OSAGE, Minn. – Neat stacks of aluminum sheets, insulation, and dark metal frames sit atop long tables in a quiet northern Minnesota manufacturing facility. A group of Native American workers here is assembling the components into a green energy technology with the aim of lowering heating bills and emissions across tribal lands and beyond.
An Anishinaabe-run nonprofit based on the White Earth Reservation, 8th Fire Solar, produces and installs solar thermal panels — a lesser-known sun-powered technology used to help heat homes and buildings.
The firm is part of a growing effort to expand solar power on tribal lands in Minnesota, which advocates say taps into belief systems that call for working in concert with nature, while saving people money and pursuing tribal energy independence.
"We can honor our traditional beliefs with the new technology," said 8th Fire sales and marketing director Gwe Gasco.
Unlike rooftop photovoltaic solar, solar thermal panels mount on the southern side of a structure, absorb heat from the sun, and pass it through to the inside. For a typical household, it can lower heating bills between 30 to 40%, Gasco said, which means using less fossil fuels for heat.
That's particularly important this year because heating prices are likely to be high, experts say. The price of natural gas remains high due to the war between Russia and Ukraine, and global markets resetting from the COVID pandemic, according to Annie Levenson-Falk, executive director of the nonprofit Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota.
Indigenous people in Minnesota feel the heating and energy bill pinch disproportionately, data shows. The state's reservations are in colder, rural areas that are less frequently on standard natural gas grids, meaning more people have to heat with pricier fuels like propane. The housing stock also tends to be older and less energy-efficient.
In Minnesota, Native Americans on federal energy assistance had the highest bills and the lowest household incomes during the 2021-2022 heating season, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce.
Last winter, 127,638 households across the state received energy assistance totaling $206 million. Native American households on energy assistance paid $2,691 annually on average to heat and power their homes, much more than any other group, state data shows, and received an average $2,337 in assistance.
Other racial groups on energy assistance averaged just over $2,000 per year in heating and electric costs and received an average of around $1,600 in assistance.
"We see fuel costs as an equity issue," said Kevin Lee, deputy commissioner of energy resources with the Minnesota Department of Commerce.
Applications for energy assistance are now open in Minnesota, and it's better to sign up earlier to receive benefits when needed, Lee said. Households of four can earn up to $58,0000 and still qualify for energy assistance, which is a federal program administered largely by local Community Action Partnership agencies.
Native Americans are more likely to pay a higher percentage of their income on power and heating than other groups, according to data from the United States Department of Energy. The average Minnesota household spends 2% of its income on energy, compared to 7% on White Earth Reservation and 6% on the Red Lake Reservation.
More than half of 8th Fire's installations are on reservation land, a goal for the organization.
Unlike photovoltaic solar, which features several small rectangles on a panel, solar thermal panels use one large, coated aluminum absorber plate to create a solar powered furnace.
The sun hits the plate and heat it generates passes through layers of space and insulation. The interior of the panel is connected by a duct to a structure at each end. Air enters through an intake manifold, passes through the absorber plate to absorb heat, and is pushed into the structure by a fan linked to a controller and thermostat. The solar thermal system works in tandem with a structure's existing heating infrastructure.
The panels look a bit like big screen televisions and are mounted onto south-facing walls using an aluminum racking system. A weather-tight seal is formed using foam insulation and gaskets.
The name 8th Fire refers to Anishinaabe prophecies, Gasco said. Currently, humanity is in the time of the Seventh Fire, when the Anishinaabe believe people must choose between the worn-down, scorched-earth path and a green, new path. Moving toward the green path will light the Eighth Fire and a chance for a better future.
Currently, 8th Fire employs 10 people, but increased demand is driving more need for workers.
The nonprofit is hosting a green jobs conference at the Shooting Star Casino in Walker, Minn., on Dec. 16.
The group aims to spread its knowledge around tribal communities in Minnesota so that Native people can build out more green infrastructure and have more job opportunities.
"We want to stimulate the tribal economies," Gasco said.
This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota's immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for its free newsletter to receive stories in your inbox.