BEMIDJI -- Seventy-six percent of Americans believe the country should place a higher priority on solar energy, according to a February study by the Pew Research Center.

"Seventy-one percent (in the same study) ... of those under 30 think that we should prioritize alternative energy sources over oil and gas," said Jason Edens, a Bemidji State University graduate who founded the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance or RREAL.

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Edens returned to BSU on Wednesday to take part in the Northwest Clean Energy Resource Team's Campus Clean Energy Forum. The conference brought together students, faculty and staff from universities and colleges across northwest Minnesota to share clean energy projects and activities on college campuses.

Edens, whose nonprofit is a solar-thermal manufacturer, contracting and advocacy organization, offered the keynote address, suggesting that renewable energies should be the one topic that binds people together across campuses.

"Every single (solar) system that we install ... has some sort of data-monitoring or data-validating device on it," he said.

He pointed to one of RREAL's projects, done at Northern Lights Community School in Grand Rapids, where two students there were able to assist in its installation.

"All of the students now at that school can log on to the site and monitor in real time what that system is doing," he said. "You can look at it over the course of the week, a day, a month, since it was first installed, but it's not just the amount of energy that's being produced, it's the value of that energy, the greenhouse gas emissions, that are being offset. This data set alone could provide the foundation for an almost semester-long class and it is literally the tip of the iceberg."

That education value cannot be understated, he noted.

Not only are faculty and students able to incorporate discussion and planning for clean energy across all disciplines, he said, but financial planners for a university would be able to take the guessing game out of projecting energy costs by relying on actual figures.

"Clean energy is the only technology ... that allows us to know what the cost per unit of energy is going to be in year five, year 10, year 20, year 30," he said. "Can we do that with fossil fuels? ... Absolutely not."

As for the facilities managers, he said clean energy no longer is experimental.

"Facilities folk know that renewable energy is rugged, it's appropriate, it's effective, it has low operation and maintenance costs," he said.

"They are tried and tested methods of delivering both heat and power," he said.

Living the strategy

In introducing Edens, Anna Carlson, an energy consultant with Northwest CERT, said Edens' story was a perfect fit for the conference, designed to celebrate clean energy projects and activities throughout college campuses.

"We see Jason as a really great model of how someone evolves, from having really interesting ideas and interests," she said. "He's evolved from being a student to an entrepreneur to a consultant and I think his story really fits in with our theme, with all of our themes."

Indeed, Edens was fairly young when the initial idea that led to RREAL struck him.

Like about a half a million Minnesota families, his was faced with difficult choices in the winter: pay for heat or pay for necessities such as food. One year, his family received energy assistance to keep the heat on, he said. The next year, when he realized he'd be in a tough spot again, he called and asked if they would pay for solar panels or offer a low-interest loan for such a system.

They said no, but his adviser at BSU said he was onto something.

"He actually encouraged me to develop my curriculum around this notion of potentially using renewable energy to meet this same need," Edens said.

At that same time, he heard about a home in St. Paul, an older home with a functioning solar unit, that was being abandoned. The owners told him he could have whatever he wanted if he went dumpster-diving, so he did just that.

"I drove down there, I jumped in the dumpster and I extracted three solar heating collectors. I put them up in my house to save my family so much money we didn't need energy assistance," he said.

To date, RREAL has provided more than 300 low-income families with solar air heat.

"We think that solar can be part of the solution to low-income fuel poverty," he said.