Using Solar Power to Reduce Poverty

Jason Edens, founder of RREAL, is determined that no one will be left behind in the transition to renewable energy. He deftly explains the problem: “We’re seeing the development of what we call the ‘renewable divide’ — basically the phenomenon where only upper echelons of society have access to solar energy and lower income communities and families don’t. … Rather than renewable energy lifting all of us equally, we’re running the risk of seeing it contribute to the gap between the rich and the poor.” The tenacity with which Edens tackles this issue has led RREAL (Rural Renewable Energy Alliance) to grow from a small operation headquartered in his basement to a full-scale nonprofit. RREAL makes solar energy economically accessible to families on public assistance.

While funding has always been hard to come by, RREAL has creatively addressed this problem by manufacturing its own solar panels in a facility in Pine River, a portion of which it sells at market-rate. “We’re trying to be self-reliant because we’re promoting self-reliance in the energy assistance community,” Edens says. “We want to do our best to walk our talk as well and be nonprofit and self-reliant as opposed to just being dependent on grant funding.”

Grant funding is also nice, of course, and RREAL recently won a Social Venture Partners grant, which will bolster the organization’s rural energy assistance program. The concept behind this program is that installing solar panels on the houses of families who use Minnesota’s energy assistance program will dramatically lessen these families’ heating bills and the federal assistance program will then have more money to help a greater number of families. In 2008, Minnesota assisted 126,500 families with their energy bills, but according to Edens, another 125,000 were turned away.

By supplementing energy assistance with solar technology, RREAL hopes to more permanently solve the problem of fuel poverty. As Edens puts it, fuel poverty is when a family is forced “to make the impossible choice between competing basic necessities” such as heating their home and buying groceries, gas for the car, or clothes for their kids.

Edens himself experienced the financial woes of paying the high heating bills that come along with living in the state of Minnesota. While he was attending graduate school for environmental studies at Bemidji State University, Edens applied for energy assistance. Instead of help paying for his heating bill, he asked for a low- or no-interest loan to purchase a solar heating system.

The idea for RREAL was born when the energy assistance program politely told Edens that they could not assist him in that way. “But now the state of Minnesota is the only state that’s actually funding the incorporation of solar heat into the energy assistance program,” Edens says. He hopes that other states will follow Minnesota’s lead and replicate a service such as RREAL’s energy assistance program. RREAL is also working on transferring its solar technology to other organizations. “We want to issue licenses, not to people that are interested in doing this primarily for market-rate stuff, but to agencies that are interested in delivering the technology to low-income families,” Edens says. “We’re talking to several tribal communities that are interested in manufacturing and then delivering this technology.”

Since its modest beginnings in 2000, RREAL has proved that its methods for energy assistance are a viable option for families with houses suitable for solar technology. The technology works so well, in fact, that it has attracted the suspicion of heating companies. One natural gas company, concerned that its regulators were malfunctioning, sent inspectors to houses where RREAL had installed solar technology last winter. “These homes had heating bills that were dramatically less than their neighbors, so the natural gas company was like, ‘What is going on here, something must be wrong with our regulators.’ Then they went out there only to discover that the supplemental solar heating systems accounted for the, you know, 60 percent less natural gas than their neighbors,” Edens says.


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