The recently completed solar farm near Black Bear Casino Resort is just the latest effort by the Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to reduce its own carbon footprint and make the world a better place for future generations.
Rows and rows of solar panels stretch across five acres of land in what was once a gravel pit off Moorhead Road. Now - after nearly a year of construction from start to finish - it is an example of what a renewable energy future looks like, and it will generate enough electricity to power more than 150 homes, or about 10 percent of the casino’s electric needs.
A large crowd of Band officials, political dignitaries and project partners gathered on a hill overlooking the solar farm Tuesday morning, to celebrate the completion of the $2.2 million 1-megawatt solar project, which is the largest to come online in the Northland so far.
The ceremonies began with traditional Anishinaabe blessings and rituals by community member Ricky Defoe, who spoke in Ojibwe before explaining in English what meaning lay behind his words and actions.
“We know the power of the sun, that’s why we’re here,” he said. “We don’t subscribe to the paradigm of dominion over all. We are in a relationship with [the earth]. That’s why we’re grateful for the power of the sun, the power of the wind, the power of the fire and the power of water.
“We’re always thinking of those yet to be born,” Defoe added. “These are things we do for all of us. Not just Anishinaabe.”
After he spoke, Defoe, dressed in traditional Anishinaabe clothing, smoked a ceremonial pipe in the long grasses on the ridge overlooking the solar farm, with its straight shining rows of dark blue glass forming a wide triangle behind him. Defoe representing the traditions of the Anishinaabe, the solar panels representing the future.
Supporters say solar is an emission-free energy choice that will help cut pollutants, including carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas the majority of scientists agree is accelerating global climate change. The Fond du Lac solar farm is expected to cut carbon dioxide emissions by about 2.6 million pounds per year compared to coal-generated electricity.
In a short speech, Band Chairman Kevin Dupuis said he wanted to make sure the Fond du Lac Environmental Department got credit for thinking of the project and making it happen, including Environmental Programs Manager Wayne Dupuis and Bruno Zagar, environmental specialist for the Band.
“Fond du Lac takes our responsibility for environmental stewardship seriously,” Wayne Dupuis said when he took his turn at the microphone. “We formed our own climate change work group in 2007, and we’re on pace to have 40 percent reduction of our carbon footprint by 2020.”
He rattled off a list of things the Band is doing to reduce its energy consumption, including construction of the county’s first LEED-certified building in 2010, appropriately home to the Resource Management division, plus research on ways to use dry wood chips as renewable energy, energy audits and more.
The environmental programs manager also thanked all the different partners that helped make the project a reality, including Minnesota Power, the Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development, the National Renewable Energy Lab and Hunt Electric (which designed, engineered and installed the photovoltaic solar complex), among others.
The Fond du Lac project has its roots in a major federal court settlement agreement between federal regulators and Minnesota Power filed in court in July 2014. Minnesota Power agreed to pay a $1.4 million civil penalty over alleged pollution-control violations and spend another $4.2 million on conservation and clean-energy projects including the Fond du Lac solar farm. The Duluth-based utility denied any wrongdoing in the case.
Amy Rutledge, Minnesota Power spokeswoman, said the utility company was excited for the Fond du Lac project to come online.
“They are a valued customer and Minnesota Power and the Fond du Lac Band have a long history of working together on renewable energy resources in our region,” she said. “We have worked together on the licensing of our St. Louis River hydro facilities. We provided support for the installation of a smaller solar system on the Fond du Lac Resource Management Building. And now Minnesota Power is pleased to have provided technical support and solutions for this larger 1-megawatt solar facility.”
Minnesota Power Chief Operating Officer Brad Oachs was at the gathering Tuesday, and talked about the innovation and renewable energy the project represents, adding the power company is at 25 percent renewable energy now, with the goal of getting to one-third in the next several years.
The Band says it’s already met its Kyoto Protocol carbon reduction goals four years ahead of its 2020 goal, and has added energy-efficient LED lighting to many buildings and smaller solar arrays on the Ojibwe School powwow grounds and the Band’s previously mentioned Resource Management Division building.
“We’re making a dent,” Wayne Dupuis said later. “You have to make it a goal for it to happen, but we’re nearing the tipping point [for climate change]. I just hope we’re not beyond [that point] already.”
Renewable energy is making big gains across the country, according to Dr. Ed Nam, Environmental Protection Agency Region 5 air and radiation director, who noted that the U.S. has three times the wind and 20 times the solar power it had eight years ago, and that solar is creating jobs 10 times faster than the rest of the economy. A 10-megawatt solar farm is set to come online at Camp Ripley this fall and, locally, there is a public hearing at Wrenshall City Hall at 6:30 p.m. today, Thursday, to hear details of a proposed one-megawatt solar garden to be located along Alcohol Road.
“There is something really big happening, and this is part of it,” Nam said. “For the first time, we can actually see what our renewable energy future looks like.”