Solar Bear and Native Sun: Pioneering Clean Energy in Red Lake

June 15, 2023
Bob Blake's Solar Bear and Native Sun are driving Red Lake’s clean energy transition by pioneering initiatives for economic and environmental progress.

Leading the Energy Revolution

Blake continues to do impressive work bringing the benefits of clean energy to Red Lake. Most recently, he spearheaded a deal between Red Lake and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) that will allow Red Lake to sell clean energy to the department. MnDOT recently completed a study on the feasibility of a Virtual Power Purchase Agreement (VPPA) between Red Lake Nation and MnDOT.

Under a VPPA, Red Lake would own the power and infrastructure. They would sell energy produced on the reservation to MnDOT. Blake plans to construct a solar array that generates around 20 MW of power each year. Fifteen MW of this would be sold to the department and five MW would stay in Red Lake, likely in the form of a community solar garden for tribal members in Red Lake. The VPPA would be the first Tribally owned VPPA project and the first tribe-to-state agency project in the nation. It would further energy sovereignty and generate economic benefits through a general fund for Red Lake.

Bringing Clean Transportation to Red Lake

electric vehicle

Beyond solar, Blake is working to bring clean transportation options to Red Lake members through Native Sun’s Electric Nation project. Blake plans to bring the following to Red Lake:

  • 59 DC fast charging units
  • 63 electric vehicle (EV) supply equipment points
  • 16 light-duty EVs
  • An electric shuttle
  • New workforce training programs for Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Red Lake Nation members

Native Sun is making great headways on these goals. Right now, they have ten electric vehicles (EV) on order, ranging from buses to Teslas. They will also install three EV charging stations in 2023.

Expanding into District Heating

Due to funding available through the Inflation Reduction Act, Native Sun will be able to expand its work beyond solar energy and EVs. Blake plans to start a district heating project for Red Lake. District heating systems burn biomass, solid waste, geothermal energy or other materials to power central heating or boilers. They emit less carbon, are more efficient and are more resilient than gas or electric-powered systems. There is no specific timeline for the district heating project yet, but Blake plans to act quickly.

Another Groundbreaking Achievement: the Tribal Energy Advisory Board

Collaboration is crucial to the clean energy transition, and it is a key piece of Blake’s approach to bringing efficient and renewable energy to Native communities. In addition to the work he’s been doing in Red Lake, Blake has been advocating for state-level policy that drives state-tribe collaboration in the energy planning process.

Blake’s biggest success to date in the policy space is the successful creation of the Tribal Energy Advisory Board which was funded for three million dollars through the Environment & Energy Omnibus bill in 2023. This bill creates a full-time position in state government that works to create a voice for tribes in statewide energy planning. This connection is critical to achieving statewide goals set out in the Climate Action Framework and the 100% Clean Energy by 2040 law. Minnesota is the first state to establish a Tribal Energy Advisory Board. This crucial platform for tribal voices in energy planning will help Minnesota continue to be a leader in the clean energy transition.

Blake is also partnering with other Native tribes on clean energy initiatives. In southern Minnesota, the Prairie Island Tribe is emerging as another leader in decarbonization with its Net Zero Project. Initial projects include a ground-mounted solar system and the electrification of Tribal facilities, with construction beginning in 2023, while further projects will be pursued with additional funding. Solar Bear is supporting workforce development by training Prairie Island tribal members on solar installation.

Going Forward

Solar energy

Blake’s work has already had an immense impact on the Red Lake community. The outlook is bright for the future of his work. He says he is proud of the economic and environmental benefits his efforts have brought his community. Above all, however, he is elated by the hope he sees in other tribe members. “I have more and more people telling me how excited they are about this work. I really think we can do this,” Blake says.

Solar Bear and Native Sun’s work is only beginning, says Blake. Although there is much to look forward to in the next few years, Blake is also thinking about the distant future. He plans to continue doing policy work, clean energy workforce development and working to empower native communities to take control of their energy future. Additionally, Blake also hopes to see Solar Cub, a project within Native Sun that educates younger tribal members about the intersections of a healthy environment and Native culture, continue to flourish.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Our monthly newsletter includes updates from the Capitol, the latest clean energy news and blogs and important information about upcoming events!