Jason Edens was looking for a hand up, not a hand out.
But Edens’ experience 12 years ago, trying to get a loan to purchase solar energy panels to heat his Backus home while earning his master’s degree in environmental studies from Bemidji State University, turned out to be an opportunity in disguise.
Edens and his wife wanted to get a loan to purchase solar panels for their home as a way to lower their overall heating costs for years, rather than applying for heating assistance, which would help for only one winter season. They weren’t able to get that loan.
As fate would have it, he later found a way to get his hands on used solar panels for his home. Back in 2000, Edens discovered a St. Paul family was having solar panels removed from their newly purchased home because they were too “ugly.” Edens literally stepped in front of the Dumpster and was given permission by the homeowner to take them for free.
He took those panels home and a new nonprofit organization was born, right in his Backus garage. Edens started buying used panels and refurbishing them to install on homes for low-income families to help reduce their energy costs, too. He operated his volunteer organization out of his garage for five years until 2005.
The Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, or RREAL, was then created. RREAL, which is now located at the Hunt Utilities Group campus in Pine River, operates a solar assistance program that equips qualifying low-income homes with solar heating systems built at its facility in Pine River. Families eligible for fuel assistance and have appropriate solar sites can qualify for the program.
Roger Garton, RReal technical director, said families who receive the solar heating systems do so at no cost to them. They are paid for through private grants, donations and funded through RREAL’s commercial work.
Garton said a typical residential set-up costs about $5,000.
RREAL has installed the systems in homes throughout the Midwest and has trained weatherization crews from community action programs to do the installations themselves. He said they try to install about 16 solar heating systems in low-income homes per year.
At the beginning of 2011, RREAL had a total of about 100 systems installed in homes. Since that time, they’ve added an additional 150 installations and hope to add another 70 homes to that list by the end of 2012.
Business is growing, which allows the company to help make renewable energy accessible to people of all income levels, those who qualify for the assistance program and those who are able to pay their market rates. The solar air heat systems can offset up to around 30 percent of a family’s winter heating costs with clean, renewable energy.
Garton is passionate about his work, as are many of his colleagues. He started at RREAL about 2-1/2 years ago as an unpaid engineer. He had just graduated from the University of Minnesota with a mechanical engineering degree and felt good about the work that RREAL was trying to accomplish. He put in four months and more than 200 hours of volunteer time before becoming an Americorps Vista volunteer there for a year before being hired as technical director.
Garton said the social justice piece, bringing renewable energy to low-income families, is important to him. He believes families shouldn’t have to choose between heating their homes and buying food.
“You talk to these families who are struggling ... in some homes they have the thermostat set at 50 degrees in the winter,” Garton said.
Garton said existing energy assistance programs are not a long-term solution and serve as an indirect subsidy for fuels. He said solar energy, by replacing up to 30 percent of a home’s heat load, pays for itself within 10-15 years.
Garton said the goal for the low-income assistance program is that families can get off energy assistance programs while using clean, renewable technology to heat their homes.
RREAL has partnered with programs like CAP and Habitat for Humanity to install solar energy for low-income families. The only maintenance required after the panels are installed is to replace the air filter every six to 12 months, much like a regular furnace.
The company’s patent-pending solar-powered panels bring green jobs to the Pine River community. All materials used for the solar furnaces are U.S.-sourced and 100 percent Minnesota made. Garton said they try to keep their resources as local as possible.
Garton said leasing office and manufacturing space from Hunt Utilities Group has created a great working relationship between the two like-minded organizations.
RREAL now has 10 employees. The organization doubled the size of its manufacturing facility a year ago. Garton said solar energy got a bit of a bad reputation in the 1970s when some systems weren’t as reliable as they are now. He said many governmental agencies are looking toward solar energy to save on heating costs. Brainerd Public Utilities, the Royalton City Hall and the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport’s vehicle garage are some local examples of governmental agencies that are using RREAL solar energy.
Garton said Germany leads the world in solar energy use and yet Minnesota has twice as many solar resources as Germany. Minnesota’s solar energy usage is highly under-utilized, he said. Minnesota is comparable in solar resources to Houston, Texas, and Miami, Fla., said Garton.
Garton said as more people are wanting to become less reliant on utility companies and wanting to live “off the grid,” solar energy is becoming increasingly popular.
Outreach and education is also a huge part of what RREAL is all about, Garton explained. They try to reach as many people as possible, particularly young people, to educate them about the benefits of solar energy. RREAL’s outreach and education programs include service learning, community service, presentations and classroom education opportunities. They also offer hands-on training, volunteer and employment opportunities to at-risk youth.
RREAL also provides solar contracting services, designing and installing solar electric systems, solar hot water systems and solar air heating systems for both residential and commercial properties. All proceeds support RREAL’s solar assistance program.
Renewable energy isn’t just a company motto — employees live it, too. The company has about a dozen refurbished bicycles outside its front door, available for any employee who wants to use one to go into downtown Pine River or travel around the HUG campus.
When a robin built a nest and laid three eggs on a company extension ladder this spring, employees figured the bird could borrow it for as long as she needed it.
“For three months we haven’t been able to use that extension ladder,” Garton said with a smile. “It’s now the bird’s.”
Garton, like many company employees, often puts in over 50-plus hours of work each week. While he would be making a considerably larger salary than what he makes now in private enterprise as an engineer, he simply loves what he does.
“You can’t put a price on feeling good at the end of the day,” Garton said. “It’s important work, somebody needs to be doing it.”
For more information on RREAL, visit its website, rreal.org.