Rural Renewable Energy Alliance: Getting RReal with Solar Energy and Social Justice

First, imagine a Minnesota winter

Now imagine that same winter with inadequate heat in your home and inadequate income to improve the situation. Imagine facing the choice of either heating your home or feeding your family. This is called fuel poverty.

Many families in the northern US face dilemmas like this every winter, a situation that promises to get worse as heating fuel prices continue to rise. Energy assistance programs such as LIHEAP provide essential help, but they are not a long-term solution and basically amount to an additional subsidy for fossil fuels. Low income families, meanwhile, face the same issues next year with already inadequate income and even higher fuel prices.

A Vision for the Long Term Sustainability

Jason Edens Jason Edens (known affectionately as “J”), founder and executive director of the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) envisioned a longer term, more sustainable, more empowering solution to the problem of fuel poverty.

RREAL is an award-winning 501c(3) non-profit based in Pine River, Minnesota. In 2000, J (a former high school teacher) with BJ Allen and other dedicated volunteers, created RREAL with the mission of “Making solar energy available to people of all income levels.” From humble beginnings, RREAL has grown to occupy an office and newly expanded manufacturing facility on the campus of the Hunt Utilities Group, a for-profit sustainability research company.

Solar Assistance

The flagship program, Solar Assistance, provides free solar air heating systems to families who qualify for energy assistance. The system will operate for 25-30 years with minimal maintenance and will supply between 10-30% of the family’s heating needs. This is comparable to an energy assistance program, but it will last as long as the house, reduce fossil fuel use and carbon emissions, help the family be more self-sufficient, and help us all kick our fossil fuel addiction.

Watch the video to see the impact of Solar Assistance on one family’s life.

Through Solar Assistance, RREAL installs the Solar Powered Furnace (SPF), a solar air heating system designed, patented and manufactured by RREAL. The SPF is SRCC (Solar Rating Certification Corporation) certified and is the most efficient solar heating system of its kind.

Achievements going forward

So far, Solar Assistance has helped over 100 families. In 2010, 50 families received SPF systems, an average of nearly one per week. RREAL has substantially increased the number of families assisted every year since its inception. This year, J will see the total increase by 300. While this is an ambitious goal for RREAL’s small, though recently expanded, staff and group of volunteers, J recognizes that it is just a drop in the ocean of fossil fuel heated homes.

That is why RREAL started the Portland (Maine) to Portland (Oregon) Initiative, a technology transfer program through which RREAL licenses other groups to manufacture the SPF system and replicate RREAL’s program in their communities. RREAL provides training and program management support to help get these local programs off the ground. This generates living wage jobs in renewable energy. Just one more benefit to the community!

Renewable Energy Education

RREAL’s activities don’t stop there. As befits a former teacher, J knows it’s critical to educate the next generation. RREAL’s outreach and education program teaches everyone, but especially high school and college students about renewable energy. This includes a program that trains at-risk youth in solar installation, providing them with valuable skills that will be increasingly in demand as the cost of solar energy decreases with improvements in technology. RREAL also advocates for laws at the local, state, and federal levels that support the adoption of renewables.

How you can help

There are a number of ways you can aid RREAL in it’s quest to provide effective long term solutions to the problems at hand:

●  Donate: Money, a reliable van or truck or other needed equipment.
●  Volunteer
●  Intern
●  Buy your solar energy system from RREAL.
●  Become an SPF dealer.
●  Participate in the Portland to Portland Initiative: bring the benefits of RREAL to your community.

RREAL is a unique organization that, though small, is creating huge waves of positivity that will move our country toward a cleaner, more socially just and sustainable future. If you have similar organizations within your area please let us know. Also if you have benefited from RREAL’s work, share your thoughts and experiences with us on the Comments section of this article.

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  • Thanks for the great article about a great organization. I work at Leech Lake Tribal College (which, incidentally, is the site where the last photo in the article was taken!) and have had a chance to work with J on a couple of products. RREAL does great work, and is very easy to work with. Two thumbs way up!

    In fact, Leech Lake Tribal College learned so much from working with J that it is planning a large solar array (if the funding can ever be found!) as a major part of its sustainable campus initiative.

    • Awesome stuff indeed! Renewable energy is going to be huge in the coming years. Hope the proper funding can be found, a major sustainable campus initiative will not only help the environment but also aid in educating the youth about the power of renewable energy and what it means to us down the road.