Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

Helping Native communities attain energy sovereignty’ with solar

Nonprofit Grid Alternatives develops solar projects on reservations and provides job-training opportunities.
By Natasha Ferguson

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Vivian Hamilton surveys the Santa Rosa Community Solar Project built on reservation land in California's Anza Valley. (Photo courtesy Grid Alternatives)

This guest essay is by Natasha Ferguson, who until recently served as communications officer at Grid Alternatives. 

Vivian Hamilton has spent her entire life in the community of the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians, east of Riverside, California. As a great-grandmother, she has lived enough years to see changes shape the community many times over, for better and for worse. Recently, Hamilton not only watched one of those changes unfold — she also took part in it.

Built on reservation land in Anza Valley, the Santa Rosa Community Solar Project is the first community-scale solar project in the state targeted toward helping low-income customers cut their electricity bills. It is the product of a $2.5 million grant awarded by the California Department of Community Services and Development to fund nearly 1 megawatt of locally produced energy for the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians.

This came just when I needed it most,” said Hamilton, who was one of five tribal members selected to work on the installation. It was a memorable experience.” While her life has had its share of difficulties, including the tragic loss of her husband a few years ago and more recently the pandemic, Hamilton said the construction training she received has been a bright spot. It helped me to redirect my thoughts and take my mind off things.”

The project was developed by Grid Alternatives Inland Empire’s Tribal Program, which works to equip tribal communities in rural areas with the capacity to become self-sustaining by providing renewable energy technology and job skills. Costs for many of the program’s projects are covered in part by Grid Alternatives’ Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund, a tribal-led initiative that provides new funding to support renewable energy projects in multiple states.

Priority was given to qualifying tribal members of the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians” from the start, explained Cindy Corrales, workforce and volunteer manager with Grid Alternatives Inland Empire. Our laborers got to earn as they learned and gained real work experience on a special project that will positively impact their careers, their community and their sacred land.”

The skills Hamilton and others learned come at a time when solar jobs are booming. According to the Solar Foundation’s recent census, installation and construction-related employment continue to make up the largest segment of jobs in the solar industry.

For a solar project of this size, a team is put together including both trainees recruited from local neighborhoods and communities and experienced construction leads from the Grid Alternatives staff. The community-solar project’s overall goals — putting millions of cap-and-trade dollars to work, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, strengthening the economy, and improving public health and the environment (particularly in disadvantaged communities) — align with the goals of the California Climate Investments initiative.

The project will provide savings of approximately $5.4 million to benefit low-income members of the Anza Electric Cooperative, which will be especially helpful in the summertime when the Anza Valley often sees triple-digit temperatures. It is an example of the type of project that can help individuals for whom rooftop solar is not an option, which is the case for about half of all Californians, according to the Coalition for Community Solar Access.

But the benefits go beyond cost savings. Energy inequity is particularly acute in rural communities in the U.S., and on tribal lands in particular. Fourteen percent of homes on Native American reservations have no access to electricity, a rate 10 times higher than the national average, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. California, which has the largest Native American population of any state, has been a leader in deploying renewable energy projects on Native lands, but often the benefits of the locally generated power from those projects do not flow directly to the communities.

Since completing her construction work on the project, Hamilton spends more time teaching her six grandchildren and one great-grandchild the importance of being energy-efficient at home. She’s proud that the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians was able to take this important step forward for energy sovereignty, and her entire family got to watch footage of the project’s ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The ceremony, said Corrales, was all the more meaningful since it took place amid the uncertainty and worry of the Covid-19 pandemic. One trainee from the reservation, Garret Marcus, had passed away due to illness before he saw the fruits of his labor, and he was honored posthumously at the ceremony with his family in attendance.

Hamilton reflected on the significance of being part of a project that directly benefits the homes of members of the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians, including her own. I beam with joy at the sight of this project and am happy that my grandchildren will be able to tell people their grandmother helped to build it!”

Projects like this showcase the importance of centering community-led solutions when tackling economic and environmental justice,” said Jaime Alonso, executive director of Grid Alternatives Inland Empire. When there is a collaborative framework that is agreed to by all stakeholders, rural communities both on and off tribal reservations stand to benefit.”

Natasha Ferguson served as the communications officer for Grid Alternatives Inland Empire for four and a half years, furthering Grid Alternatives’ mission of making renewable energy technology and job training accessible to underserved communities.