Photo from Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians.

Expert Technical Assistance Clears Path for Groundbreaking Interconnection Agreement

The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians (the Band) held a ceremony celebrating the completion of a 1-megawatt (MW) solar project on the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota, on Aug. 23, 2016.   This project was a cooperative effort among the Band, Minnesota Power, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs (Office of Indian Energy), and Minnesota-based solar contractor Hunt Electric Corporation. The successful solar photovoltaic (PV) system was installed near the Band’s Black Bear Casino Resort and represents a major milestone on the path to a clean energy future for the Band, who adopted the Kyoto Protocol nearly a decade ago.  Since then, the Fond du Lac Band has been following the leading-edge strategic energy plan it established to achieve its clean energy vision. The holistic plan is designed to cut energy use and emissions 20% by 2020 through renewable energy development, energy efficiency measures, and reduced fossil fuel purchasing. When the Fond du Lac Band flipped the switch on its new PV system, they were already ahead of the game.
 “This year we will meet our goal,” said Bruno Zagar, Environmental Specialist and Energy Projects Manager for the Band. “Between lighting upgrades that saved 1.5 MW, the addition of 1 MW of solar, and an energy services company (ESCO) contract with Noresco that the Council just signed to reduce our energy use 24% more, by 2020, we’ll have over a 40% reduction, rather than 20%. So it’s really rewarding to be at this point. All the work to get here has been well worth it.” 
 In addition to enabling the Band to meet its emissions reduction goals, Zagar said the system will save the Band more than $100,000 a year in electricity costs—about $3 million over the projected 40-year life of the project. The solar installation was not without its challenges, said Zagar. Charged with meeting the goals the Band established under the Kyoto Protocol, Zagar worked with a diverse set of stakeholders to clear a major hurdle that threatened to stymie the solar project at one point in the 3-year project development process.  As the Band was laying the groundwork to interconnect its solar array, Minnesota Power informed them that costs for utility system upgrades associated with interconnecting the solar system to the grid would likely range from $500,000 to $850,000. Seeking a way to avert this formidable economic obstacle, Zagar applied for technical assistance funded by the DOE Office of Indian Energy and provided through DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).  Drawing on NREL’s experience working with other states and utilities, the NREL team coordinated with the Band, the solar contractor, and engineers from Minnesota Power to broker a cost-effective alternative using advanced inverter functionality and a new interconnection agreement allowing utility control of the Band-owned inverters. The end result was a groundbreaking technical solution and interconnection agreement that set a new precedent for the State of Minnesota.  Zagar was thrilled with both the solution and the technical support the Office of Indian Energy and NREL provided. “It helped us bring in expertise for Indian Country, but it also helped the local utility to adopt the smartest technology available,” he said. “This is the best anybody could do in the United States right now, and I’m very proud of that. We’re ahead of the game.” “Fond du Lac’s success story is about more than technology and costs,” said NREL Technical Lead Tom Harris, who pointed to the vital role of people and relationships in countering the inherent inertia of ideas. “Ideas don’t naturally percolate or migrate. It’s relationships that facilitate communication and the transfer of ideas. Good relationships and the utility’s openness to change were keys to the success of this project. We all know we must transition to a clean energy future, and all of the project stakeholders collaborated wholeheartedly with us toward that end.” Learn more about technical assistance provided by the Office of Indian Energy.