Tribal Energy Sovereignty Program

Kicking off 2018 with a new market innovation initiative, MSL organized and co-hosted an inaugural workshop on Tribal Energy Sovereignty in January. This half-day roundtable offered a survey of relevant concepts and factors bearing on energy independence for indigenous communities, including technology, finance, regulations, economic and workforce, and cultural aspects. Based on the positive input received and level of participation and engagement, we will now assess the feasibility of launching a national program to support Native American communities in their quest for energy sovereignty, with a focus on community microgrids.

One program component under evaluation is a center of excellence that can serve as a repository for information, resources, and best practices, under the working title of the Energy Sovereignty Institute. According to one NGO working in the field, “Energy sovereignty is the right of conscious individuals, communities and peoples to make their own decisions on energy generation, distribution and consumption in a way that is appropriate within their ecological, social, economic and cultural circumstances, provided that these do not affect others negatively.” These concepts resonate particularly strongly with many indigenous cultures, and can complement existing efforts in renewable energy and energy efficient housing on many reservations.

In addition to the goal of increased energy sovereignty, a significant portion of the American Indian population is without any grid connection or alternative source of electricity. For example, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home to the Oglala Lakota, over 40 percent of residents live without access to electricity. On Native American Reservations across the U.S., the Energy Information Administration has estimated that 14 percent of households have no access to electricity, 10 times higher than the national average (an updated report is in process, and progress has been made in the interim, but large unelectrified populations remain). For those communities with a grid connection, their rural location is often at the end of a single distribution line, resulting in sub-par reliability and resilience issues. Microgrids could provide a cost-effective solution to many aspects of these challenges.

For the initial New Mexico-focused workshop, MSL worked with co-hosts at NM Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department to bring together representatives of key stakeholder organizations state-wide, including:

  • NM Economic Development Department
  • NM Solar Energy Association
  • All Pueblo Council of Governors
  • Sustainable Native Communities Coalition
  • Los Alamos National Laboratory
  • The National Renewable Energy Laboratory
  • Cornerstones Community Partnerships
  • Santa Fe Community College
  • Northern Pueblos Housing Authority
  • North Central NM Economic Development District
  • Kit Carson Electric Coop

Two tribal microgrid case studies were reviewed: the Blue Lake Rancheria project, and the Chemehuevi Indian Reservation project, both in California. The discussion also included a recent Notice of Intent released by the U.S. Department of Energy for a Funding Opportunity Announcement for “Energy Infrastructure Deployment on Tribal Lands” (in which one topic area addresses microgrids), and several potential NM projects that might apply; as well as the recently-completed DOE-funded solar PV array at Picuris Pueblo.

The potential for invigorating this microgrid segment is well-captured by the Lakota Solar Enterprises Energy Sovereignty initiative’s Henry Red Cloud: “My biggest dream is for First Nation communities to become energy independent before mainstream America.”