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Story spotlight: Native-run solar thermal company ignites careers

The following is an excerpt from a piece by the Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) applauding the work of 8th Fire Solar. This organization was recently awarded project funding from  the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) and CERTs.

8th Fire Solar is a solar thermal business located on the White Earth Reservation in Northwestern MN. The business primarily manufactures and installs thermal solar systems on privately owned properties. They also take part in grant-funded installations in low-income communities. Gwe Gasco serves as Sales & Marketing Director for 8th Fire Solar.

Gwe Gasco serves as Sales & Marketing Director for 8th Fire Solar.

Once installed on the exterior of a building, solar thermal panels collect the sun’s rays and convert that energy into heat. Through a specially designed aluminum absorber sheet, the insulated panels hold that heat until it’s needed. Inside, a simple fan system expels warm air and circulates it through the building. Solar thermal panels can supplement as much as 20-40% of typical heating needs.

As a Native-run organization, 8th Fire Solar hopes their sustainable and renewable energy product can help build a better future for everyone, especially Native American communities.

“No matter how many late fees and invoices that you have, you're never gonna get a past due bill from the sun, right?” says Gwe Gasco of 8th Fire Solar.

Gasco is an Ojibwe Odawa descendant from MN’s White Earth Tribal Nation and the Little Traverse Bay Bands in Michigan. Five years ago Gasco joined 8th Fire Solar. The move launched his career into a new trajectory. He’s since worked his way through the company, mastering various roles - from labor to office work.

“It's been an experience!” says Gasco with a laugh. “I didn't have any background working with anything solar, electric stuff, or even power tools! My mom raised me traditionally. She taught me about maple sugar harvesting and wild rice harvesting, traditional Ojibwe ways. So it's been kind of cool to learn all these different skills, trades and techniques.”

Gasco says he’s grateful not only for his career, but the chance to help ignite others’ careers. 

8th Fire Solar supports a group of newly trained Lower Sioux installers in putting up a solar thermal system.

Passing the torch

Looking to spread the knowledge, 8th Fire Solar has started partnering with other MN tribes to host solar panel installation training sessions. The organization was awarded Seed Grant funding from CERTs to help train-in new solar thermal installers from the Lower Sioux Indian Community in Southwest MN and also the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in Northern MN.

“Working with CERTs on the workforce development piece has been great,” says Gasco. “Where there's not many job opportunities, we can do the training. Then they have a trained workforce. The tribal members can branch out to do more installations and sort of make their own little micro-economy.”

Hoping to deepen the impact of this work, RSDP has also partnered with 8th Fire Solar. Northwest RSDP is currently working closely with the organization to develop a series of educational videos that will help train new installers. 

"8th Fire Solar is well positioned to administer their heating system throughout Indigenous Nations, the state and the country," says Shannon Stassen, NW RSDP Executive Director. 

"But right now, there's a shortage of trained installers. Based on knowledge gained from previous RSDP workforce development projects and the needs of 8th Fire Solar, these videos will really boost their training potential. Leading to new installers feeling better equipped to succeed in the industry."

The videos will be created with support from a University of Minnesota graduate student supported through the Mary Page Fund. They will focus on safe and efficient installation of thermal solar panels of various sizes, in residential and commercial settings. 8th Fire Solar hopes that more well-trained installers will lead to fewer homes without affordable heat. 

“This is a great technology, and I don't think any one person should just have it to themselves,” says Gasco. “It should be made accessible to whoever needs it.”

The 8th Fire Solar team poses with newly-certified Lower Sioux solar thermal installers.

Read more about Gwe Gasco and 8th Fire Solar

Check out the full story on Gasco from the Clean Energy Resource Teams.

Learn more

Emily Haeg Nguyen, October, 2023

Emily Haeg Nguyen works as a statewide sustainability storyteller with the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) and Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs).

Permission is granted to news media to republish our news articles with credit to University of Minnesota Extension. Images also may be republished; please check for specific photographer credits or limited use restrictions in the photo title.

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