Mahnomen, Minnesota – In partnership with Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL), White Earth Tribal and Community College started a Solar PV certificate training program to help students gain skills in the clean energy industry. After completing the program, seven interns were offered a paid internship on a Minnesota Power utility scale solar installation to gain hands-on experience in the trade.
White Earth Tribal and Community College's solar program
White Earth’s solar business vision
Mahnomen, Minnesota – The students who attend White Earth Tribal Community College (WETCC) are not your “traditional” college students. Their average age is around 30. They may struggle with hunger, addiction, homelessness, or extreme poverty.
“One of the most important things for our students is to help them break the generational poverty that affects a lot of our students,” says the college’s interim dean, Anna Sheppard.
The College’s Director of Community Extension Services, Lisa Brunner paints a picture of the struggles facing her students when she describes a woman on zoom showing up for class huddled in a pile of blankets next to a small space heater – the sole source of heat for the student’s entire household in the dead of winter.
White Earth Nation has a poverty rate of around 25% – more than twice Minnesota’s average rate of 11%. Knowing the odds can be stacked against her students, Brunner approaches her work with compassion and empathy.
“I really have such love and passion and commitment to our students because of the insurmountable barriers they face just to be here, just to get this education to help strengthen their educational attainment to be successful in whatever they choose to be,” she says.
Partnership with RREAL
White Earth’s reality is familiar to frequent partners, the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) – a nonprofit organization based in Central Minnesota. Their goal is to help lower poverty rates by installing solar for low-income Minnesotans.
RREAL has worked with the Tribe for over a decade, installing solar and training tribal members in solar energy installation. From 2012-2016, RREAL built six solar arrays on tribal facilities. The partnership resumed in 2019 when they came back to build five 40 kilowatt arrays (finished in 2021) and sponsored a paid internship program using a grant from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) and funding from the Bremer Foundation, Carolyn Foundation, Ilsababy Foundation, and Ottertail Power.
These arrays, along with the ground-mounted systems already in place, are expected to save the tribe over $1 million in energy costs over the next 30 years.
Rather than maintaining their previous project-based approach with White Earth Nation, RREAL wanted to create a partnership and continue finding ways to work with the tribe. According to John Vaughn, RREAL’s Executive Director, he felt a partnership better suited the nonprofit’s mission of enhancing the economic position of the tribe using solar energy long-term.
White Earth Tribal and Community College's Solar Certificate Program
Together, RREAL and WETCC created a solar training certificate program hosted by the college that would provide a strong base for a career in the fast-growing solar industry. The program is a 45-hour solar photovoltaic class that allows students to earn their registered unlicensed individual certification. This certification allows them to work on solar job sites and provides a solid start to becoming a NABCEP-certified solar installer.
“Within the native community, there’s always a need for good work, and this is a technology and skill set we can offer the community that will allow these students to go out and get some good paying jobs,” says RREAL instructor George Lemelin.
George has lived in the White Earth community for nearly two decades and first began dabbling with solar technology more than twenty years ago. He helped launch the training course in 2020 and so far, has seen about 20 students complete the 45-hour training course. He was also instrumental in connecting his students with a paid, on-the-job training opportunity through a partnership with Minnesota Power.
"This is a technology and skill set we can offer the community that will allow these students to go out and get some good paying jobs." George Lemelin, RREAL instructor
Minnesota Power’s on-site training opportunity
Paul Helstrom, the Renewable Energy Program Lead for Minnesota Power wears many hats, but his favorite is that of “solar Paul.” During the pandemic, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission put out a call for Minnesota utilities to increase their efforts in expanding workforce opportunities to help with economic recovery. This led Paul to connect with RREAL and the WETCC solar training program.
“Being ‘Solar Paul’ I was approached to come up with some ideas for how we could leverage any projects for educational and workforce development opportunities. I reached out to RREAL and when they explained their current work at WETCC, I knew it would be a good fit to bring in some folks with good knowledge and experience with solar and get them on an actual jobsite for some hands-on training,” explains Paul.
Minnesota Power offered seven WETCC solar internship graduates the opportunity to spend three days on a 15MW utility scale solar job site in Sylvan, Minnesota. The students worked with Hunt Electric, the contractor in charge of the jobsite, and were paid to assist with all parts of the ongoing work from racking to placing panels. The hands-on experience is critical to understanding the realities of the career.
“Minnesota Power is just really excited and proud to be able to partner with White Earth and RREAL in an effort like this and I’m hoping these kinds of efforts will inspire other groups and tribal community colleges to help us increase the number of people working in this field,” says Paul.
The interns’ perspective
One of the seven interns participating in this internship is Grace Roberts (pictured above), a member of the Minnesota Chippewa tribe enrolled in the Mille Lacs band of Ojibwe. She lives and works on the White Earth reservation and was one of the first cohort to complete the 45-hour training program with George after learning about it through her previous job at the local radio station.
Grace has many passions and sees her projects through – including helping her previous employer, KWEN radio station apply for grant funding to install solar on site. Once the array is in place, it will be the only entirely solar-powered radio station in Minnesota. Her love of math and puzzles is one reason she says she loves solar energy and the electricians training that was part of the solar certificate program.
We spoke with Grace about her on-site internship experience, “Just getting out here and doing the hands-on stuff is really helpful. At first I was intimidated, wondering if I could really handle it and then I’m out here and I’m just getting in my groove and rocking it. I would encourage anyone who’s slightly interested to give it a try,” she says.
The seven interns worked alongside apprentices and journeymen from Hunt Electric. They worked to install the racking for the panels and on placing the panels onto the racks and mounts. Hunt Electric even expressed interest in hiring the interns onto their crew after the two-day experience was finished. They have plenty of work and can always use more apprentice hands on site. The interns were given instructions on how to sign up for their local Laborer’s Union to be able to apply for the open positions.
Bridget Guiza is WETCC’s Customized Education Coordinator and describes the significance of building solar energy installation skills in the community.
“Clean energy and energy sovereignty go hand-in-hand and to me it’s about understanding the world around us and creating a sustainable future. What that means is empowering our community members and students in being active participants in their futures and the futures of the seven generations that follow us,” she says.
George wants this effort to extend beyond the certificate program and internship. He also wants to offer the full NABCEP course at the college, once the college completes its plans to build out the infrastructure for the customized education department. His vision also includes launching a native-owned solar business (Global Link, LLC) that will be a pipeline for full time work for graduates of the program. The business is scheduled to launch in January of 2023.
He explains, “It’s not just learning a skill set but it’s actually developing an employment opportunity for our graduates and it’s just going to continue to grow from there. This energy sector is not going anywhere, they’re going to need employees, so we’re a part of that.”