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Trailblazing solar electrical project coming to central Minnesota

Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) in Pine River is beginning a project that could be used to save taxpayer money and assist low-income families throughout the country.

This solar garden, constructed by Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) of Pine River in Rockford, Minnesota is Minnesota's first community solar garden. RREAL is currently working to construct a special community solar garden to provide power to low income individuals and save state funding for energy assistance. Submitted Photo
This solar garden, constructed by Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) of Pine River in Rockford, Minnesota is Minnesota's first community solar garden. RREAL is currently working to construct a special community solar garden to provide power to low income individuals and save state funding for energy assistance. Submitted Photo

Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) in Pine River is beginning a project that could be used to save taxpayer money and assist low-income families throughout the country.

RREAL, a company previously recognized for pairing with Community Action agencies to provide efficient, affordable and renewable heat during the winter, is at it again. After building Minnesota's first Community Solar Garden with Wright-Hennepin Electric Cooperative in 2013, RREAL plans to create a model combining state energy assistance programs with renewable and affordable energy.

"This is a much wiser use of public resources. We are hemorrhaging public resources in order to foot the bill for low-income energy assistance. On an annual basis we spend about $100 million in Minnesota alone," said RREAL founding director Jason Edens. "That's one year. That's a solution, if you can call it that, for one year. If we are able to deploy these community solar gardens in lieu of energy assistance, that's a solution for three to four to five decades. It's a much wiser use of public resources on behalf of our low-income families and neighbors."

Under the plan, instead of giving families funds to go toward expensive electric and heating bills, suitable families (as determined by the Community Action agency) would benefit from energy produced by photovoltaic solar panel arrays (a solar garden) located in central Minnesota's Cass, Crow Wing, Todd, Morrison or Aitkin counties. This electricity is cleaner, cheaper, domestic but otherwise no different from the electricity they could pay for with funds from energy assistance.

"Community Solar for Community Action allows the energy assistance provider to own the means of production, control the costs, be insulated from political volatility in funding and reduce carbon emissions while providing the service of energy assistance for decades rather than months," said a RREAL news release.

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Edens said the project, called "Community Solar for Community Action: A new model for low income energy assistance," is guaranteed at this point. RREAL was awarded a grant by the McKnight Foundation in December to make the project a reality. There are, however, specifics that need to be worked out. Before the project can be completed, RREAL must find a utility company to work with and a Community Action agency. What is known is that there will be one community solar garden in the central Minnesota region.

"We will definitely be seeing one community solar garden within that five-county area. We may do multiple gardens. It's going to be a function of which Community Action agency we are going to be able to partner with and also which utility is most supportive with this model," Edens said.

The true goal is to create a model that will grow not only in central Minnesota, but throughout the country.

"Our program has only really been germane to parts of Minnesota, the upper Rockies, New England and things of that nature. With Community Solar for Community Action, this is a model that could be deployed from Florida to Alaska, Hawaii to Maine because energy assistance is used even in warm climates. In those areas it is actually used for low-income families grappling with the high cost of air conditioning," Edens said. "This is a model that RREAL will be able to bring to the national stage, because we have cultivated good relationships with our energy assistance, with our friends in the energy assistance community, it's quite possible we will be able to do that over the coming years."

The project could make energy assistance throughout the country more affordable, which could result in lower costs to taxpayers, and more assistance to go around to those who need it. The timeline for the project is uncertain, though Edens said RREAL will be hosting a visioning session at the Initiative Foundation of Little Falls to help determine the details with the help of utilities, Community Action agencies and other stakeholders.

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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