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With renewables, Native communities chart a path to energy sovereignty

From Arizona to Maine and beyond, a new generation of Indigenous entrepreneurs, activists and government leaders are making strides — and money — with clean energy.

A man with black hair in a ponytail wearing a white hardhat installs a solar panel.
A Solar Warrior Trainee with the Indigenized Energy Initiative installs a 10-kilowatt solar system for tribal elder members of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in Sept. 2021. (Sarah Yeoman)
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This article is part of our weeklong series Power by the People: Clean Energy from the Grassroots.

To Robert Blake, a tribal citizen of the Red Lake Nation of Ojibwe people, solar power isn’t just a tool to escape energy poverty. It’s the key to energy sovereignty” — a way for his people to regain control over their own energy decisions and continue to be stewards of the land they’ve lived on for centuries. 

Blake’s solar company Solar Bear — pronounced Gizis-o-makwa in the Ojibwe language — has led the construction of the tribal nation’s first two solar installations, a 70-kilowatt system on the roof of the Government Center in the town of Red Lake, Minnesota, and a 240-kilowatt system at a workforce development center named Oshkiimaajitahdah, or New Beginnings, in the nearby town of Redby. It’s planning 20 more commercial-building solar systems, along with a 13-megawatt solar farm. 

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Solar power is cheaper over the long run than utility electricity in the area, which is important for a community where the median per capita income is about $10,000 and 45 percent of children live in poverty. We see a high density of energy poverty,” Blake said, with families often forced to choose between paying their power bills or buying food.

Solar development also means economic opportunity. The Red Lake Indian Reservation, with a population of about 5,500, has an unemployment rate of 24 percent. Most of the available jobs are linked to tribal government, and most revenue is generated by Red Lake’s casinos. We wanted to create jobs, entrepreneurship opportunities,” Blake said. 

The ecological benefits of solar power are significant too for a tribe that has lived on the same 1,260 square miles of land since the 18th century. High levels of mercury from more than a century of coal power plant emissions have polluted the nearby Great Lakes and have been detected in the fish in the community’s namesake body of water, Red Lake, home to the country’s largest and oldest commercial walleye fishery. The tribe has fought the construction of fossil fuel pipelines across its land, which bring the risk of catastrophic explosions and oil spills as well as worsening climate change. 

Blake views the fossil-fuel energy system as part and parcel of an extractive and predatory” economic system, one that threatens not just the communities and ecosystems directly harmed by it but the entire planet. Native people can now take back these profits, take back these resources and start taking care of the planet and taking care of our communities,” he said. 

On the Red Lake reservation, that means creating a tribal utility and other structures to manage the tribe’s own energy affairs, he said. In March, for example, the Red Lake Nation won federal approval for the first-ever Tribal Energy Development Organization, a structure that gives it more freedom to negotiate land leases and energy agreements.

workers in hardhats and green safety vests install panels on a rooftop
Solar Bear crew working on rooftop of the Red Lake workforce center in Redby, Minnesota (Solar Bear)

But it also means helping other tribal nations and Indigenous communities develop energy sovereignty, he said. That’s the goal of Native Sun Community Power Development, a nonprofit Blake founded that’s working on creating pan-tribal clean energy and electrification projects such as an electric-vehicle charging partnership between the Red Lake reservation and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. 

It’s also the purpose of the Indigenized Energy Initiative, a nonprofit that’s brought together tribal leaders including Blake, Chief Henry Red Cloud of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe, Otto Braided Hair of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, and Cody Two Bears of the Standing Rock Sioux.

These tribal leaders have organized projects like the 300-kilowatt community solar array built on Standing Rock land, which grew out of Two Bears’ work organizing protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe’s 1.25-megawatt White River Community Solar project in the heart of eastern Montana coal country. 

Though there are enormous fossil fuel resources beneath North American native lands, Indigenous people have more often been exploited than uplifted by fossil fuel development, and they’ve been left out of the expansion of modern energy systems, said Chéri A. Smith, founder and CEO of Indigenized Energy and a descendant of the Mi’kmaq Tribe of present-day Maine and the Canadian Maritime provinces. About 14 percent of households on Native American reservations lack electricity access, compared to about 1.4 percent of U.S. households on average. On some reservations like the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Oglala Lakota in South Dakota, that rate is closer to 40 percent. 

With the threat of climate change bearing down, it’s become clear that fossil fuel development is not a viable way to expand economic and energy equity, said Smith, who was just named a 2022 MIT Solve Indigenous Communities Fellow. We are gathering experts, Native and non-Native — that’s what it takes to get this done until these tribes are truly sovereign.”

Tribal energy, past and future 

Tribal energy development is nothing new. From the coal mines of Navajo Nation to the oil fields of the Alaska North Slope, many tribal nations have been in the energy business for decades. There are tribal-run hydroelectric projects and biomass-to-energy plants. And as solar and wind power have become the cheapest and fastest-growing sources of electricity generation, tribes have begun to develop those resources as well. 

The Moapa Indian Reservation, home of the Moapa Band of Paiutes, became host of the first utility-scale solar project built on tribal land to sell its power outside its borders in 2017. That’s when First Solar completed its 250-megawatt plant about 30 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada, and then sold it to Capital Dynamics.

More solar and wind development is sure to follow, given the enormous renewable energy potential across the country’s tribal lands. A 2018 report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory identified that 5.4 percent of total U.S. solar potential and 7.8 percent of total wind potential are within tribal borders. Those ratios rose to 11.5 percent and 16 percent, respectively, when land within 10 miles of tribal borders was included.

NREL map of wind power generation capacity on and within 10 miles of  tribal lands.
(NREL)
NREL map of solar power generation capacity on and within 10 miles of  tribal lands.
(NREL)

But with this potential comes great responsibility — to protect the land and to ensure that development benefits rather than exploits the people living on it. If this transition isn’t done by Native people for Native people, it can be just as extractive as fossil development,” Smith said. 

One of the first priorities of tribal nations is breaking the cycle of energy poverty in tribal communities, she said — discriminatory practices forcing people to choose between heating and eating.” 

Tribal communities often face much higher-than-average energy costs because of their relative isolation from the power grids that serve more densely populated areas or their dependence on trucked-in heating fuels. 

Navajo (Diné) tribe member Wahleah Johns, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, said that decades of neglect from private utilities as well as discriminatory programs created by the New Deal–era Rural Electrification Act left many Native communities disconnected from the country’s broader energy system. 

Native Renewables, an off-grid solar power nonprofit that Johns led before joining DOE, has calculated that many families in the Navajo Nation pay between $150 and $700 per month on fuels to power heating and generators. 

Even where grid connections exist, Smith said, many residents of reservations like Standing Rock and Northern Cheyenne are charged twice as much, if not more, for their electrons as people living right down the road” because of discriminatory rate structures, she said. The impact of those higher rates is compounded by poorly built and insulated homes using out-of-date heating systems, she added. 

Tribal organizations are taking a multipronged approach to solving these inequities. Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center, the organization founded by Chief Henry Red Cloud, constructs and trains Native workers on sustainable and energy-efficient building practices and solar air heating systems as well as installing solar PV arrays. 

Some tribes, such as the Navajo Nation, have formed their own utilities to build infrastructure and control cost and rate structures. That’s what Blake is proposing for the Red Lake reservation: We want to protect our communities against these predatory energy companies that are preying on Native people,” he said.

That can mean making some hard choices. Blake recounted the Red Lake reservation’s decision to reject an offer from Enbridge, the Canada-based fossil fuel pipeline operator, to pay the tribe $55 million for rights to build a pipeline across tribal lands. For a frontline community to say no to that kind of money is incredible,” he said. 

But the risks of expanding fossil fuel infrastructure on tribal lands outweigh the benefits, he said. Clean energy, by contrast, is falling in cost and offers resiliency when extreme weather threatens the reliability of the power grid, he said. 

We need more distributed energy resources, not only in tribal communities,” he said. 

Building out clean energy while restoring tribal lifeways

Tribes in the Pacific Northwest are also rejecting the old paradigm of dirty energy infrastructure in favor of a restorative approach to energy development. 

Native groups and conservationists have for decades called for breaching the four hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River to restore fish runs that have sustained Pacific Northwest tribes for millennia but are now endangered. These plans gained traction last year when U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican, and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, put forth a $33 billion plan to breach the dams and replace the roughly 5.3 gigawatts of power those dams generate with alternative resources. 

Whether to breach the dams remains a highly controversial question, however, with energy experts providing contradictory views on how dam removal will affect the cost of energy now supplied by the greater Columbia River Basin’s hydroelectric complex, of which the Snake River dams are a part. 

Last month, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, representing four tribes with treaty rights to healthy Snake River fisheries, released a comprehensive Tribal Energy Vision that lays out a plan it says combines clean, reliable and affordable energy with a much greater role for tribes in building that future. 

One key point raised by the Tribal Energy Vision is that the region can’t continue to add solar and wind and use the hydro system as a battery,” said Chris Golightly, a policy analyst who contributed to the report. In simple terms, operating the region’s dams to store hydropower for the hours or seasons when wind and solar power are scarce is incompatible with legally binding requirements to operate the dams to allow fish populations to recover, she said. 

The broader implication, said Jeremy FiveCrows, the council’s communications director, is that energy planning cannot be separated from its environmental or ecological impacts. 

There’s a way to make this energy transition beneficial to the environment, not just for climate impacts, but for a much more sensible and sustainable way to operate the river system,” he said. 

Some of the larger-scale energy projects seen as vital for decarbonizing the Pacific Northwest may conflict with this holistic vision. For example, the Yakama Nation is seeking to halt a pumped hydropower project near Goldendale, Washington because it might harm lands the tribe considers sacred. 

But other clean-energy investments could yield value both for tribes and the broader region, said Rob Lothrop, the commission’s policy and legal services manager. These include distributed solar and battery projects being developed by the commission’s members — the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Yakama and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, which collectively control a land mass equal to the size of Georgia. 

I think [the commission members] have the opportunity to demonstrate to their neighbors, county governments and public utilities the art of the possible,” he said. 

One such project is Nimiipuu Energy, a tribe-to-tribe utility cooperative” created by the Nez Perce Tribe with the goal of developing the clean energy resources needed to replace generation capacity from the Snake River dams (“Nimiipuu” means people” in the Nez Perce language).

Those dams have been an impediment that has decimated fish runs to near extinction,” Jesse Leighton, executive director of the Nez Perce tribe, explained in a video presentation introducing the plan. We as tribes collectively can come together to generate that much power, to basically render those dams obsolete, so those fish runs can get back to where they used to be.” 

Nimiipuu Energy is turning to distributed solar, batteries, energy-efficiency improvements and other technologies to shift when electricity is used to better correspond with the peaks and troughs in regionwide energy demand. When combined with other solar, battery and load-control resources across the region, these resources can act as a virtual power plant, injecting battery power or reducing demand at scales that match those of large central resources such as power plants, dams or wind and solar farms. 

The tribe has already installed 750 kilowatts of solar and 1.7 megawatt-hours of battery storage capacity across seven individual sites, including senior housing complexes, community centers, the Clearwater Casino and a wastewater treatment plant that has the first Tesla Powerpack battery in Idaho.

A semi truck bringing a large white Tesla battery to be installed at an industrial site
Nimiipuu Energy installing the first Tesla megapack battery in Idaho at its Lapwai wastewater treatment facility (Nimiipuu Energy)

The tribe has tapped Hawaii-based solar installer RevoluSun for the solar installations and California-based startup Swell, which is managing virtual power plant projects in Hawaii, California and elsewhere, to manage the operations of the solar and batteries as a grid-balancing collective. 

Nimiipuu Energy’s next phase of development calls for 30 megawatts of solar and 120 megawatt-hours of battery storage. By 2027, it hopes to deploy 500 MW, or about 10 percent of the 5.3 GW of generation capacity needed to replace the hydropower generated by the lower Snake River dams. It’s hoping that other tribes across the Pacific Northwest will invest in their own distributed and utility-scale renewables and energy storage systems to contribute an even larger share of the total target. 

With that concept of a virtual power plant or distributed power plant, we knew we could get other tribes to become a part of it as a network and come together,” Leighton said. 

New models for clean energy projects to grow beyond tribal borders 

Nimiipuu Energy is only one of the multi-megawatt projects being developed on tribal lands by tribal community members with the intention of distributing power well beyond tribal borders. 

Take Navajo Power, which is planning to develop up to 750 megawatts of solar and battery storage in the Navajo Nation. That would be more than 10 times the size of the 55 MW Kayenta Solar facility developed by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, currently the largest such project on Navajo lands.

Unlike the tribal utilities that developed the Kayenta project and other clean energy projects, Navajo Power is organized as a public benefit corporation. The way we compete is the same as a for-profit corporation,” said Clara Pratte, co-founder and president. They do it by raising money from financing partners, partnering with project developers, and seeking customers to sign power-purchase agreements for the energy it generates.

What’s different is, once we get a [power-purchase agreement] and revenue starts being generated, how we divvy up that revenue,” Pratte said. Under Navajo Power’s corporate charter, 80 percent of all profit must be reinvested in new projects that benefit the communities that it has partnered with or other forms of beneficial investments that have a social and economic impact in the communities in which we work,” she said. 

Navajo Power has also structured its agreements from outside investors to maintain majority-Native equity ownership in the company and to set aside 10 percent of company ownership in a Turquoise share” that must go to funding community benefits in the event of its sale or dissolution. Lenders such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which put $3 million last year toward the company’s $10 million Impact Loan Facility,” have structured their financing to retain this Native control. 

It’s a novel way to go about financing tribal projects, Pratte said. The closest analog is Alaska Native regional corporations, the unique structure that makes Alaska Natives common shareholders of their land and resources, although Navajo Power doesn’t do the same for all Navajo Nation–enrolled members. 

But Navajo Power has won support from the Coalmine Canyon and Cameron chapters, two of the local governmental divisions of the tribal nation, that are responsible for the land where the solar-plus-battery farm is being planned and will be connected to the grid. Part of Navajo Power’s process is to go to the communities first, talking to the grandmas and grandpas, the sheepherders who live on the land, before we set foot in a government office,” Pratte said. 

That community buy-in is vital for Navajo Nation members who’ve lived through decades of environmental degradation from mining of copper, nickel, uranium and, as Coalmine Canyon Chapter’s name evokes, coal. The Black Mesa coal mine, operated from the mid-1960s to 2005 by Peabody Coal, drained aquifers vital to sheepherders to feed some of the U.S. West’s largest and most polluting coal-fired power plants. 

Now the Black Mesa and adjacent Kayenta coal mines are closed and the power plants they fed have either been demolished, as the 2,250 MW Navajo Generating Station was in 2020, or are facing imminent closure. This has left both a legacy of environmental degradation and a gaping hole in the Navajo Nation’s economy, which depended on the coal industry for hundreds of well-paying jobs and a majority of the tribe’s annual budget.

The three 775-foot high smokestacks of the Navajo Generating Station were demolished on Dec. 18, 2020, providing a stark image of the end of the coal industry’s dominance on Navajo Nation lands. (Salt River Project) 

More than half of the natural resources in the Western U.S. are on tribal lands,” Pratte said. If we’re going to continue to be generating energy for the country at large, then we have to bring benefits to the individual people who it impacts.” 

The Navajo Nation will also need support from the U.S. Southwest utility shareholders and customers who reaped the benefits of decades of cheap power from this coal economy, she said. In 2021, the Navajo government negotiated a proposed $144 million just-transition package — the largest in the U.S. — from utility Arizona Public Service for communities affected by coal plant closures. But the terms of that compensation remain tied up in political jockeying between Arizona and New Mexico lawmakers, regulators, utilities, and consumer and environmental groups. 

The role of government in tribal energy sovereignty — a major shift underway? 

Native Americans have few reasons to feel confident in — and many reasons to be suspicious of — government promises to aid their recovery from past energy industry depredations or to support their transition to a clean energy future. But in the past two years, Congress has passed two laws — last year’s infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and this year’s Inflation Reduction Act — that start fulfilling these obligations, tribal clean-energy advocates say. 

The infrastructure law included $13 billion in tribal community investments, hundreds of millions of dollars of which are for climate resiliency and adaptation. The Inflation Reduction Act contains $720 million for tribal governments, including $235 million for tribal climate resilience, $225 million for tribes to develop high-efficiency electric home rebate programs and $75 million for energy loan programs. 

These are relatively small shares of the hundreds of billions of dollars in climate and energy funding from both bills. But it’s still far more money than the federal government has directed to tribal energy projects over the past decades. What’s more, many of the new grant opportunities reduce or eliminate the requirement for tribes to contribute matching funds, something that’s prevented them from being able to use funds in the past.

Beyond the direct funding from federal agencies, the Inflation Reduction Act contains several provisions that could significantly boost the value for investors in tribal energy projects like those that Indigenized Energy Initiative supports, CEO Smith said. This combination of provisions means that accessing capital has now become exponentially easier.” 

One of the most important changes is the direct-pay” provision for the federal tax credits that have served as the primary form of federal support for clean energy growth, she said. Under direct pay, tribal governments, nonprofit institutions and other tax-exempt entities can be paid the value of tax credits directly by the federal government, rather than through complex financial arrangements with private businesses or financial institutions. 

Second, the Inflation Reduction Act expands these tax credits for projects built in low-income and disadvantaged communities, as well as in energy communities” facing financial disruption from the loss of fossil fuel industries. Both categories apply to many tribal communities, Smith noted. 

The law also expands the authority of the Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office to provide loan guarantees for tribal energy projects from its previous $2 billion to $20 billion, Smith said. Given the role that this DOE program has played in jump-starting renewable energy financing and driving down project costs over the past decade, that expansion means business opportunities for engaging tribes on large, utility-scale projects,” she said. 

There’s no lack of such projects to invest in, Smith said. In the Navajo Nation, Navajo Power’s solar-plus-battery ambitions are matched by those of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, which is planning to develop nearly 900 megawatts of utility-scale solar. The Oceti Sakowin Power Authority, a joint effort of the Cheyenne River, Flandreau Santee, Oglala, Rosebud, Standing Rock and Yankton Sioux tribes in the Dakotas, has been working since 2012 to develop up to 2 gigawatts of wind power, with a first phase of 570 megawatts now planned to begin operations in 2024

This scale of tribal energy development is vastly larger than what Robert Blake thought possible when he launched Solar Bear’s first projects with Minnesota solar developer IPS Solar in 2018. For those projects, we used crowdsourcing by the Quaker community and other religious communities that funded us with the half a million dollars we needed,” he said. Now, by contrast, renewable energy projects in Native country are the most profitable renewable projects you can do today.” 

That’s not to say that tribal communities see an easy path ahead, Smith said. It’s going to take enormous amounts of money to come even close to an equitable transition” to clean energy, she said. We’re working on the ground and empowering Indigenous communities to do this in a self-determined way. That will allow them to rebuild economies that have been decimated by the deliberate destruction of their habitats, of their ecosystems. It will allow well-paying jobs to come into these communities — and hope.”

Be sure to check back every day this week for our Power by the People special coverage. 

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media.