Where do you work?
I work at the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, a grassroots nonprofit organization whose mission is to make solar power accessible to people of all income levels.
What does your organization do?
At RREAL, we install solar heating systems onto the homes of low-income families qualifying for energy assistance. In Minnesota, and indeed across the country, hundreds of thousands of families depend on energy assistance to ensure they stay safe and warm through the cold winter months, collectively receiving tens of millions of dollars. Although energy assistance is a much-needed service, it does not offer a lasting solution.
Our Solar Assistance Program offers a permanent solution. Rather than paying families’ heating bills year after year, or even generation after generation in some cases, Solar Assistance creates lasting structural change by empowering families and fostering self-reliance.
Public energy assistance is a subsidy to the fossil-fuel industry. Solar Assistance is a solution to a persistent societal problem as well as a solution to a persistent environmental problem.
What are you working on at the moment?
Right now, RREAL is in the middle of 25 Solar Assistance installations, and we’re gearing up to move to a sustainable industrial park where we’ll begin manufacturing our own solar thermal collectors. This is going to be a huge leap forward for us, and it’ll help us empower many more families per year!
How do you get to work?
It depends. When we have solar-heating or solar-electric installations to conduct, we drive. It’s difficult to walk or bike anywhere in rural America unless you live and work right in town. When RREAL does hit the road, we do so in a biodiesel work truck. But soon, and weather permitting, I’ll be able to ride my bike to our new manufacturing facility, which is only about five miles away.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
My interest in energy policy began while living for three years in Japan, where I encountered many communities harvesting the energy of the sun for heating and power. Before leaving Japan, several friends and I organized a bicycling campaign to raise awareness about energy and international environmental issues. The cycling trip was called BEE (Bicycling for Everyone’s Earth), and we rode our bikes from the northern tip of Japan to the southern island of Kyushu. We were able to reach scores of Japanese schools, town halls, and civic groups. And the cycling campaign has become an annual event with Japanese and foreign riders traversing the country every summer to discuss environmental issues with the Japanese community.
Some years later, while going to graduate school on a shoestring, I sought out some eco-friendly ways to provide household heat during the cold Minnesota weather. I wanted to do so using solar, but the cost was prohibitive. Serendipitously, I caught word of someone throwing away a solar heating system because the new tenants considered it unsightly! I was there to catch it before it hit the ground and created a solar heating system for a fraction of the commercial cost. The next logical question was, why can’t we do this for other low-income families like mine?
Where do you think environmentalists and social-justice advocates can find common cause?
At RREAL, we take great pride in the fact that we’ve been able to address a social-justice issue — rural poverty — with an environmentally sound and appropriate technology. There are many such intersections, and in the big picture, all social-justice issues and environmental issues have similar root causes. There’s a tremendous amount of potential synergy between both arenas of change.
Do you see environmental ills disproportionately afflicting the communities where you live and work?
Absolutely. When energy crises strike our region, it’s invariably the low-income families that experience the greatest difficulty. Heating and power make up a much larger share of a low-income household’s income than a middle- or upper-income family’s. This disparity means that a small fluctuation in heating costs can make or break a family’s budget, with potentially dire consequences.
The emissions from fossil-fuel power plants have gravely affected Minnesota, with every single waterway under fish-consumption warnings because of mercury pollution — and there are more than 10,000 lakes here! For area Native peoples who traditionally consume a lot of fish and others who rely heavily on fish for their protein, this has had a significant impact.
How can the environmental movement cast a wider net culturally and become a bigger-tent issue politically?
How about a new high-school graduation requirement? Spend at least one service-learning semester abroad in an impoverished community with acute environmental ills. We are such an insular nation that to a large extent, our citizenry has no concept of how environmental issues disproportionately affect communities along class and ethnic lines.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Born in Lawrence, Kan. I currently live in Backus, Minn.
How do you spend your free time? Read any good books lately?
I’m a solar nerd. I’m currently reading The Golden Thread: 2,500 Years of Solar Architecture & Design. When not working on solar projects, I like to canoe the river we live on and run through the woods with my dogs. Getting together with friends for music and reverie is also high on the list of priorities.
What’s your favorite meal?
Red beans and rice followed by some yerba maté — and about a million other veggie meals.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Too many to name, but the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota is certainly one of the more magical places on planet earth (but don’t tell your friends).
If you could institute by fiat one social or environmental reform, what would it be?
Public energy-assistance funds must be used for solar-heating systems for every household with a suitable site! (Solar power is very site-specific and not appropriate for all sites.)
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
I don’t have a TV, but recently saw the entire season of Freaks and Geeks. There’s never been a better TV program! I have too many favorite movies to include them all; here are a few: Triplets of Belleville, Star Wars, and Trainspotting.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Go solar! It’s easier than you might think. Building your own solar heating system is well within the abilities of a huge percentage of society. If you don’t have the skill set yourself, someone you know does.
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