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Nonprofit turns energy assistance into independence

A couple stands in front of their new solar-powered furnace installed on their home through a partnership between RREAL and the Bemidji, Minnesota, Lakes Area Habitat for Humanity. (Photo by John Connelly, used with permission)

Twelve years ago, Jason Edens set out to transform heating and cooling assistance for low-income families into a clean, energy-independent solution. Since then, his organization, the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL), has helped hundreds of families install low-cost solar furnaces to help reduce their energy bills.

“Tens of millions of Americans have to make challenging choices between eating and heating every winter,” asserts Edens, director and founder of RREAL, a 12-year-old Minnesota-based nonprofit social enterprise that leverages solar technologies to keep struggling families warm in the winter. Over 15 percent of the U.S. population lives at or below the poverty line.

In 2010 alone, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) allocated a total of over $4.9 billion to all 50 states through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). After each state takes its share, the money is then divvied up between a variety of neighborhood-based Community Action Agencies who then distribute it according to federal guidelines. Currently over 46.2 million Americans nationwide are eligible for LIHEAP assistance.

Edens says that money could be better spent reducing energy use in the first place.

“The way the money is distributed is like putting a Band-Aid on a gushing wound,” he says. “We’re hemorrhaging cash.”

Before starting RREAL, Edens, a former high school teacher, was in a sticky situation himself. Edens was a graduate student with a family to support and a large sum of student loans as he looked ahead toward another bristly northern Minnesota winter. But instead of accepting the heating grant he was offered from a local agency, Edens asked for a low-interest loan for a solar-heating system. The answer he got: “No.”

Edens instead built a solar-powered furnace on his own, recycling a solar water-heating system another family threw out. In doing so, he says, he cut his energy costs down enough to avoid any energy assistance whatsoever. Since building the first solar units in his basement, RREAL has installed over 250 solar-powered furnaces for low-income families, and, as part of their for-profit venture, have installed another 70 market-rate solar units as well as solar photovoltaic systems in cities across the country.

(Image via RREAL)

The furnaces work by pumping air through transparent tubes that capture the sun’s energy, similar to a solar-thermal water heater. Edens says the furnaces cost about $5,000 to install, including permits, time, travel, materials and equipment, and pay for themselves within ten years.

In the meantime, Edens knows that conventional ways of dealing with energy assistance won’t last. “These programs aren’t intended to go on forever,” he explains. “This is a way to enable families to power their own homes instead of relying on assistance for the next 30 years or more.”

Currently, Edens’ patented solar-powered furnaces have only been in the field for five years, but he anticipates that the air handling units will last 10 to 20 years before needing repairs or replacement and the solar collectors should last 30 to 40 years. Plus, he adds, “Every residential unit installed has the capability to reduce greenhouse gases by about 1,300 pounds every year.” Double that figure if you live in Minnesota during the winter.

Edens and his team are looking to continue open-sourcing and scaling their model nationally. Edens even hinted at a distant goal of fulfilling the heating needs of schools in chilly but often sunny far-off countries, including Tajikistan, Mongolia and rural Russia.

“Within 10 years,” says Edens. “We hope solar and other clean-energy assistance solutions will become the tool of choice by default.”

Tristan Pollock is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.

Comments (3)

Jason Edens will be speaking tomorrow night (Thursday, April 12th) in St Paul, MN!

http://mnrenewables.org/node/1148

By Laura Cina on Apr 11, 2012

I’ve been promoting this idea for a long time. Only, I do the heat collection, storage, and transfer with water, or a water/glycol mix. Night or off-sun energy is easier to store with thermally dense water. Altho it constitutes a more expensive system, it displaces a far greater portion of a home’s heating energy.

By AT THE BRIDGE on Apr 11, 2012

I live in the Greater Cincinnati area and also have a water based passive/active system. I used multiple 2 liter soda bottles for the water/heat storage.
During the day, when the sun is out, the heat from my solar collector heats the house and the water. When the sun goes down the retained heat in the water will provide heat for an additional two to three hours. There is approximately 145 liters of water storage capacity. I just completed the system several months ago so I do not have much operating history yet.
My cost for the whole system is approximately $500 including fan, fan limit switch, glazing and lumber. I expect this system to have a three year payback.

By Jack Clock on Apr 11, 2012