The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe leads Minnesota and the nation with the first community solar garden designed to benefit low-income residents.
In 2017, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe installed five new solar arrays on the Leech Lake reservation, creating a new community solar garden in partnership with the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance. Community solar programs are growing across the country, but this project was the very first in the nation designed to help residents in need and the first formally integrated into the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. It is also the first low-income community solar program in the state of Minnesota, and the first in the U.S. on tribal lands. In 2016, the Department of Commerce recognized the project with a Clean Energy Community Award, honoring community-based initiatives that support Minnesota’s clean energy goals.
Community solar programs typically serve a dual purpose: they produce a portion of clean, renewable energy for local community use while the rest feeds into the electric grid, creating a new revenue stream. In this case, the five arrays generate about 235 megawatts of renewable electricity each year. About half of the electricity powers tribal buildings and the other half goes into the grid, and all proceeds go directly to the tribe’s energy assistance program, helping low-income band members pay their heating bills.
By generating clean power close to home, the community solar garden reduces the Band’s reliance on carbon-intensive energy sources and increases local energy independence. It has also provided an educational opportunity for students at Leech Lake Tribal College who received hands-on training in the renewable energy industry and earned professional licenses in the field. The Leech Lake Band provides an inspiring example of how a community can serve its most vulnerable members and support a homegrown clean economy at the same time.
Photo: Rural Renewable Energy Alliance