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Native View: Solar, wind mean jobs for Minnesota

The administration of President Donald Trump recently announced a 30 percent tariff on imported solar panels to bolster, one assumes, a dying fossils-fuels industry and, possibly, to promote "Made in the USA."

Winona LaDukeAt the same time, the solar industry is predicting some significant declines in the market, especially in utility scale. These tariffs may reduce projected new solar construction in the U.S. by 7.6 gigawatts over the next five years, according to GTM Research. We shall see.

If Trump truly believes in free-market capitalism, he might let utilities build with the lowest-cost panels — and seize what Bloomberg News calls the fastest-growing U.S. sources of electricity: solar and wind. Why doesn't he promote retraining all those workers in dying energy industries for the escalating renewables industries?

Minnesota added enough solar panels in 2017 to power about 53,000 homes. The state's overall capacity is now at more than 700 megawatts, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce. "Our goal is to possibly reach a full gigawatt of solar in Minnesota by 2019," Commerce Commissioner Jessica Looman has stated.

Heliene, the only solar photovoltaic panel manufacturer left in Minnesota, has received the final piece of a loan package — $3.5 million from the state ("Iron Range solar plant wants state loan for expansion," Jan. 22). The plant should employ 50 workers by July. Up to $1 million of those credits would be forgiven if the Iron Mountain solar plant has 70 employees within four years. Heliene will itself invest more than $5 million in overhauling the plant, including installing a new production line.

This sounds like U.S. jobs, which is what Trump wants. Now he has to put his money where his mouth is. Renewable energy has accounted for two thirds of the new power added in the world for the past two years, most of it solar. India and China are leading with the U.S. as a third-largest market.

On the White Earth reservation, 20 kilowatts was just installed on a tribal school in Pine Point. Similar projects are underway in other villages.

While that's a small amount compared to the Sherco coal-fired power plant, (2 gigawatts), the future of solar continues to be bright, and Minnesota is in an interesting position. We are as sunny as Florida and have, like states to the west, vast solar and wind potential.

Minnesota's solar gardens continue to grow. Leech Lake reservation has created a shared community solar project, helping low-income tribal members. The project is the first in the nation to formally integrate with an energy-assistance program.

"There's a disproportional impact on our low-income neighbors when the cost of energy goes up," explains Jason Edens, director of the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, or RREAL, a partner on the project with Leech Lake Ojibwe. "If we can stabilize the cost of energy on behalf of our low-income communities, we can address one of the root causes of energy poverty."

The 200-kilowatt capacity system produces about 235 megawatt hours per year. Part of that electricity will feed directly into tribal buildings; the rest will be sold to local utilities.

In the meantime, Tesla's solar roof tiles cost about one third more than a slate roof and three times more than an asphalt shingle roof. They are selling out, ahead of time. And they are American made. According to the federal government's NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) study, Minnesota has the potential to generate 38.5 percent of its electricity from rooftop solar, from 23,100 megawatts of solar panels. St. Paul can generate 27 percent of its electricity using 800 megawatts, and Minneapolis 26 percent from 1,000 megawatts.

Tell me why we wouldn't want to do that?

Winona LaDuke lives on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota. She has written six books on environmental and Native American issues and is executive director of Honor the Earth (honorearth.org), a national Native American environmental foundation.