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American Indian Tribes Are Unsung Heroes of Clean Energy Movement

Solutions to the world’s climate crisis can often seem overly complex and unnecessarily polarizing. To the indigenous people of this country the path forward has always been more straight-forward – go all-in on renewables. After all, living off Earth’s natural bounty is what this community has been doing for centuries, and many American Indian tribes continue to lead on the renewables front well into the 21st Century.

Seizing the Solar Opportunity

The renewable energy generation potential of America’s tribal lands is profound. Many American Indian tribes in the West and Midwest in particular occupy land with some of the nation’s best solar and wind resources.

According to a 2018 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), tribal lands have the potential to generate 6,035 GW of utility scale solar power, or 5% of the nation’s total capacity. Tribal lands also have the potential to generate 891 GW of wind power, which represents 8.8% of the nation’s total wind generation capacity.

Despite the promising prospects for renewable energy production on tribal lands, a rather miniscule 400 MW of installed renewable energy capacity had been put on land owned by federally recognized Indian tribes by 2019 according to an S&P Global article that cited NREL data. A U.S. Government and Accountability Office (GAO) report from 2015 ascribed much of the blame for the disconnect to inefficiencies in the disbursement process for federally funded renewable energy projects.

Thankfully, a number of non-profit organizations with a mission to promote equity in the renewable energy space – with a specific focus on American Indian tribes – are working to pick up the slack and help tribal governments capitalize on solar opportunities. GRID Alternatives is perhaps the most prominent such organization. GRID is a national leader in developing and installing solar projects that benefit underserved communities. Their Tribal Program leverages both government and philanthropic dollars to install solar energy projects on tribal lands. These projects result not only in the obvious benefits (jobs and clean energy), but they often come with job training opportunities and other workforce development programs targeted at young people that can really help to move the needle in what are some of the most impoverished communities in the country.

Since its inception in 2010, GRID Alternatives’ Tribal Program has supported the installation of 849 solar energy systems on tribal lands across the country, collectively representing over 5.9 GW in installed solar capacity. Over 1700 people benefited from hands-on solar workforce training as a result of these projects as well.

Organizations like GRID Alternatives play a critical role in filling the solar void on tribal lands, since tribal reservation communities have limited access to traditional solar tax incentives offered by the federal government as they are sovereign nations that do not pay federal taxes.

Sovereignty Through Energy Independence

The pursuit of sovereignty is an ingrained principle in tribal communities. Which begs the question, how sovereign can a government and group of people be if they have no control over their own energy infrastructure? The attractiveness of achieving energy sovereignty through renewable energy has logically bubbled upon as a priority for many of the nation’s Indian tribes.

Native communities, and other communities of color, have long been subject to the destructive effects of pollutive industries that often locate in or proximate to low-income and communities of color (See: Environmental Racism). This dynamic is especially present in the fossil fuels industry which has scared Native lands from coast to coast. Lest we forget that it was Native Alaskans and American Indian tribes in the Gulf Coast who bore the brunt of the long-term damage from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 and the equally infamous Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the Gulf coast in 2010.

To that end, renewable energy projects on tribal lands are far more than just an economics play, which is the context they are most often otherwise put in. The potential of renewable energy connects Native people to their ancestral roots, placing a great emphasis on the immense offerings that Mother Earth provides to her people. Energy sovereignty is also a vital component to the quest for self-sufficiency which is a dominate historical pursuit for Native people.

This case study example from the DOE’s Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs about the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ (EBCI) foray into the solar world reveals the myriad of benefits that the Tribe’s energy sovereignty pursuit has brought to its citizens.

The EBCI installed a 700 kW PV system on land adjacent to the Tribe’s casino in Western North Carolina to power the casino, a hotel, and 2 administrative buildings. The project was made possible by a $1M grant from the DOE and a $1.3M investment by the Tribe.

Photo Source:

According to Joey Owle, Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources for the EBCI, the main energy challenges that the tribe has historically faced involve supplying reliable service to the buildings that drive the tribe’s economy. The most prominent of which is the casino which operates on a business model that requires around-the-clock energy consumption. The new solar array is also a big cost saver for the tribe, to the tune of just under $100,000 annually that the tribe can re-allocate to other essential tribal needs.

The EBCI’s embrace of solar energy is simple yet meaningful for a group of people for whom self-sufficiency is a way of life. As Owle put it:

“How can we call ourselves sovereign if we’re dependent for multiple functions? Energy independence is a component of our sovereignty. We are taking our independence and sovereignty into our own hands by investing in this industry to meet the needs of our community members.”

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Continues to Lead

It is hard to imagine an American Indian tribe that has done more for the Native-led environmental justice movement than the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The Tribe’s famous protests from 2016-2017 against the Dakota Access Pipeline turned them into a household name across the globe. Even though the pipeline was ultimately approved, the tribe’s fight invigorated tribal members who were growing anxious about the threat climate change posed to their way of life. In 2019, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe built a 300-kilowatt solar farm just 3 miles from the controversial pipeline that power two buildings of great significance for the tribe – the Cannonball Youth Activity Center and the Veterans Memorial Building. The Cannonball Community Solar Farm is the state of North Dakota’s first every solar farm.

Photo Source: Al Jazeera

In a state that is dead last in the country in installed solar, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s modest 300-kW solar farm is a big deal and offers important symbolism. For far too long indigenous people in this country have had their sacred lands desecrated by the fossil fuels industry. While Big Oil profited off their lands, the economic benefits to tribal members were fleeting. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s efforts to sustain themselves in North Dakota through solar investments are heroic, but hardly the only example of American Indian tribes awakening to the bad bill of goods pushed on them by the fossil fuels industry.

Photo Source: GivePower

For decades, the Navajo Generating Station operated as one of the nation’s largest coal plants on land belonging to the Navajo Nation, until its eventual decommissioning in 2019 and subsequent demolition the following year. The plant was a vital economic powerhouse for the tribe, providing it with the bulk of the tribe’s total revenues. Since its closure, the Navajo Nation has moved forward with multiple solar arrays on tribal lands including 2 from just earlier this year. The solar projects will provide several hundred of jobs for tribal members and rake in tens of millions of dollars in energy payments, land lease payments, and tax revenues for the tribe.

The Moapa Band of Paiutes in Nevada, another community previously dependent on the coal industry, also has multiple solar projects in its growing renewable energy portfolio. One of which, the Moapa Southern Paiute Solar Project, was the first large-scale solar project to ever receive construction approval on a tribal land in all of North America.

Many tribal governments are freeing themselves from the burdens of long-standing ties to the fossil fuels industry in favor of a much brighter future powered by the Sun. In the process, they are achieving energy independence and improving the economic well-being of their people. Solar energy is especially empowering to a constituency whose ancestors knew how best to harvest all that Mother Earth had to give. We should all find inspiration in this worthy pursuit.

Cover Photo Source: Bismarck Tribune


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