Michael Meuers
Left to right: David Winkelman of Innovative Power Systems, Robert Olson, president of Olson Energy, and Red Lake Band of Chippewa Chairman Band Chairman Darrell G. Seki Sr. ink the deal to bring the Nation solar.

Red Lake Band to Go Fully Solar Within Five Years

Michael Meuers

The Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians has signed a formal agreement with the Winkelman Building Corp. and Innovative Power Systems Inc. to design, engineer, procure, construct and manage solar energy projects for the three Red Lake casinos and various other tribal government buildings.

Red Lake will install 15 megawatts—equal to 15 million watts—worth of solar panels across the rooftops of the band’s largest buildings. When they’re done, the panels will generate enough power to light every bulb in the tribe’s three casinos, the tribal college and all government buildings. The ultimate goal is to generate enough solar power on tribal land to supply every home on Red Lake within five years, said Band Chairman Darrell G. Seki Sr. at the February 18 signing ceremony, at which the tribe also approved the utilization of the Olson Energy Corp. for the projects’ financing.

“We'll provide our own energy for our people, not from the power plants that pollute our lakes,” Seki said, pointing out mercury levels largely generated by “coal burning power plants, mining and related activities.”

“The use of outside power has chafed the Red Lake Nation for some time,” said Eugene “Bugger” McArthur, Red Lake jobs and community development facilitator. “It’s a sovereign nation, but they rely entirely on electricity generated outside their borders, by means they believe are harmful to the Earth.”

It’s one of the largest solar projects planned in northern Minnesota, and tribal leaders called it a big step toward energy independence for the Red Lake Nation. Ft. Ripley, for instance, has a 10-megawatt system on a solar farm covering 100 acres.

McArthur said the projects embody the Red Lake Band’s commitment to environmental preservation and conservation and provide a clean, renewable source of energy that adheres to the tribe’s mandate to live in harmony with nature. The move to solar will also improve members’ quality of life, provide training and jobs, reduce operating expenses, provide steady revenue, and diversify the tribe’s economy, he noted.

“Renewable energy harnesses the natural forces of life, of nature, which provides the foundation for who we are as Native People,” McArthur said. “At the end of the day, our language, our songs, our cultural traditions are all based on the great gift of heat and light from Gimishoomisinaan Giizis (Grandfather Sun) and the many gifts of Gimaamaanaan Aki (Mother Earth). And as we move forward, we strive to utilize the many blessings from nature, with the utmost respect and adherence to the processes which preserve and conserve these precious gifts.”

The Red Lake solar power plan is divided into three phases. Phase I will cover three casinos, the Red Lake Government Center, Red Lake Nation College, the Justice Center Complex, the Humanities Facility and other large buildings. It involves installing $20 million to $30 million in solar energy equipment and providing solar energy training for the Red Lake workforce. That portion will break ground in June and save the tribe $2 million a year in energy costs.The main part of the first phase, the installation of various photo-voltaic arrays, will include Seven Clans Casinos at Red Lake, Thief River Falls, and Warroad, Red Lake Government Center, Red Lake Nation College, Humanities Center, Justice Complex, Comprehensive Health–Hospital & Nursing Home, and Boys and Girls Club.

Artist rendition of rooftop solar panels to be installed on Red Lake Nation's major buildings. (Photo: Michael Meuers)

Beyond that, the band is also in negotiations with Minnesota Power to build and operate a solar farm on ceded lands north of the reservation.

"Phase II will be the development of solar energy farms on our ceded lands up north and will consist of 40 to 100 acres of solar panels that will provide 10 to 20 megawatts of electricity to be sold to the grid, thus producing a steady revenue stream for years to come for the tribe,” McArthur said.

The solar array will help Minnesota Power comply with the state’s new solar mandate. It represents a part of the solar power that Minnesota Power needs to add by 2020 under a new law requiring investor-owned electric utilities to get 1.5 percent of their energy from the sun. Coops like Beltrami Electric are not subject to the same mandate.

“Phase III will be the development of a solar energy plant that will produce solar equipment for the industry, while providing jobs assembling solar panels for the members of Red Lake Nation,” McArthur said. "Eighty percent of phase one will be completed by the end of 2016, and we are already in the negotiating process for phase two. We hope to begin and start breaking ground on that by the end of the year. It’s going a lot quicker than we had anticipated."

Innovative Power Systems, of St. Paul, is one of the largest renewable energy design and installation companies in Minnesota, having designed and installed hundreds of solar energy systems since 1991. They will provide all electrical, structural, and civil engineering on all sites and provide training for tribal members in the solar energy industry.

“I have had a vision my whole life to help people live in better harmony with nature,” David Winkelman of Innovative Power Systems said at the ceremony. "My vision for the Red Lake Nation is to power your homes, your government buildings, your local businesses, your schools, your farms, the Seven Clans casinos, your workshops, big buildings, small buildings and anywhere electricity or heat is required, with power straight from the sun. Solar systems can eventually be installed by the members of the Red Lake Nation on their own buildings and provide a good return on investment and create jobs and an internal industry for you.”

Winkelman estimates the cost at upwards of $20 million. The band itself will only pay $100,000 for the project, with the vast majority of costs shouldered by the Olson Energy Corporation, which specializes in shuttling solar developers through the government incentive system. Olson Energy has developed a financial plan to assist in addressing the financial needs for solar energy development. U.S. tax law provides a variety of benefits to developers and owners of renewable energy projects, since non-taxed entities such as units of government cannot benefit directly from these incentives.

"We are very happy and proud that one of our first major projects is with the Red Lake Nation,” said Robert Olson, president of Olson Energy, outlining the ways that his company will work to get tax breaks and other financing that is available to tribes and municipal entities for solar. "It seems very appropriate that a Native American tribe will be one of the first projects in our endeavors to save the planet Earth in this manner.”

Seki emphasized the long-term benefit of these innovations to the tribe.

“We owe it to our future generations to protect our environment; we are doing our part here today,” Seki said. “One thing is certain: Alternative energy sources such as solar energy are the key to the future of the Red Lake Nation.”

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