A Tribe in Northern Minnesota Shows the Country How to Do Community Solar
By Susan Cosier
Last summer on a reservation in northern Minnesota, students from Leech Lake Tribal College earned their solar installation licenses while they dug, drilled and connected five photovoltaic arrays. The panels shine blue on the plain, reflecting the sky as they generate roughly 235 megawatts of electricity a year, enough to help 100 families pay their energy bills. This is community solar in action.
Projects like this one are going up across the country and helping to diversify access to clean energy. Utility companies generate most U.S. solar power (about 60 percent), with the rest coming from rooftop setups on houses and other buildings. But for those who rent, own less sunny properties, or simply can't afford an array of their own, community solar projects (or "solar gardens") are an attractive option.
From the end of 2016 through 2017, the energy generated by such installations more than doubled nationwide, rising from 347 to 734 megawatts. Though they still account for just 1 percent of the solar market, community solar programs are currently working with 228 utilities in 36 states.
"Those people that are lower income also believe in renewable energy. They also believe in being better stewards of the earth," said Brandy Toft, environmental deputy director for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. "They want to do what they can, but they don't always have the means."
In a typical community solar arrangement, individuals and groups use a portion of the renewable electricity generated by arrays located nearby (on a church rooftop, a farm field, etc.). The rest of the electricity feeds into the grid, and the utility companies compensate solar garden subscribers with a credit on their energy bills.
So far, 29 states require utility companies to buy energy generated by renewable sources. Several strong community solar programs are emerging in the Midwest, said Samuel Garcia, a fellow of NRDC's Climate & Clean Energy program. Illinois passed an energy law in 2016 establishing statewide community solar programs. Minnesota also has a statewide program, and Missouri regulators have approved the state's first utility-initiated community solar project.
The Leech Lake project, however, is unique. Its completion last year marked the first time a community installed a solar garden to help residents in need, and it is part of the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The program, which distributes about $3.5 billion annually to offset heating and cooling expenses, began in the 1960s as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's war on poverty.
Energy assistance is "a safety net for families that can't pay their energy bill," said Jason Edens, director of Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL), a nonprofit that focuses on making renewable energy accessible to low-income populations. And that safety net is essential, because in the swelteringly hot or bone-chillingly cold corners of our country, having air-conditioning or heat can mean life or death.
About 42 percent of the 9,000 tribe members on the Leech Lake reservation live below the poverty line, but the tribe almost never receives enough LIHEAP money to help them all. Some residents don't even bother applying for assistance. Further complicating matters, the organizations that distribute funds locally have trouble anticipating how much to expect because Congress makes different allocations each year. The problem extends beyond the reservation. Minnesota residents receive $116 million a year from the LIHEAP program, but just 20 percent of the eligible population receives funding, said Edens.
In 2015, Toft and Edens decided to do something about it for Leech Lake. Soon they were making inroads with fundraising efforts, figuring out which of Minnesota's 170 utility companies or cooperatives they should work with, and finally handling price negotiations. In the end, about half the electricity generated by the solar arrays supplies the tribal buildings with electricity and the other half goes into the grid. The tribe gets an average of $0.09 per megawatt from the utilities, which comes to roughly $25,000 a year. At the end of the year, that money goes directly to the local energy assistance provider, allowing more households to get help keeping the lights and heat on.
Rural Renewable Energy Alliance workers and students and faculty of Leech Lake Tribal Collage, 2017.Ryan James White
"Now we know we have this revenue that's helping our people," said Toft. "We know we can pretty much count on it as long as the sun shines."
The project also addresses a flaw in the energy assistance program—its reliance on carbon-intensive energy sources, like coal, that often fluctuate in price. Edens would like to more fully integrate solar power into the federal program and create a long-term, fiscally responsible, low-carbon solution that empowers families. But that, he said, could take significant investment from outside sources, as it did with Leech Lake.
The state of Minnesota and a number of donors, including the Minnesota Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund and the Bush Foundation, contributed $600,000 to the effort. That capital may not be available for every project, but what happened on the reservation is setting a great example for others. For instance, RREAL is currently working on another solar garden that helps supplement the energy assistance received by a low-income community in southern Vermont, and Edens said he will use the model in other places, too.
The Leech Lake tribe plans to replicate its success as well—installing two more arrays and bolstering the energy efficiency of 22 other buildings—including its community centers and its Northern Lights and White Oak casinos.
"I think this project was a catalyst, not only for future projects like it elsewhere but also for Leech Lake," said Toft. And why not? Like the sun, solar power should shine for everyone.
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By Eric Tate and Christopher Emrich
Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.