Reimagining energy accessibility in Central Minnesota

October 8, 2021
On Sept. 28, CEEM member-businesses Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL), PACE Loan Group and Juhl Clean Energy Assets shared their unique clean energy projects in Central Minnesota.

The second installment of our clean energy virtual roadshow series took place on Sept. 28, featuring CEEM member-businesses Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL), PACE Loan Group and Juhl Clean Energy Assets and all of their unique clean energy projects in Central Minnesota. In addition to these three panelists, Virginia Rutter of CEEM gave a brief overview of both our MN Clean Energy Factsheet and our Clean Jobs Midwest Report.

Post-pandemic job growth

In 2020, clean energy saw a decline in jobs for the first time in five years, however the industry has bounced back twice as fast as the overall Minnesota workforce, with more than 55,300 clean energy workers. In response to the growing industry, RREAL has been educating and training individuals to enter the clean energy workforce, particularly within Indigenous communities, in hopes of increasing solar accessibility.

“Our end goal is to create a trained, capable, Indigenous workforce to move into these new jobs, while they also work towards creating energy sovereignty for their reservations,” said John Vaughn, Executive Director of RREAL.

In partnership with the White Earth Nation, RREAL has implemented a series of solar installations and education programs. Since 2012, RREAL’s installations have produced 631.45kWh of electricity within the White Earth Nation, and $71,671 in energy savings; RREAL intends to increase these savings to over $1 million in the next thirty years.

This year, RREAL has increased their number of interns from the White Earth Nation from 8 to 12, further incorporating solar education into the local community college. Along with increasing the presence of solar education in higher education, RREAL has also recently released a solar-based curriculum for K-8th grade audiences. This curriculum is free to the public, and can be found on RREAL’s website.

How to finance clean energy

Central Minnesota is a junction between rural and urban communities, and PACE Loan Group works with businesses across the region. PACE provides long-term real estate financing to commercial real estate owners, helping them to secure loans that allow them to install various clean energy upgrades to their properties, as well as increase their savings on utility bills. (CEEM helped to pass the law in 2019 that made commercial PACE financing accessible to building owners across Minnesota.)

Examples of the benefits behind PACE’s financing can be seen in manufacturing facilities in Hutchinson, MN and Sartell, MN. Both facilities financed a solar installation, the Hutchinson facility financed $520,000 and receives $27,500 in annual energy savings, while the Sartell facility financed $1,675,000 and receives $100,000 in annual energy savings.

Community-based energy distribution

The final presenter in our Central MN roadshow was Clay Norrbom with Juhl Clean Energy Assets. Juhl Energy is a clean energy business that is firmly rooted in the Midwest, and these community values can be found in all of their projects. Juhl Energy specializes in small to mid-scale projects, focusing on installations under 20MW. By narrowing the scale of their projects, Juhl Energy is able to utilize local workforces and deliver the energy and its savings right back to the community.

“We try to bring mobility to design, develop, own and operate our projects,” said Clay Norrbom. “We’ve always been interested in how we can be closely tied with the community. We’re known for our work with community-based energy development and that continues to this day.”

Near Pelican Rapids, MN, Juhl Energy has built the Lake Region Community Hybrid project, the first of its kind in Minnesota. This project has a 2MW capacity, but features a combination of wind and solar installations. This combination allows the system to function flexibly, allowing energy production to continue even if wind and solar are at their respective peak capacities.

What is the future of clean energy in Central Minnesota?

Central Minnesota has the benefits of both rural and municipal utilities. Rural communities have the space to install some of the latest clean energy developments, while urban areas provide commercial access to larger industries such as biofuels and food processors.

“These are the jobs of the future,” said Bali Kumar of PACE. “There are so many different types of jobs in the clean energy economy. There is a home for everyone.”

The flexibility within the clean energy industry was highlighted during 2020, as the hesitancy of banks and frailty of supply chains caused national hold ups. The clean energy industry is resilient, however, and is looking to expand with the support of the Build Back Better plan. Under this plan, job growth would continue to increase, as well as clean energy infrastructure and, in turn, clean energy accessibility.

“There are always early adapters, but they don’t necessarily move the market as fast as a piece of legislation like the Build Back Better plan,” said Kumar. “If something like that goes through, it pushes the rest of the economy.”

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