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Renewable Energy

Native Communities Install Microgrids For Energy Independence

Washington State University

A new project from engineering students at Washington State University (WSU) tackles a major clean-energy issue for communities in need. A group of senior students created a solar microgrid for the Tulalip Indian Reservation. The project is being carried out with the help of several public utility companies and government agencies. 

WSU collaborated with the Snohomish Public Utility District and the Tulalip Tribes to get this microgrid off the ground. Being a sovereign nation, the university needed consent from the Tribe before any construction could begin. The Tulalip is looking for energy independence from centralized electrical grids. The endeavor was supported by the Department of Energy’s (DOE) US-India CollAborative For Smart DiStribution System WIth STorage (UI-ASSIST) program. 

UI-ASSIST is a research and development consortium of scientists and clean-energy leaders. Academics and utility leaders from the U.S. and India work together to develop sustainable energy solutions, many of which include renewables. WSU is one of the leading universities in the consortium. 

Photo Courtesy Michael Wilson

The microgrid is being built on a Tulalip administrative building rooftop and a proposed covered parking lot. The panels will send solar into a battery system. When activated, these batteries can power the building through a shared circuit. It’s an emission-free form of energy and is much cheaper than operating a diesel generator. The grid will supply energy even on rainy or cloudy days thanks to the battery storage systems. 

A microgrid like this gives the Tribe much better energy resiliency. It can power medical equipment and keep government buildings functional. 

“We want the microgrid to be a method that the Tribe can use to teach their youth about clean energy and interest them in pursuing that career path and to help them with their ultimate goal of reaching energy sovereignty in the future,” said Isobel Baetz, WSU student. 

The Tulalip are not the only Native community striving for energy independence. In June 2022 in California, the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians (SPBMI) celebrated installing an independent microgrid on their land. The Tribal Hall, law enforcement offices, fire departments, housing, and education buildings are all powered by solar energy. 

SPBMI worked with two companies — Gridscape and Industria Power — to set up their microgrid, which included a 156.25 kW solar parking canopy and a 240 kW/480 kWh battery energy storage system. It also integrated two smaller rooftop solar systems already at the site. 

Gridscape’s technology is designed to be resilient to natural disasters. The area is highly susceptible to forest fires, which can disrupt California’s electrical grid. In an outage, the tech goes into “islanded mode” and will harness solar energy and clean power saved in the system’s batteries. It uses solar energy primarily during the daytime but uses excess energy during peak pricing periods. 

Photo Courtesy Gridscape

The energy costs are pretty low compared to the state grid rate, with the San Pasqual community due to save around $78,000 per year, according to Gridscape. It should offset nearly 112 megatons of greenhouse gas per year. The total installation costs included some financing from DOE grants and Tribal cash.  

Projects like these offer Native communities real solutions to energy insecurity. “We have 21st-century problems like wildfires and climate change … Why would we use a 20th-century technology [diesel generators] to meet 21st-century problems?” said John Flores, environmental director and water manager for SPBMI.