Solar array makes dream a reality

The 16 kilowatt system is projected to generate enough energy to save about $15,000 a year for a service life of 30 years.

Photo by Ivy Vainio

The striking portrait of an Anishinabe woman jingle dress dancer rising above the roof of the American Indian Community Housing building in downtown Duluth is a fitting backdrop to the shining solar array, set like stage lights to emphasize her point.

The mural is titled ““Ganawenjiige Onigam,” or “Caring for Duluth” in the Ojibwe language, and embodies AICHO’s vision of being caretakers for people and planet, with the solar array an extension of that concept.

“American Indians have always been stewards of the Earth, protectors of the water, plants and four-leggeds (animals) and two-leggeds (people). Respecting and taking care of everything is embedded into our culture,” said Ivy Vainio.

Vainio, Climate and Culture Resilience Coordinator, said everything they do at AICHO, including the rooftop project and solar array, is done with an American Indian perspective.

“American Indians didn’t get the right to practice their own belief system until a law was passed in 1978. That’s why adding cultural values into the mix and creating awareness of traditions is so important in everything we do here,” Vainio stated.

AICHO has 29 low-income housing units, some of it dedicated as a battered women’s shelter, with a mission to enhance programming around American Indian culture.

The solar array is just one piece of a vast project that will use the rooftop to its fullest advantage. It’s one of five national recipients for the Enterprise Foundation grant of $100,000 to provide staff and programming around climate and cultural resilience.

With the staffing infrastructure in place, dreams of a new roof, mural, solar panels, rooftop garden, rainwater collection system and rooftop kitchen became real possibilities.

Then the real work of fundraising began, with a funding array of contributors lining up to turn the project into a reality. Contributions of $20,000 from the Ordean Foundation, $10,000 from the Lloyd K. Johnson Foundation and $24,500 through a Minnesota Power program were the mainstays that moved the project forward, with further funding from Minnesota Interfaith Light & Power and the Whole Foods Co-op helping to bring the new roof, stunning mural at AICHO and the solar array over the finish line in the fall of 2017.

Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) installed the solar panels, and director Jason Edens said the company was eager to be a part of such a forward- thinking project. He believes that solar energy is a potent tool for empowering individuals with low-income, and the agencies that serve them.

“The reason RREAL is so invested in this project is that it so perfectly aligns with our mission of fighting poverty with solar power,” said Edens, something that he calls energy justice.

RREAL was not hired as just the average contractor, but a collaborator who worked alongside AICHO and other stakeholders in fundraising to see the project cross the finish line.

“We were invested way above and beyond simply designing and building the asset. We wanted to help make a dream a reality,” Edens stated. That dream is affordable housing for people that are struggling economically.

Along with the Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light organization, RREAL petitioned the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to ask Minnesota Power to invest in the project, resulting in nearly $25,000 put toward what Edens calls “low-income solar.”

RREAL’s installation at Leech Lake reservation last year was the first low-income solar community project in the state, leaving RREAL with the goal of integrating solar into low-income energy assistance projects across the country.

“Solar is useful in affordable housing projects because there is a direct connection between clean energy and stabilizing energy costs, it’s going to empower residents,” Edens said.

Going beyond energy, Michelle LeBeau, executive director of AICHO, said the solar project has launched a momentum that resonates with AICHO and one they want to perpetuate.

“This is leading us to build our capacity for sustainability as an organization. We are not just stopping here,” said LeBeau. She explained that AICHO is in the strategic planning phase for creating money-making enterprises and economic development opportunities that will create independence from reliance on government funding.

The new gift shop is part of that momentum, and coming soon will be a coffee shop added to the mix. While LeBeau said the gift shop showcasing American Indian artists felt right, they had their doubts that it would be a money-maker. Six months in, they have exceeded all expectations with $35,000 in sales by more than 77 artists.

Vaino said the role of art at AICHO is not to be underestimated, and for her has played a powerful role in developing as an artist.

“At first, I didn’t see myself as an artist – just a person who likes to take photographs – until my first show at AICHO empowered me,” said Vainio.

Now, with several exhibits to her credit, a piece in the Tweed Museum collection, and several at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, she said it’s critical to have a place where indigenous art is being celebrated and sold.

“Creativity has always been a part of who we are in the indigenous community, and AICHO has been visionary in being one of the only places for diverse artists to get their work out there,” Vaino stated.

If you’re wondering how low-sloped solar panels work in snowy conditions, it’s a logical question.

“There’s always this tension between form and function with solar panels where solar energy is so site specific,” said Edens.

On AICHO’s flat roof with a covering that could not have attachments, the solar installation had to be at a low angle with ballasts weighing it down. That makes it vulnerable to wind, hence the decreased angle. However, the slightly sloped flat panels can make a choice place for snow to build up, inhibiting their ability to generate power.

However, when clear, Edens says the low-angle can also produce a lot of energy from February to October when the sun is set lower in the sky.

The 16-kilowatt system is projected to generate enough energy to save about $15,000 a year for a service life of 30 years.

“For a nonprofit, those are significant savings, and unrestricted dollars that can now be put back into innovating and serving clients,” said Edens.

Kitty Mayo is a North Shore-based freelance writer.