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OSAGE— Neat stacks of aluminum sheets, insulation, and dark metal frames sit atop long tables in a quiet northern Minnesota manufacturing facility. A group of Native American workers here is assembling the components into a green energy technology with the aim of lowering heating bills and emissions across tribal lands and beyond.
An Anishinaabe-run nonprofit based on the White Earth Nation Reservation, 8th Fire Solar, produces and installs solar thermal panels, a lesser-known sun-powered technology used to help heat homes and buildings.
The firm is part of a growing effort to expand solar power on tribal lands in Minnesota, which advocates say taps into belief systems that call for working in concert with nature, while saving people money and pursuing tribal energy independence.
“We can honor our traditional beliefs with the new technology,” said 8th Fire sales and marketing director Gwe Gasco.
Unlike rooftop photovoltaic solar, solar thermal panels mount on the southern side of a structure, absorb heat from the sun, and pass it through to the inside. For a typical household, it can lower heating bills between 30 and 40 percent, Gasco said, which means using less fossil fuels for heat.
That’s particularly important this year because experts say heating prices are likely to be high. The price of natural gas remains high due to the war between Russia and Ukraine, and global markets resetting from the COVID pandemic, according to Annie Levenson-Falk, executive director of the advocacy nonprofit Citizens Utility Board.
“I think folks are really feeling the pinch,” she said.
Meeting a need
Indigenous people in Minnesota feel the heating and energy bill pinch disproportionately, data shows. The state’s reservations are in colder, rural areas that are less frequently on standard natural gas grids, meaning more people have to heat with pricier fuels like propane. The housing stock also tends to be older and less energy-efficient.
In Minnesota, Native Americans on federal energy assistance had the highest bills and the lowest household incomes during the 2021-2022 heating season, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce.
Last winter, 127,638 households across the state received energy assistance totalling $206,133,387. Native American households on energy assistance paid $2,691 annually on average to heat and power their homes, much more than any other group, state data shows, and received an average $2,337 in assistance. Other racial groups on energy assistance averaged just over $2,000 per year in heating and electric costs and received an average around $1,600 in assistance.
“We see fuel costs as an equity issue,” said Kevin Lee, deputy commissioner of energy resources with the Minnesota Department of Commerce.
Applications for energy assistance are now open in Minnesota, and it’s better to sign up earlier to receive benefits when needed, Lee said. Households of four can earn up to $58,0000 and still qualify for energy assistance, which is a federal program administered largely by local Community Action Partnership agencies. Signing up for energy assistance also puts families in the application process for weatherization assistance, which can lead to energy audits that result in new furnaces or insulation that bring long term savings. (Tips for saving on energy year round.)
Many households who qualify for energy assistance don’t apply, Levenson-Falk said. Families may not realize they qualify, or that such funds are available. Making the process easier could result in more families enrolling, she believes.
Native Americans are more likely to be energy burdened—meaning they pay a higher percentage of their income on power and heating— than other groups, according to data from the United States Department of Energy. The average Minnesota household spends 2 percent of its income on energy, compared to 7 percent on White Earth Reservation and 6 percent on the Red Lake Reservation. Heating costs have risen in recent years, and as 8th Fire Solar has grown, it’s hearing more demand from tribal members fed up with high bills.
“It’s getting crazy. People are getting sick of it and thinking more about alternatives,” Gasco said.
More than half of 8th Fire’s installations are on reservation land, a goal for the organization.
While 66 percent of Minnesotans use natural gas for heating, some 11 percent use propane or another delivered fuel source, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Natural gas prices more than doubled from August 2021 to August 2022, according to government trackers. While propane costs are more stable, the fuel source is generally more expensive. Propane is primarily used in rural areas off the natural gas grid, and rural areas of Minnesota, and is more polluting than natural gas.
Harnessing the sun
Solar thermal uses the sun strictly to produce heat. The technology is affordable, and fairly simple to install, according to Joshua Pearce, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Canada’s Western University in London, Ontario. Pearce studies solar and renewable energy, with a focus on how the technology can be used to heat cold weather environments.
Solar thermal first boomed in the United States during the energy crisis of the late 1970s, Pearce said. But because it was known for being simple to install, many people tried to build their own systems, and failed. The technology got a bad reputation.
But solar thermal works and is very efficient, Pearce said. The technology is common in Korea, and the cost remains relatively low. Pearce favors combining rooftop solar with an electric powered heat pump for a total clean energy system, but said solar thermal is a good way to lower fuel consumption and emissions.
“If you’re just looking at pure efficiency, you can easily have a solar thermal system,” Pearce said.
In Minnesota, there are large thermal solar installations at the Minneapolis-St.Paul International Airport and the Camp Ripley Minnesota National Guard campus.
“Not only are people using these panels to significantly reduce their heating needs for their homes, we’re seeing examples of using them on unheated garages and bringing those temperatures up well above freezing. It’s a simple, effective technology,” said Joel Haskard, co-director of the University of Minnesota Extension Clean Energy Resource Teams.
8th Fire Solar is a partner organization of Honor The Earth, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that advocates for Native environmental issues and sustainable communities. It started in 2017, after partnering with the northern Minnesota nonprofit Rural Renewable Energy Alliance. The Rural Renewable Energy Alliance had developed a highly-efficient solar thermal heating technology, and transferred its model to 8th Fire, which officially launched in spring 2018.
Unlike photovoltaic solar, which features several small rectangles on a panel, solar thermal panels use one large, coated aluminum absorber plate to create a solar powered furnace.
The sun hits the plate and heat it generates passes through layers of space and insulation. The interior of the panel is connected by a duct to a structure at each end. Air enters through an intake manifold, passes through the absorber plate to absorb heat, and is pushed into the structure by a fan that is linked to a controller and thermostat. The solar thermal system works in tandem with a structure’s existing heating infrastructure.
The panels are 4-feet wide and come in 8-foot and 6-foot lengths. They look a bit like big screen televisions. The panels are mounted onto south facing walls using an aluminum racking system. A weather-tight seal is formed using foam insulation and gaskets.
The panels alone will get a structure up to 40 to 50 degrees, and people can use their fuel source to heat the remainder of the structure if desired. A typical, two-panel system costs about $5,500. The system can pay for itself in about five years, 8th Fire says.
For barns, greenhouses, or work sheds, the panels really shine and can take care of all heating needs, Gasco said.
Building a workforce
The name 8th Fire refers to Anishinaabe prophecies, Gasco said. Currently, humanity is in the time of the 7th Fire, when the Anishinaabe believe people must choose between the worn down, scorched-Earth path and a green, new path. Moving toward the green path will light the 8th Fire, and a chance for a better future.
The 8th Fire facility in Osage sits across the road from Smoky Hills State Forest, with ample birch trees showing golden leaves in late autumn. The workshop is full of insulation sheets, aluminum absorber plates, and rubber gaskets.
Gasco, a tall 22-year-old who worked as an installer for three years before transitioning to 8th Fire’s sales and marketing coordinator, is proud to build the panels with a Native workforce.
8th Fire currently employs 10 people, but increased demand is driving more need for workers. Mostly, the existing staff wants to train installers so they can focus on building more panels. They’ve had training sessions with various tribal nations, and have future training events planned with colleges from Leech Lake and Mille Lacs Ojibwe bands.
The nonprofit is hosting a green jobs conference at the Shooting Star Casino in Walker, Minnesota on December 16.
The group is trying to spread its knowledge around tribal communities in Minnesota so that Native people can build out more green infrastructure and have more job opportunities.
“We want to stimulate the tribal economies,” Gasco said.