Red Lake Solar Project, aspiring to energy sovereignty

Red Lake Solar Project, aspiring to energy sovereignty

RED LAKE, MN - The Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians (Red Lake Nation) is home to over 14,000 tribal members and is one of the most unique and isolated reservations in the country. Located in Northern Minnesota, Red Lake Nation covers 1,259 square miles, including most of Red Lake. The Red Lake Band is one of the only native tribes to have retained their original land and it is now the only closed reservation in Minnesota. The tribe has maintained sovereignty over their land and people since first arriving in Minnesota in the 17th century and their next goal is to achieve energy sovereignty through the use of clean energy. 

In their accountability decree, Red Lake Nation states that it is “committed to maintaining and conducting its affairs in a manner that is aligned with the expectations of our ancestors, elders, tribal members, and future generations. The Red Lake Tribal Council is also committed to helping every member achieve independence and economic security by utilizing today's technology, developing strong economic infrastructure, and providing a quality educational system.”

This accountability statement is steeped in Ojibwe tradition, and you can see its values in the Red Lake Solar Project, a one-of-its-kind solar and storage project whose goal is to achieve energy sovereignty for the Tribe while creating jobs and a more sustainable way of life for future generations. 

The project has been picking up steam ever since crowdfunding was used to fund the first 80-kilowatt project on the Government Center in Red Lake. Phase 2 started in mid-September, with tribal members arriving to install a 240-kilowatt project on the workforce development center in Redby, called Oshkiimaajitahdah or New Beginnings.

A dream for Red Lake

At the heart of this project is Bob Blake, owner of Solar Bear, a solar installation business, and Executive Director of Native Sun Community Power Development. By his own description, Bob “wears a lot of hats.” On the day we meet with him in Red Lake, he is constantly busy, ferrying people around town, stopping for a moment to chat with someone, and all the time smiling through a painful knee injury. 

“My hope, my dream for Red Lake is for this to be a model for other tribes to follow. What's really exciting about all this is that our people can go ahead and get the knowledge around this technology and be a part of this new renewable energy green deal that's gonna be happening. I feel like renewable energy is going to be this driver of change and prosperity in ways that tribal nations have never seen before,” Bob tells us. 

Tribal chairman’s vision for energy sovereignty

Bob introduces us to Red Lake Nation’s tribal chairman, Darrell Seki. Darrell grew up in Ponemah, and was raised by his grandparents, who all spoke Ojibwe as their first language. Darrell is currently serving his second term as Tribal Chairman. Darrell is whole-heartedly supportive of the Red Lake Solar Project, and views it as a way to care for tribal members. 

“My vision is that we provide all the energy for our membership free so they don't have to pay nothing, so they don't have to worry about getting disconnected. This is the vision,” he tells us. 

“I was raised in a traditional way and my grandparents always taught us to respect our lakes, our waters, and our trees and do our ceremonies the way we were taught,” Darrel explains. He says this upbringing has been imprinted on him, and that one of the many drivers for the Red Lake Solar Project is to protect the tribe from climate change. 

Bob tells us one of the things he respects most about Darrell is his long term thinking. “Darrell thinks about making decisions seven generations ahead and that's the way our people used to do it. We used to think seven generations ahead, not this four quarters, first quarter, second quarter -- that's so narrow-minded and we have to think about what's it gonna be like in the future, what we are going have for our children, our grandchildren, what kind of world are they going to inherit.”

Businessman embraces new definition of payback

Bob’s partner on this project is Impact Power Solutions’ founder, and Chief Innovation Officer, Ralph Jacobson. Ralph started the company back in 1991, and in recent years the company experienced dramatic growth -- it was awarded Solar Power World Magazine’s Top 500 Solar Contractor award for the last seven straight years, ranking 51 out of 415 solar companies on the magazine’s 2019 Top Solar Contractors list. IPS also received the magazine’s award for greenest contractor. The company’s board-certified project management team has installed and managed more than 1,500 projects in the upper Midwest.

Ralph says he’s been impressed learning about Red Lake Nation’s value system, and says he has learned so much through his work with the tribe over the past few years. 

“Pretty much everybody I've ever sold solar to in the Twin Cities has always asked about the payback, okay how long is it going to take me to recoup my investment. But, right from the beginning of my involvement in Red Lake, payback was in terms of, are we going to be able to prevent the buildup of mercury in Red Lake so that people can continue eating the fish, because that’s the livelihood of many people in the community. Now that to me, that’s the way to define payback,” Ralph explains. 

Ralph is intimately tied to the Red Lake Solar Project, in fact when financing for the project fell through a few years ago, he came up with the idea to crowdfund the project, and tackled recruiting individual donations himself.

Work can provide purpose

“Not only is this about going solar, it's about economic development and job creation. As tribal members develop these skill sets, they’re able to move into the market of solar installation. Now, that’s something the community can offer to the larger world, and it’s an income generator and job creator -- so that’s really the way solar energy is positioned here in Red Lake,” Ralph explains. 

Rod McKenzie, better known as Sauce to his friends, was on the site of the newest solar installation taking place at the workforce development center in Redby, called Oshkiimaajitahdah or New Beginnings. Rod tells us he has a variety of construction skills, and even spent a number of years fishing in Red Lake to help support his five children. Rod says he’s looking forward to learning more about solar installation, and adds that he feels connected to the work because of its greater purpose. 

“This is our land and this is where our kids are going to grow up. For future generations, we've got to keep it as natural as possible you know, we’ve got to preserve our heritage, our traditions -- it’s important to keep it the way it is,” Rod tells us. 

“When you give people purpose, when you give people the ability to get up and do something that they love every day, I  think that's how you battle alcoholism, I think that's how you battle a drug addiction, I think that's how you battle missing murdered indigenous women,” Bob shares. 

Doing the work out of love

Bob says he’s thrilled to see the next phase of the Red Lake Solar Project finally moving forward. You can tell this is the definition of a passion project, and one he feels deeply tied to. “I love Red Lake people, I love Native people, and I just want the best for them. I just have so much unconditional love for this place,” he says.

Even if this Red Lake Solar Project doesn’t fully achieve his vision, isn’t it worth trying, he asks?

“I'm taking a swing, I could be wrong. But damn it, if I'm wrong then I want to be wrong trying to do something positive for the environment and for the world, you know what I mean? So let me be wrong, but if there's a side opportunity here where we can go ahead and change the fortunes of a community because of renewable energy -- then let's do it,” he tells us. 

What’s next?

Once the current project at the Workforce Development Center is completed, the project will move into the next phase, which involves installing solar on four schools in nearby Ponemah. A total of up to 20 solar systems on commercial buildings are planned. Phase 2 of the Red Lake Solar Project is a 13-megawatt solar farm located just east of the town of Redby. A third and final long-term phase employs business development in a variety of ways including the creation of a Red Lake Tribal Utility to do business on the wholesale power market. 

As one of the most sovereign nations in the country, the vision for total energy sovereignty is a natural fit. The Ojibwe tradition of planning seven generations ahead is leading the tribe’s efforts and while a completion date for the project is still unknown, the tribe is excited for the possibilities that clean energy has to offer their land, culture, and people.