Case Studies

Rural Renewable Energy Alliance

In the war against poverty, solar wins every time

In the winter of 1999, Jason Edens, an environmental graduate student at Bemidji State University, faced a terrifying prospect: he couldn’t afford to buy heating fuel.

That would be bad news for anyone living in frigid northern Minnesota, where winter temperatures regularly fall into the single digits and below. And it’s not uncommon, as over 40 million Americans nationwide struggle with this crisis every month.

Like so many of them, Edens turned to his state’s Energy Assistance Program (EAP), a government-funded program that pays fossil-fuel energy bills and weatherization costs for low-income families. Instead of asking for help paying energy bills, he requested a low-interest loan on a solar energy system.

Rural Renewable Energy Alliance

“Energy Assistance is a really important service, but paying energy bills for one year doesn’t solve the problem because it doesn’t permanently empower families,” he says.

Even though the EAP rejected the proposal, the experience compelled Edens to turn solar energy into a solution for nationwide poverty.

In 2000, Edens founded Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL), a nonprofit that installs no-cost solar systems for low-income families in the upper Midwest. To date, RREAL has installed over 500 residential solar systems through the company’s Solar Assistance Program, and has even traveled to West Africa to install systems in the developing world.

“[Solar] is something that almost everyone is still overlooking, but it is a powerful tool in the fight against poverty because when you purchase a renewable energy system, you know it’s going to last 30 years, and you know what every single unit of energy is going to cost you over the entire life of that system,” Edens says. “There is no fossil fuel technology that can do that.”

Solar contractor

RREAL started out as a collection of electricians, plumbers and engineers operating out of Edens’ basement in Backus, Minnesota. Everyone was working a second job and “we didn’t have two nickels to rub together,” Edens says, laughing.

In order to survive, the nonprofit needed to start generating some kind of revenue. So in 2014, Edens and his team launched REAL Solar, a licensed general and electrical contractor that specializes in installing solar energy systems for residential, commercial and municipal projects in the Midwest.

Not only would REAL Solar help fund RREAL’s low-income projects, but “as a nonprofit, we’re trying to walk our talk. If we’re encouraging self-reliance among low-income communities we should be as self-reliant as we can be,” Edens says.

Rural Renewable Energy Alliance

While REAL Solar has been instrumental in the nonprofits success, Edens says it isn’t the only factor.

Although it was skeptical of solar at first, today, Minnesota’s EAP has partnered with RREAL to further the nonprofit’s Solar Assistance Program.

For this program, the EAPs of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota identify which low-income households in the state have access to direct sunlight, and, as a result, could benefit from a solar system. In return, RREAL’s Solar Assistance Program is actually helping these EAPs save money.

“All these states spend tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to put a Band-Aid on a wound that needs a tourniquet,” he says. By installing solar systems, “we can empower communities permanently with clean energy and have a rock solid return on investment instead of hemorrhaging public resources.”

From Minnesota to West Africa

While the Solar Assistance Program works well on a home-to-home basis, RREAL wants to scale up its delivery model.

In October 2016, the nonprofit launched Community Solar for Community Action (CS4CA), installing Minnesota’s first low-income solar electric array. CS4CA will deliver renewable energy to the state’s Community Action Agencies (CAA), which are private and public non-profit organizations left over from Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.

“Solar is something that almost everyone is still overlooking, but it is a powerful tool in the fight against poverty,” says Founder Jason Edens.

CAAs exist in every state and are tasked with delivering energy assistance on the local level.

“With CS4CA, they will have the means to deliver a portion of its energy assistance from a renewable system,” Edens says. “It will allow homes who have a poor solar site or don’t own their own home to still participate in solar by getting a little chunk of the larger array.”

In the future, RREAL hopes to install similar arrays across the country, but has also set its sights on the electricity needs of the global community.

“[Energy] is something we all take for granted, but nearly 2 billion people on planet Earth are without electricity,” he says.

In West Africa, for instance, one of the biggest challenges facing hospitals health care systems is the lack of electricity. In Liberia, only 1 percent of the country’s population has access to electricity.

Since 2013, RREAL has worked with a religious organization called Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (WELCA) to fund a photovoltaic solar array project for a hospital in Bong County, Liberia.

Rural Renewable Energy Alliance

After four years of hard work fundraising, RREAL and WELCA raised enough to send a six-person team to central Liberia in spring 2017. The project even launched another RREAL initiative called Skip the Grid, which focuses on bringing solar power to hospitals and other healthcare systems in West Africa.

“Right now there are all these efforts to traverse land-based electric wire across the continent that will be centrally owned and have serious environmental consequences,” Edens says. With the right tools, RREAL hopes countries like Liberia can “leapfrog” over these fossil-fueled energy systems and invest in sustainable alternatives, like solar. RREAL already has another hospital project queued up in Liberia.

Thinking over the number of projects and initiatives RREAL has, Edens agrees his organization is pretty ambitious.

“At the same time, it’s all braided together under a common mission,” he says. “So even though it takes on so many shapes and sizes and forms, it’s all part of one cohesive mission, which is just to demonstrate that solar energy can be a powerful tool in the fight against poverty.”

Published on: June 16, 2017

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