RReal gains status in clean energy world

Southeastern Vermont Community Action ribbon cutting ceremony earlier this year.


A garage start-up in 2000, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit RREAL (Rural Renewable Energy Alliance) now has a national and international presence as a leader in scalable clean energy solutions sprung from their humble home in Backus, Minn.

Community Solar for Community Action is the model that RREAL has brought to the world stage and won them national attention this year as runner up for the Best Low- and Moderate-Income Projects competition. One hundred seventy teams from 43 states and territories participated in the challenge through the U.S. Department of Energy.

Erica Bjelland, RREAL’s program development specialist, says it was a cumulative process over two years that led to the award. Recent projects providing photovoltaic solar arrays to the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in Cass Lake and the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO) in Duluth led to the Vermont community solar garden that will provide solar power to 50 low-income families.

“The goal was to put forward a model to serve low-income groups, and we showed that community solar was scalable in other states,” Bjelland said.

Despite the resignation of the executive director and founder of RREAL, Jason Edens, this summer, the group shows no signs of slowing down on its commitment to energy security and environmental stewardship. A similar project currently under way in Little Falls unites RREAL with Minnesota Power and the Tricounty Community Action Agency to bring solar energy to low-income disabled military veterans.

“The Little Falls project will take what we have done a step further with recipients able to see cost savings on their electric bill,” Bjelland said.

During the latest state legislative session, RREAL’s was the only solar project to have funding approved. They will receive $500,000 for a joint project with the White Earth reservation, which is taking over manufacturing of RREAL’s solar furnaces and developing a technical school program to train and certify installers of the solar unit.

RREAL has also obtained funding through LCCMR for an upcoming community solar project to build five solar arrays throughout the White Earth Nation following the same model for clean energy access.

Davis Leino-Mills, chair of the RREAL Board of Directors, learned early on that RREAL was capable of using solar energy to reduce the energy burden on low-income households.

In his previous role as director of the Ottertail-Wadena Community Action Council, Leino-Mills first worked with RREAL on one of its inaugural projects: Bringing energy savings to recipients of federal energy assistance through the installation of solar furnaces.

“RREAL was the pioneer to use solar for energy assistance through a community action agency It wasn’t allowed previously, but now it is seen as a legitimate tool against energy poverty where the savings get passed on to clients,” said Leino-Mills.

Using solar as an educational opportunity along with a cost saving and sustainable energy source, RREAL completed a 1.5MW solar installation in 2019 for Pine River-Backus School District, Pequot Lakes School District and Central Lakes College. In addition to cutting carbon emissions and significantly reducing energy costs for the schools, curriculum using data from the solar energy system is being integrated into classes.

Expanding to an intercontinental reach in 2017, RREAL completed a solar installation at Phebe Hospital in Liberia, Africa. 

Mary Jo Mettler, now RREAL’s board treasurer, says that project started during a trip she made to Liberia with the Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

“We asked the medical director at the hospital in Phebe what the biggest need was and were surprised that it was not treatment for a disease, but reliable electricity,” Mettler said.

Running on diesel-powered generators, with expensive fuel costs and unreliable delivery and fuel quality, the Phebe hospital saw frequent power outages. Realizing that solar energy would be more reliable and affordable, Mettler reached out to RREAL, and a collaboration began four years of fundraising by the ECLA group, ultimately resulting in the solar installation.

From that project, other hospitals and communities in Africa have reached out, asking for solar assistance, and RREAL has plans for a similar project in Uganda within the next year.

RREAL founder, Edens, will stay on to aid in the transition to new executive director John Vaughn, who begins his position Oct. 1.