the Twin Cities, developed the Red Lake Nation crowdfunding approach. Still, even he’s not confident it will continue to pay for all tribal projects even as new potential lenders seem willing to hear his pitch.

The dream of establishing a tribal utility in Minnesota will take years, requiring regulatory approval and careful negotiations with the tribe’s incumbent utility, a small cooperative. But Blake figures good things always take time. This will eventually pay off in energy self-sufficiency, higher-paying jobs and a healthier psychological and physical environment.

Located in northwest Minnesota 160 miles from the Canadian border, Red Lake Reservation sprawls over 1,259 square miles and is home to about half of the tribe’s 14,000 members. According to a 2015 report by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 90% of Red Lake’s members qualified as low income — 65% lived on less than $12,000 a year — and half of the tribe’s working-age population was unemployed.

Red Lake retained sovereignty over its original land and links that status to its pursuit of energy sovereignty. Tribal Council Chair Darrell Seki has said he sees a future where members receive free energy and the danger of being disconnected no longer exists. Blake believes the solar program will create jobs with livable wages and educate a workforce capable of succeeding in a growing industry.

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