MN Group Honored for Low-Income Solar Work

September 20, 2013 — The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits announced it will award the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) an "Innovation Award" at a conference next month. The honor is for RREAL's pioneering work to make solar energy accessible to low-income households.

"I do believe our work and our mission is very unique and very innovative," RREAL founder Jason Edens told the media. "There really are no other organizations throughout the nation that are delivering solar heat to low-income families as a long-term clean and domestic solution to fuel poverty."

RREAL began in 2000 when a group of volunteers gathered to assemble solar heating panels for low-income homes. Over time, these volunteers grew into a non-profit organization that was able to get its program coordinated with both Minnesota LIHEAP and the state's Weatherization Assistance Program. This collaboration is often referred to as the "Minnesota Model," which offers a template that other states could use.

Currently, eligibility for RREAL's Solar Assistance program includes qualifying for LIHEAP, receiving weatherization services, having a good solar source at the home's location, and making sure solar heat is compatible with the house. RREAL directs people to community action agencies to see about the availability of solar funds and eligibility.

RREAL touts its solar program as a way to provide "several decades of relief from rising fuel costs while fostering ecological health, social equity, and self reliance." At the 2009 National Energy and Utility Affordability Conference, Edens gave a presentation elaborating on some of these ideas.

RREAL's efforts were aided when the 2007 Minnesota Legislature adopted the Renewable Energy Equipment Grant Program. It amended the statute related to the distribution of the state's petroleum inspection fee. The fee is $1 for every 1,000 gallons received by a distributor. The legislature added installation of renewable energy equipment by weatherization agencies to the services supported by the fee.

The program offers grants of up to $4,700 to qualifying low-income households. The system installed must meet a payback standard of at most 15 years to qualify for the program. The 2013 legislature appropriated $150,000 a year for the next two years for the program. While current numbers weren't available, RREAL was projecting late last year that it would complete 213 solar installations in 2012.

Sources: RREAL, Minnesota Legislature, Minnesota Department of Commerce, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, National Energy and Utility Affordability Conference