As Jason Edens pursued his advanced degree in environmental studies, he was barely scraping by and needed help paying his heating bills. Contacting the energy assistance agency in his area, he requested a low- or no-interest loan to purchase a solar heating system. He wanted to find a long-term solution to reduce his energy usage and free up energy assistance dollars for others. But he was turned down—there was no mechanism for the state to fund a solar heating system.
That’s when a light bulb went off for Edens. He decided to work toward helping low-income residents get access to renewable energy. After earning his master’s degree from Bemidji State University, Edens started teaching high school while powering up the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) from his home.
“The federal Energy Assistance program is a very important social service, but it’s not a lasting solution to fuel poverty,” says Edens, director of Pine River–based RREAL. “In Minnesota alone, it costs $80 million to ensure that 125,000 families can endure the heating season. That’s a Band-Aid on a wound in need of a tourniquet. We need a long-term solution to work on our neighbors’ fuel poverty.”
Nearly a decade later Edens and RREAL have made a big impact. They helped change Minnesota law and secured funding so that energy assistance agencies can offer solar heating systems to clients. Minnesota is the only state where this is happening. With the help of seven employees and two AmeriCorpsVISTA volunteers, RREAL has installed 100 solar heating systems across Minnesota.
In addition, RREAL did some of its own economic development. It created a small-scale manufacturing process to make solar heating systems for residential or commercial uses. That way, the nonprofit didn’t have to waste financial and energy resources on buying systems at retail prices and shipping them to Minnesota.
RREAL secured funding from foundations and local partners to pay for research and development, and it gained expertise from an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer who was a Kodak engineer. It plans to license its manufacturing process to seven other entities across the northern United States. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in northern Minnesota is the first to receive a license, and it will make solar heating systems for other tribes in the Midwest.
Edens believes RREAL’s market will expand soon thanks to President Obama’s focus on weatherization and renewable energy. The nonprofit is advocating for a federal rule change allowing solar heating as an energy assistance option. If that happens, RREAL can pursue the 2.3 million residences that receive energy assistance in the northern tier of the United States—from Portland to Portland.
“By including renewable heat in our energy assistance programs, we can permanently address fuel poverty and do so with clean energy technology,” Edens says. “Right now energy assistance acts as a fossil fuel subsidy with payments going directly to propane or natural gas providers or electrical utilities.”
Participating in the Minnesota Cup has been enormously helpful, especially the $20,000 division prize and 40 hours of consulting, Edens says. But even more useful has been the professional advice, such as the suggestion that RREAL form a for-profit for technology transfer purposes. This would provide a stable revenue stream for RREAL’s mission to make renewable energy accessible to everyone.