OSAGE, Minn. – Neat piles of aluminum sheets, insulation and dark metal frames lie on long tables in a quiet northern Minnesota manufacturing plant. A group of Native American workers assemble the components into a green energy technology with the goal of reducing heating bills and emissions on tribal lands and beyond.
8th Fire Solar, an Anishinaabe-run nonprofit based on the White Earth reservation, produces and installs solar thermal panels – a lesser-known solar technology used to help heat homes and buildings.
The company is part of a growing effort to expand solar power to tribal lands in Minnesota, which advocates say taps into belief systems that call for working in concert with nature, while saving energy. money and pursuing tribal energy independence.
“We can honor our traditional beliefs with new technology,” said Gwe Gasco, 8th Fire’s director of sales and marketing.
Unlike rooftop solar PV, solar thermal panels mount on the south side of a structure, absorb heat from the sun and transmit it inside. For a typical household, this can reduce heating bills by 30 to 40 percent, Gasco said, which means using less fossil fuel for heating.
This is particularly important this year as heating prices are likely to be high, experts say. The price of natural gas remains high due to the war between Russia and Ukraine and the reset of global markets after the COVID pandemic, according to Annie Levenson-Falk, executive director of the nonprofit Citizens Utility. Board of Minnesota.
Indigenous people in Minnesota are feeling the heat and energy bill disproportionately, the data shows. The state’s reserves are in cooler rural areas that are less frequently connected to standard natural gas grids, meaning more people need to heat themselves with more expensive fuels like propane. The housing stock also tends to be older and less energy efficient.
In Minnesota, Native Americans receiving federal energy assistance had the highest bills and 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 totaling $206 million. Native American households receiving energy assistance paid an average of $2,691 per year to heat and power their homes, far more than any other group, according to state data, and received an average assistance of $2,337 .
Other racial groups receiving energy assistance paid an average of just over $2,000 a year in heat and electricity costs and received an average of about $1,600 in assistance.
“We view fuel costs as a matter of fairness,” said Kevin Lee, deputy commissioner of energy resources for the Minnesota Department of Commerce.
Applications for energy assistance are now open in Minnesota, and it’s best to register early to receive benefits if needed, Lee said. Four-person households can earn up to $58,0000 while qualifying for energy assistance, which is a federal program administered largely by local Community Action Partnership agencies.
According to data from the US Department of Energy, Native Americans are more likely to spend a higher percentage of their income on electricity and heat than other groups. The average Minnesota household spends 2% of its income on energy, compared to 7% on the White Earth reservation and 6% on the Red Lake reservation.
More than half of 8th Fire’s facilities are on reserved land, a goal for the organization.
Unlike solar photovoltaic, which has several small rectangles on a panel, solar thermal panels use a large coated aluminum absorber plate to create a solar oven.
The sun hits the plate and the heat it generates passes through the layers of space and insulation. The interior of the panel is connected by a conduit 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 connected to a controller and thermostat. The solar thermal system works in tandem with a structure’s existing heating infrastructure.
The panels look a bit like big-screen televisions and are mounted on south-facing walls using an aluminum shelving system. A weathertight seal is formed using foam insulation and gaskets.
The name 8th Fire refers to Anishinaabe prophecies, Gasco said. Currently, humanity is in the time of the seventh fire, when the Anishinaabe believe that people must choose between the worn path of scorched earth and a new green path. Heading down the green path will light the eighth fire and a chance for a brighter future.
Currently, 8th Fire employs 10 people, but with increased demand comes an increased need for workers.
The nonprofit organization is hosting a green jobs conference at the Shooting Star Casino in Walker, Minnesota on December 16.
The group aims to spread its knowledge to tribal communities in Minnesota so that natives can build more green infrastructure and have more job opportunities.
“We want to stimulate tribal economies,” Gasco said.
This story comes from Sahan Newspaper, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota’s immigrants and communities of color. Subscribe to his free newsletter to receive stories in your inbox.
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