The Rural Renewable Energy Alliance in Backus was one of five organizations awarded the 2019 Bush Prize for Community Innovation by the Bush Foundation.

The solar energy nonprofit earned $408,000 for its track record of successful problem-solving in its community, a news release stated.

“The Bush Prize celebrates organizations that are extraordinary not only in what they do but in how they do it,” the release stated. “This year’s winners demonstrate a pattern of working inclusively, in partnership with others, to make the region better for all.”

The Bush Prize, now in its seventh year, is awarded annually in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and the 23 Native nations that share the same geography.

Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, or RREAL, wants to end energy poverty with pioneering, climate-appropriate solutions, according to the release. The organization uses solar energy as a tool to build the economic well-being and energy sovereignty of low-income communities and Native nations in rural areas.

“From humble beginnings in an unheated garage in a small town in northern Minnesota, RREAL has grown into an innovative national model for rural communities that have high energy burdens but have been left out of the renewable energy economy,” the release stated. “RREAL’s approaches reduce inequality, build jobs and provide long-term, clean solutions for the environment.”

In partnership with the Leech Lake Nation, RREAL delivered the first community solar installation to be formally integrated with the federal Energy Assistance Program. This community-owned asset provides solar assistance to qualified families, lowering their energy burden and freeing resources for basic needs. It also creates a clean alternative to conventional energy assistance and provides career pathways in the solar industry for tribal members. RREAL’s Solar for Schools project integrated site-based solar into multiple education facilities across northern Minnesota, including the Pine River-Backus and Pequot Lakes school districts as well as Central Lakes College.

“A catalyst in the national conversation about energy equity, RREAL continues to break down barriers so that low-income rural communities can benefit from solar solutions,” the release stated. “RREAL is scaling its solar assistance locally, nationally, and even internationally in West Africa.”

Other winners include Hmong American Partnership in Saint Paul, $500,000; Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, Minneapolis, $500,000; Valley City-Barnes County Development Corporation, Valley City, North Dakota, $358,000; and Wokini Initiative of South Dakota State University, Brookings, South Dakota, $500,000.

Bush Prize winners receive a package that includes promotional support and materials and an unrestricted grant equal to 25% of the organization’s prior fiscal year budget, up to $500,000. The Foundation received 81 applications for the 2019 Bush Prize. Three panels of community members chose the winners from their respective states.

“The 2019 Bush Prize winners exhibit remarkable creativity and tenacity in addressing issues that are most important to their communities,” stated Bush Foundation President Jennifer Ford Reedy in the release. “Their problem solving builds strength not only in their local community but also in the entire region.”

“This year’s winners are defined by their courage,” stated Mandy Ellerton, community innovation director. “They shake loose solutions to seemingly intractable problems by opening themselves up to surprising partnerships, sharing ownership and bringing together people who don’t always agree. This method of working takes guts, and our region is better because of their courage.”

To learn more about the Bush Prize for Community Innovation, including winners from previous years, visit BushFoundation.org/BushPrize.