RREAL: A Non-Profit Turns Up the Heat for Solar Thermal in Pine River, MN


by Eric Olson, CERTs Research Assistant - December 2010

The Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) has been closely involved with CERTs since 2003, and serves as a model for community-based clean energy for communities, businesses, local governments, and residents by manufacturing, installing, and providing solar air heating in Minnesota. We want to take this opportunity to highlight the history of their work and involvement in Minnesota communities.

RREAL, a manufacturer of solar thermal panels for air heating, believes that solar technology should be available to people of all income levels. They address this issue by producing an affordable solar-powered furnace and working with local communities and governments to deliver the product to those most in need of energy alternatives.

Introduction and History

RREAL is turning up the heat in the solar industry and in doing so is turning some common conceptions about the accessibility of solar power upside down. The idea was ambitious from the beginning, to use solar technology to combat a social problem that often goes unnoticed, energy poverty. Over the last ten years, RREAL has managed to install over 100 solar air heat systems, free of charge. With the recent SRCC gold certification of the in-house produced Solar Powered Furnace (SPF), RREAL is in front of the solar air heat business.

RREAL is a 501©(3) non-profit started by Jason Edens in 2000 as a volunteer organization that focused on the unique mission to provide solar technology to all income levels. The volatility of energy costs has rarely been as evident as in the last decade and residents with lower incomes often feel the fluctuations of energy prices the greatest. RREAL looked to solar technology as a way to stabilize energy prices for many low-income families and combat energy poverty.

During the long heating seasons in many northern states, energy assistance for low-income families is a necessity. No person should be asked to choose between heating their homes and feeding their families. Unfortunately, energy assistance programs are often less of an investment and more of an annual patch. RREAL has confronted this issue by creating a program that treats energy assistance more as an investment and less like a payment.

RREAL established its flagship Solar Assistance program as a practical way to create enduring solutions to energy poverty. Solar energy has been a viable technology for many years, but the price tag attached to a solar panel has often made the technology out of reach for many Americans. Through the Solar Assistance program, residents who receive energy assistance can qualify to have solar air heat systems installed at their home. The solar panel not only generates heat for the home, but also fosters an environment of self-reliance; shifting people to becoming their own energy providers.

Similar to many start-ups, RREAL faced a series of hurdles while establishing itself. Primarily, RREAL had to present the argument that energy assistance money should be allowed to be used on renewable projects. Funding earmarked for energy assistance generally goes directly to energy providers, who burn fossil fuels to produce energy. RREAL argued that their program would provided lasting solutions to fuel-poverty and did so through renewable technology, rather than further degrading the environment.

As the demand for projects grew, RREAL experienced some difficulty finding an appropriate vendor for some of their solar installations. The amount of vendors for solar products in the United States is limited, and many are located in different parts of the country. RREAL was attempting to keep capital costs as low as possible, but was faced with mark-up on the products, transportation costs (and the related carbon footprint), and maintenance fees, all of which limited the amount of installations they could complete in a year. For a volunteer-based, non-profit organization, these extra expenses were burdensome.

While the organization did not initially intend on manufacturing solar panels, it was becoming apparent that there was a definite void in the solar air heat technology field. Edens and the company began discussing producing a solar air heater in order to fill this niche. Work began to develop the premiere solar-powered furnace on the market. There were three major aspects to the unit that RREAL wanted to develop. It needed to be efficient, it needed to be affordable, and it needed to be versatile.

While continuing their Solar Assistance services, RREAL developed their own Solar-Powered Furnace (SPF) and in 2006 moved into the Hunt Utilities Group campus in Pine River, MN to manufacture these units. The substantially lowered capital costs allowed RREAL to greatly increase the amount of installations possible in a year. By the end of 2007, the organization had installed over 100 solar air heat systems and 50 photovoltaic systems.

In 2008, RREAL submitted its SPF to the Solar Rating Certification Corporation (SRCC) to be certified for sale. After an arduous certification process, the SPF received a gold rating in 2010 and was green-lighted for sale nationwide. Sales of the SPF and the other products which RREAL offers are instrumental in funding programs that RREAL offers free of charge. As the organization begins to sell more units, they can afford more Solar Assistance installations, continuing to ease the burden of high energy prices.

Along with installations at residences, RREAL is actively working with local governments and community organizations, offering assistance in helping them identify effective applications for solar air heating. Commercial buildings often have operational hours that coincide with hours of daylight making them ideal sites for solar air heaters. SPFs can provide supplemental heat during the hours which the building is staffed. In the evening hours, where comfort heat is not as necessary, the heat can be turned down.

Projects and CERTs Involvement

RREAL is an extremely adept organization in establishing long-term partnerships organizations. For an organization that provides a substantial amount of its services free of charge, having friends in the community in an invaluable asset. RREAL has worked with community development organizations, municipalities, small businesses, and schools in finding and implementing effective applications for solar technology.

CERTs and RREAL have been partnering on projects, presentations, and conferences for a number of years. CERTs has provided grant money for several solar power installations, feasibility studies, a study into using solar power to dry corn and revamping RREAL’s website. In turn, RREAL is a regular contributor to CERTs events, often presenting at forums, and displaying their Solar Powered Furnace and project sites. RREAL has partnered with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwa on several different projects, as part of their Solar Assistance Program and in an educational project for the Tribal College. In 2009, RREAL worked with the Leech Lake Tribal College to install a solar air heat system on the college campus. CERTS provided grant money for the installation which was done next to the college’s technology and education building. RREAL also worked with students from the college to install the units on the adjacent maintenance building. The system is being incorporated into a renewable energy course that is being taught at the college. Also in 2009, a project was put forward to install RREAL solar air heat systems on eight low-income homes on the Leech Lake Reservation. With the aid of a federal grant, RREAL produced the units and helped installing the units on the homes.

Much of RREAL’s work consists of empowering people to build solutions to energy poverty. In 2010, RREAL worked closely with Ottertail Wadena Community Action Council in training four teams of energy auditors and contractors to incorporate solar technology into the local Weatherization Program. Sixteen families benefited from this collaboration in the initial year and many more will in the future. Beginning in 2011, RREAL will be working with Minnesota Conservation Corps on a joint project to train over 40 young adults in solar technology installations. The project will install 60 solar air heat units in low-income homes, drastically reducing the cost of heating while providing green-collar job training and reducing environmental degradation.

Most recently, in 2010, RREAL collaborated with St. Louis County and CERTs to install a set of solar air collectors on the side of a maintenance garage outside of Duluth. The County was interested in displaying a cost-effective, renewable technology that would help to stabilize energy costs. CERTs provided seed money for the siting process and the installation of the units. RREAL produced the units, donated one to the project, and assisted in the installation. The maintenance garage was specifically chosen because it is in a highly visible area that will hopefully display the feasibility of solar air heat technology.

A Vision of Community Clean Energy

The enormous promise of the future of RREAL is evident in what has already been accomplished. In 10 short years, the organization has transformed from a basement brainstorm, to a fully operational non-profit with a manufacturing division. Each year the amount of Solar Assistance installations completed increases, and with each successful installation it becomes increasingly evident that this ‘alternative’ approach to addressing energy poverty should become more mainstream. While it is easy to calculate the amount of BTUs saved each year, and slightly more difficult to calculate the number of tons of CO2 emissions diverted from an installation over a lifetime, it is almost impossible to calculate the change in attitude and improved self-reliance that a renewable energy installation can instill in a family. RREAL is using its Solar-Powered Furnace and a unique non-profit model to make Minnesota a more comfortable place to live and giving low-income families more control over their energy and financial futures.

Technology: Solar-Powered Furnace: Designed and manufactured by RREAL, the SRCC-certified Solar Powered Furnace (SPF) is the state of the art, stand-alone heating system ideal for providing supplemental space heating for residences and commercial buildings. The SPF uses direct forced-air technology to re-circulate building air through the solar collectors. The SPF functions in a similar manner as a conventional forced air furnace, providing heat by re-circulating conditioned building air through solar collectors. Simple to operate with few moving parts, solar air heat is a vertically mounted technology that re-circulates air to and from the building through the collector(s) using conventional, off-the-shelf HVAC controls, sizing methods and air distribution and handling equipment. Simple controls activate the fan when the home is calling for heat and there is heat to harvest.

Bio: Jason Edens, Founding Director: Jason Edens was working on his master’s degree when the concept of RREAL came to him. Like most students, he was low on cash and qualified for federal energy assistance. He looked into the possibility of using energy assistance money for a solar panel. He was denied money for a solar collector at the time, but the idea of using solar energy as long-term solution to fuel poverty was established. Edens, along with many others, volunteered his own time for the first few years while RREAL was getting off the ground. It operated out of his basement and garage and then a small office, as the group planned installations and gathered support. Under Edens’s leadership, RREAL has grown into a leader in solar air heat installations and manufacturing while continuing to achieve its mission of developing long-term solutions to energy poverty.

Bio: BJ Allen, Technical Director: BJ Allen has been an instrumental contributor to RREAL in many different aspects. Allen has a dual BS/BA degree from the University of San Diego in Electrical/Electronics Engineering and was integral in designing the Solar Powered Furnace. She is also a key fundraiser for the organization, securing much of the grant money necessary for RREAL to be successful. A fundraising engineer is a great person to have around.

Bio: Tim Ollhoff, Development Director: Tim Ollhoff has also donned many different hats during his time at RREAL. In 2005-2007, Ollhoff served on the Board of Directors and helped guide the organization into the manufacturing stage. He also served as a VISTA volunteer from 2007-2009 helping to establish partnerships across Minnesota and the nation to help as many people as possible feel relief from high fuel prices. Ollhoff now serves as the Development Director of RREAL.

And…the Volunteers: RREAL began as an all volunteer non-profit organization in 2000, and has been fortunate to work with many talented volunteers. It is the sign of a quality organization when people are willing to donate their evenings, weekends, weeks or years to help achieve such an important goal.

For more information about RREAL, contact Jason Edens, Director of the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) at 218-587-4753 or jason@rreal.org.

Video about this project from our recent documentary, ENERGIZED: Communities Building Minnesota’s Clean Energy Future, released November 2011.

Relates to the following technologies

May be of interest to the following communities

Minnesotans building a clean energy future


    CERTs Partners:

Minnesota Department of Commerce University of Minnesota Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships and Extension Great Plains Institute Southwest Regional Development Commission