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Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

Meet the unstoppable entrepreneur bringing solar, EVs and jobs to his Native community and beyond

Solar Bear owner Robert Blake on his booming business, extensive nonprofit work and the $6.6M DOE grant he just landed.
By Maria Virginia Olano

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Robert Blake is a solar entrepreneur, a social impact innovator and Native activist — and his work weaves all three strands together.

Blake is the founder of Solar Bear, a full-service solar installation company, and Native Sun Community Power Development, a Native-led nonprofit that promotes renewable energy, energy efficiency and a just energy transition through education, demonstration and workforce training. Both organizations have a mission of advancing economic opportunity and environmental justice through renewable energy.

Blake is also building an EV charging network and a solar farm to power it in the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northwestern Minnesota. He hopes his work can be a model for other tribal nations to follow in pursuing energy independence and powering the clean energy transition.

We caught up with Blake to discuss his work and his motivations. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Maria Virginia Olano: Could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and your background?

Robert Blake: I am a tribal citizen of the Red Lake Nation. I am also the owner of Solar Bear and executive director of Native Sun Community Power Development. I’m a graduate student at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota MBA program. And I sit on numerous boards and other community groups. I stay pretty busy.

Olano: You started your own solar company, Solar Bear. What led you to start that company, and where is it now?

Blake: I started Solar Bear because we were going to build a solar project in Red Lake, which is my tribal nation in northern Minnesota, and they needed a contractor; they needed someone to build it. So I stepped up and formed Solar Bear.

It’s been five years now, and we’re steadily growing. And it’s just been incredible. I didn’t realize how much support we would get and how much people would love Solar Bear — it’s truly humbling.

I have an imaginary Solar Bear in my mind. He’s a polar bear who wears sunglasses, and he is always bringing me opportunities. 

The Solar Bear logo

Olano: There is also an important social-impact component of the work you do, as it pertains to job opportunities and tribal sovereignty. Can you talk us through how you are doing that and why it was important to you that this was a part of Solar Bear?

Blake: I couldn’t get hired. I applied to all these solar companies, and they wouldn’t hire me. So I just thought to myself that I wanted to be able to create opportunities for people of color, for women. I know that solar and clean energy will be big business in the future. It’s going to be a big part of how America transitions off fossil fuels, and that will take incredible amounts of labor and create a ton of jobs.

The people living in these tribal nations — we face the highest rates of alcoholism, drug addiction, missing and murdered Indigenous women, unemployment. There are all these problems we are facing, and I think they are partially rooted in systemic poverty.

And then there are these clean-energy jobs, which are all local and can pay $100,000 per year. So I thought to myself, why don’t we give these jobs to the people who actually live in the area? There are so many jobs in repairing and servicing transmission lines and installing solar, and that could mean so many jobs for Native people. Even beyond that, though, why not go further and create our own businesses, run our own utilities? We have to send about $40 million out of the reservation each year [for electricity], but what if we could cut that number and put the rest back into our own community? The kind of difference this could all make is huge.

It’s going to take a lot of education, though, and that’s where our youth program started with Solar Cubs. We are hoping to get a clean-energy curriculum into the school next fall. While we are leaving our kids with this massive problem that is climate change, we are also going to give them the tools they need to work on fixing it. So that’s why I feel really passionate about that project.

Olano: You have also worked with formerly incarcerated citizens, providing employment opportunities and training, right? Tell us about that program. 

Blake: I think about climate change almost like the world gave us this massive problem but said we can work on solving that big problem while at the same time tackling all of the other issues we face — among them mass incarceration.

The first time I went to recruit people from the prison system, I could only take 15, but 130 guys signed up. I told them about the existential problem that is climate change and how they could help me fight it by installing solar. There are a lot of barriers to employment for people leaving the carceral system, so I think they were surprised at this opportunity and really excited by it. It gives us a purpose, a reason to get up every morning, and that is important when it comes to preventing recidivism. Some of the guys from that first program years ago are still in the solar industry today, and they talk about how this industry has changed their lives. They are not the same people who went into the prison system, and that’s what this is all about.

I think that our problem in this country is that we often don’t allow people to contribute; we don’t allow for opportunities for certain groups of people. But now we have this runaway problem, and it is going to take a lot of us to fix it. With Solar Bear, we are trying to allow people to find their place and their voice in this fight. That is at the core of our mission. So that’s why I’m really excited about everything I do.

The Solar Bear crew working on an installation project (Photo courtesy of Robert Blake)

Olano: Has it been possible for you to reach lower-income customers? Are there programs or subsidies that allow solar for all, or is it still the realm of relatively well-off people? 

Blake: Well, that’s why I created Native Sun. I needed a nonprofit so I could do some of that work. Because you’re right, only the people who have the means to install solar are able to do it. Also about upgrading power lines: Well-off communities are the only ones who are getting their lines upgraded. We are currently running the risk of basically redlining communities all over again, but with power lines, and that’s crazy to think about.

Right now, I want to get the EV project off the ground and show that it is possible and will be successful, so then we can move on to solar access for disadvantaged communities too. I’m on the Governor’s Workforce Development Board; I’m on the Ramsey County Workforce Innovation Board. I do all this training around the workforce, and then raising money. I have been able to raise money for solar projects that normally wouldn’t have gotten off the ground, but it’s an ongoing thing. Bringing solar to communities that normally wouldn’t be able to get it is our mission.

Olano: Tell us about some of the projects you’re currently working on. What are you excited about right now?

Blake: We just received a $6.6 million grant from the Department of Energy to install an electric vehicle charging network throughout the state of Minnesota into North Dakota, on the outskirts of South Dakota, and back to Minneapolis.

It’s been really exciting. It’s been a roller coaster. With everything that’s happened with the pipelines and the protesting, this is a unique way to give people an opportunity and a vision of the future.

Olano: Can you expand on that?

Blake: The Indigenous Environmental Network came out with a report that finds that Native American protesting and activism has [the potential to curb nearly] 25% of greenhouse gas emissions in North America. I thought to myself, Well, what if we built an electric vehicle charging network and made an electric vehicle pipeline?” Instead of building oil pipelines, we are now building an electric vehicle pipeline, and in that way, we can allow the people to choose exactly what they want their future to look like.

I bet that history is going to look back upon us and think that we made the right decision. That’s what I’m really excited about. Not only about the project itself, but that we will have this network and technology going into tribal communities, which don’t see investment like this; they don’t get opportunities like this. I’m really excited to see a bunch of rez cars become electric vehicles. Everybody will be driving electric vehicles on the reservation.

Olano: What kind of response have you seen from the community? Are people on the reservation excited? Are they hesitant?

Blake: They’re super excited. These are things that they could never have imagined before.

Not only that, though, but we want to make sure that school buses on the reservation are also electric. There’s an emergent school that’s being built in Red Lake. This school is going to be about the revitalization of our traditional Ojibwe language, our customs and our traditional teachings, and we really want to make sure we incorporate renewable energy because that is also a way to care for the land. It’s really cool that the school is going to have a couple of electric buses that are going to pick the kids up. That is really teaching by showing this is what the future looks like.

It’s also going to be interesting to see how much the tribes save in annual fuel costs. They have fleets of vehicles that they use for whatever services they need to provide for the community. But now we’re going to be switching to some electric vehicles. And we plan on tracking these vehicles and seeing exactly how much the energy savings are. I think that this is going to be very eye-opening for other tribal nations to see exactly how much electric vehicles can save on the bottom line, and maybe other communities around Red Lake in northern Minnesota are going to be able to see this too. I’m super excited about this three-year project — we are just getting started.

Olano: Tell us about the energy behind the charging network. Is the idea to eventually power it with renewables as well?

Blake: Absolutely. We’re building a solar farm, and eventually, we want this entire vehicle-charging network to be powered by the solar farm there in Red Lake. But in the meantime, we are working with other electrical providers in the network, and they also have renewable energy projects that they are working on.

Olano: Your work is happening in the context of a much larger national and international conversation about job creation and opportunities around the growth potential of renewable energies. How are you thinking about that in terms of your work? 

Blake: I am so excited about the current levels of participation and interest that are happening in tribal country. I believe that tribal nations are central to the climate fight, and if we are going to turn this around, Native people will play a big role in doing that. Per capita, [the U.S. is] one of the most polluting countries in the world, so there is a lot of work to do. While some people pay attention to what is happening in Glasgow or in D.C., I think we need to look at ourselves first here in America, and in the tribal governments within it.

Now when we look at things like treaty rights violations, that is very significant to this question on climate, too. The United States government has been violating treaty rights — meaning they are breaking the law — to expand fossil fuel extraction. When we think about tribal sovereignty, this is also what that means: being able to stop fossil fuel companies and taking back the care for our lands.

Olano: You mentioned that you hope your work can be a roadmap and an inspiration for other tribal nations in North America. Is that something that you’re seeing already? Are you in communication with other leaders trying to do the same?

Blake: Yes, I’ve seen it. It’s happening. They are inspired and love Solar Bear and talk about Native Sun. I’ve been invited to speak at high schools, and I never turn down any opportunity to talk about this because we need to spread the word. We have to save this planet and each other. I want Native people to know they have a huge part to play in doing that.

I’ve seen it firsthand. I’ve put the solar systems together. It’s like if we were stuck in a cave and I told you I know the way out, come along with me. It’s about building that trust and then bringing people along. We’re on a tight deadline and this decade needs to be transformative, so everyone has to bring their A game. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we are facing an almost insurmountable problem right now, and we need to come to terms with that.

Olano: Robert, thank you so much. It’s been such a joy to be with you and to learn about all that you are doing.

Blake: Thank you so much. Miigwech.

Maria Virginia Olano is editorial producer at Canary Media.