Tribal lands have some of the best potential for solar and wind energy in the US, but it’s largely unmet. That may be about to change.
The Inflation Reduction Act included about $106 billion in grants, loans and other forms of financial assistance that Native American tribes are eligible to tap to mitigate the impacts of climate change and adopt green technologies. This pot of money can help tribes protect against extreme weather, electrify, become more self-reliant and lower bills for elders and others. But there’s a long history of federal agencies, utilities and developers making decisions about energy that marginalized or took advantage of tribal communities.
The nonprofit Alliance for Tribal Clean Energy was formed earlier this year out of the nearly decade-old grassroots Indigenous Energy Initiative, which was founded by Chéri Smith, a descendent of the Mi’Kmaq tribe of Maine/Canadian Maritimes. The Alliance will work with tribes to help them achieve their energy goals. Although these vary widely, tribes are often looking for ownership and tangible community benefits from renewable energy projects, says Smith, who is now the group’s chief executive officer. The nonprofit has been working with the US Department of Energy on a framework to deploy IRA funding to tribal lands.
David Harper, 61, a Mohave Indian from the Colorado River Indian Tribes in Arizona, is head of tribal engagement and diversity, equity, inclusion and justice at the Alliance. He’s spent the past few months criss-crossing the country to visit with tribes, and the past few days meeting with federal agencies in Washington DC. Harper has also been the tribal liaison for Navajo Power for about six years.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
What type of projects are tribes interested in, and what are they and the Alliance looking for in a development partner?
It varies tribe to tribe. Some are looking at the big picture. Some are looking for community solar. Some are looking at self-development. They are making their own decisions. They are making their own energy plan.
Have these companies worked with a tribe before? Have they been good partners? Have they been good neighbors? Are they financially stable? Are they willing to take cultural diversity training? We [the Alliance] are developing a preferred vendor list where the companies have to take these informational classes and take diversity training. We vetted them and consider them to be good partners.
What is the biggest challenge impeding development, where it’s wanted, on tribal lands?
There is $100 billion that is out there, but what is the infrastructure for the tribes to apply for these grants? A lot of the tribes don’t have a grant writer or the capacity to apply. From the federal government level, it’s great that there are billions of dollars. That’s why our Alliance for Tribal Clean Energy is so important, because we are coming in as a philanthropy program to help write the grants, to help bring the resources, the engineering knowledge and understanding to the tribes to bridge the gap. Those are the real barriers. We’ve seen tribes apply and put in for these grants, but the feasibility studies aren’t complete [and] the tribe doesn’t have the $100,000 or $120,000 to do the feasibility study to be able to apply.
A lot of the time [tribes] lack for resources, and when you flip that and have industry coming, that’s the disparity in the level of competency. Some of these are billion-dollar projects. The tribe competes with the multibillion-dollar industry to be able to negotiate any type of contract or work.
There is this intergenerational mistrust. A lot of the energy, dams or facilities were created by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A lot of time these developments were done through the BIA and not through the tribe, so the tribe never really knew what was happening. The tribe didn’t have a say until the [Indian] Reorganization Act of 1934, so prior to that, there were all these monumental decisions made without regard to the tribes. If you look at power and transmission lines, they were pre-NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act, enacted in 1970], so a lot of this sits on sacred lands, cremation sites and burial sites.
How would you describe, in general, tribes’ decision-making processes?
It may be many times we are dealing with a person in a tribe and the person passes away, or there is an activity that is happening that the tribe sees as more important than the development. And it’s sometimes frustrating. It can be very humbling when you are working in the tribal field. There are so many facets that happen in the tribe: There are land issues, water politics, elections that the tribe sees as more important than an economic development project. And sometimes the tribe says the dollar is great but we have spiritual value, versus the timelines of how these projects run. Stakeholder engagement is so important.
At what point should a developer approach a tribe?
The earliest of the earliest of the earliest. It’s great because you are actually creating your relationship. You are actually sitting down and talking about our thoughts and what you are seeing in a project. It gives the tribes an early look. We may say, “We don’t want it in this area because that’s a cremation site. What if we talk about this area?” What if we sit down and talk about what and where would it be most practical for the tribe, versus what the developer wants? How do we meet together to have early engagement, rather than shove it down the tribes’ throats.
On a reservation with solar development, the Moapa tribe brought elders [to an area that was] spacious and bright. They said, “Not here. We will tell you [why] later by ourselves.” When we came back, it was an area where the polio blankets and mass-grave cremations were. We will never do development there. It had minimal financial effect on the tribe.
How can tribes make sure they are asking the right questions?
Some hire attorneys so there is transparency. Tribes have reached out to our program for professional people for direction on the technical issues brought forward. There are a lot of energy companies that are huge in Arizona or California that supply across the Southwest. So even the bigger tribes need assistance bridging that gap or for relationship building.
Do tribes meet to compare energy plans or share best practices?
The annual [convention of the National] Congress of American Indians. That meeting is this year in New Orleans in November, and I believe that one of the topics is energy, and it has been for the last five years.[Electricity is] becoming bigger than gaming, so gaming could be overtaken. It has a longer, more sustainable life. Utility solar for 35 years is bringing millions of dollars to the tribe. It’s also stable.
Jigar Shah [of the Energy Department’s Loan Programs Office] told investors at an event in New York that tribal projects can jump the queue to get connected to the grid faster. Are tribes able to take advantage of that?
There are some utilities that are very good — they help and they really want us to prosper. Some don’t want it. You would think in theory you are supposed to have the jump. That’s not always true.
A lot of times the utilities have bullied the tribes because they owned the network, they owned the line. We heard people complain about how they missed a payment on their power bills and they were shut off in the middle of winter. There was no discussion of making up a payment or coming up with a payment plan. We talked to one utility that said, “We will decide if the tribe is going to have solar or not, if it fits the need of the utility company.” That’s why we bring the professionals and the engineers.
Some [utilities] say they have no room. Not all the utilities are like that. In Arizona, where we were meeting a utility, we found out there was room. We found out their lines were up for renewal on the reservation, so there was an ability for the tribes to come back to the table with a better set of negotiations with the utility company. It just worked out.
That’s one thing on the plate right now being presented from the tribes’ perspective, that better transparency and better working relationship with utilities. It serves no purpose to have all these monies and you are stifled at the local level.
To contact the author of this story:
Naureen S Malik in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org
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