In August 2021, two wildfires surrounded the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in central Montana. By Aug. 11, more than 175,000 acres were ablaze, and all residents of Lame Deer, the largest town on the reservation, were asked to evacuate. Several communities lost power and cell service, and the local Boys and Girls Club set up door-to-door food delivery. Some of those forced to evacuate were staff at Covenant Tribal Solar Initiative, a nonprofit that supports tribal communities’ transition to solar power and development of renewable energy workforces. Wildfires like those surrounding Northern Cheyenne—which may get worse because of climate change—exemplified the urgent need for Covenant’s work.
About one-quarter of U.S greenhouse gas emissions come from electricity, so transitioning to renewable energy like solar power is an important part of reducing the nation’s overall emissions. Climate change is already affecting tribal communities across the U.S.—affecting the ability to gather traditional foods and medicines, drinking water quality in rural communities, and more. In places like Montana, climate change-driven warmer temperatures, drier soils, and reductions in snowpack may make fire season worse.
For tribes like those Covenant Solar works with, the switch to solar power is urgent to mitigate the long-term impacts of fossil fuels. But it is also a way to strengthen tribal self-determination through workforce development and energy independence from often exploitative, non-Native-run utilities.
“We are disrupting the broken fossil fuel-based energy system,” says Covenant Solar founder Cheri Smith. “This is economic development with really high human impact.”
Both Northern Cheyenne and the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, where Covenant Solar works, are on the front lines of the fight for a renewable energy future to combat climate change. At Northern Cheyenne, the battle was against coal mining. In 2016, after years of organizing by community members—including by Vanessa Braided Hair, Covenant Solar’s advocacy and community engagement manager—Arch Resources (then called Arch Coal) withdrew its application to mine 1.3 billion tons of coal at Otter Creek, near the reservation.
At Standing Rock, the battle is against the Dakota Access oil pipeline, part of which runs under the Missouri River on the reservation. In summer 2016, thousands of activists, known as water protectors, gathered along the Cannonball River to protest construction of the pipeline. Oil began flowing in May 2017, though activists continue to call on President Biden to shut down DAPL. During the 2016 protests, Cody Two Bears, one of the co-founders of Covenant Solar, helped organize a fundraiser to get 300 kilowatts of solar power installed on the reservation. Today, Covenant Solar is using the solar panel purchased with donated funds as a demonstration project and training opportunity.
“The majority of solar work being done on reservations don’t address core issues of poverty and lack of an economy,” Smith says. “[These one-off projects] are fine, but oftentimes what happens is when systems are donated, they’re dumped there and then the donor goes away, and the tribe is left with a hulking mess.”
Not all tribes have the staff, technical knowledge, or funding to operate or maintain the specialized machinery solar energy requires. That’s why Covenant Solar is taking a different approach.
The company is not interested in short-sighted solar installation projects. It wants to create a self-reliant, renewable energy economy that lasts long past the media buzz. And that’s no small task.
“This is a first-of-its-kind approach. There’s no template,” Smith says. “Our long-term goal is return to self-determination and restoration of hope.”
A Replacement for Fossil Fuels
Robert Blake, founder of the Minneapolis-based solar installation company Solar Bear and the nonprofit Native Sun Community Power Development, has a similar vision. He is developing a solar microgrid on the Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota, where he is a member. Like Northern Cheyenne and Standing Rock, the Red Lake Reservation faces a similar fossil fuel fight. Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 pipeline expansion, proposed in 2014, would cross three reservations as well as wetlands in Minnesota where tribes hold treaty rights to hunt, fish, and gather wild rice. Indigenous people and environmental activists have been protesting the expansion for years, with action ramping up in the past few months. Between November 2020 and August 2021, more than 700 protesters were arrested.
Blake believes tribes are key to the United States reaching its climate goals, and that investment in renewable energy is an essential part of that puzzle.
“Those old fossil fuel forces have a stranglehold on our system,” Blake says. “There’s no way we’re going to get off of fossil fuels unless we have something else on the market.”
Covenant Solar and Native Sun both take a systems-based approach to renewable energy development. In addition to solar installation, workforce development and technical training are key aspects of their work—with a long-term goal of establishing tribally owned solar utilities. Today, Covenant Solar is helping develop three megawatts of solar power at Northern Cheyenne that will provide power for utilities, homes, and businesses. The dozen solar panel installers Covenant Solar trained at Northern Cheyenne are now going to other tribal communities in the Great Plains to train tribal community members to be solar installers and get jobs in the field of renewable energy.
Though these projects may seem small-scale—a megawatt here, a few kilowatts there—they represent a large chunk of the solar economy in their states. Montana, where the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, has six utility-scale solar installations that generate 17 megawatts of electricity. The installation under development with Covenant Solar would bring that total to 20 megawatts. North Dakota, where the Standing Rock Reservation is, has zero utility-scale solar installations. But tribal lands also possess immense potential: Tribal lands in the lower 48 have an estimated 17,600 billion kilowatt hours per year of solar energy potential. That’s a staggering 4.3 times the U.S.’s total electricity generation in 2020, only 2.3% of which came from utility-scale solar electricity.
On the Red Lake Reservation, Native Sun is working to install 17 megawatts of solar power, including five megawatts on tribal buildings and a 12-megawatt solar farm. The reservation already has 67 kilowatts of solar power helping power its government building and 240 kilowatts on its job training center.
Like Covenant Solar, an important part of the work at Red Lake is workforce development to ensure that community members are in charge of installation, operations, and ongoing maintenance of the solar panels. Native Sun also partners with the Minnesota Department of Corrections to train local formerly incarcerated people in solar installation and site evaluation.
“We need our own electricians, our own people servicing our communities,” Blake says. “Energy runs the entire community. We really need to have our own tribal utilities.”
A History of Exclusion
Energy development on tribal land has long been stymied by federal regulations. When the Rural Electrification Act passed in 1936 to expand electricity to rural communities throughout the nation, tribes were not expressly discriminated against, but bureaucratic barriers made it nearly impossible for tribes to access loans.
Barriers persist to this day. Federal government approval to develop energy projects on tribal land can be a long and confusing process. The type of regulatory oversight depends on the size of the project, who is funding it, and where the tribe is. That oversight may come from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management, the Office of Natural Resources Revenue, or the Environmental Protection Agency.
In 2005, the Energy Policy Act established Tribal Energy Resource Agreements, or TERAs, which were meant to increase regulatory control held by tribes themselves over their own energy resources. But tribes have identified several problems with TERAs. First, not all tribes qualified: the Secretary of the Interior had the discretion to determine whether tribes had the capacity to manage energy resources. Further, TERAs allowed tribes to take over certain approval activities previously performed by the federal government, but did not allow tribes to perform any “inherently federal functions.” What constitutes an “inherently federal function” has never been defined. All of these issues mean that since 2005, not a single tribe has entered into a TERA, though several have tried.
In 2018, Congress responded to these issues by passing amendments updating TERA regulations to restrict the Secretary of the Interior’s ability to reject a TERA and to remove the requirement for the secretary to judge tribal energy development capacity. The Department of the Interior has yet to implement these new regulations.
“The majority of tribes—especially those in the plains states where energy-related poverty is especially rampant—don’t have the resources to navigate these barriers to renewable energy development,” Smith says. That’s where Covenant Solar comes in. Founded by a mix of tribal community leaders and renewable energy experts, Covenant Solar’s team provides pro bono consulting to tribal governments. “When the size and scope of a project triggers regulatory scrutiny, we are there as a buffer and trusted subject matter expert to ensure that the best interests of a tribe are upheld,” Smith says.
Working with nontribal-run utilities is rarely easier than dealing with lengthy regulatory processes. In the Great Plains, where Covenant Solar works, reservations often face discriminatory utility pricing, Smith says, with monthly rates as often twice or three times the Montana average of 11.53 cents per kilowatt hour.
Blake sees the same issue in Minnesota.
“The system is set up to prey on our tribal communities,” he says. “They’re like predatory lenders. It’s predatory servicing! There are so many fees on top of fees.”
Solar power run by tribal communities themselves thus offers the opportunity to reinvest the money saved on utilities back into their communities.
“This is a self-determination issue,” Blake says. “Red Lake spends about $40 million [annually] off the reservation for the electricity bill. We’re trying to cut that in half. What would $20 million in our community look like?” That kind of investment could go a long way on a reservation with an average income of $10,236 per capita and a poverty rate of 36.3%.
“In a home that’s stricken by poverty, if you can eliminate a big percentage of that electric bill, those savings go to food, to medicine, to clothing,” Smith says. “If you offset that for the tribal government itself, you can get better services, better medical infrastructure, better safety infrastructure.” Tribally run renewable energy has the potential to positively impact the entire tribal economy. Smith sees it as “truly momentous and hopeful work.”
Getting utility companies to agree to support a tribal microgrid has not been easy for Native Sun. The company’s interconnection agreements—required approval from the utility company to connect to the electrical grid—often stalled out, Blake says. Because the tribe is one of the local utility co-op’s largest customers, the company stands to lose a lot of money if the tribe creates its own energy system.
“They don’t want us using batteries. They don’t want us using solar,” Blake says. “They want us to be dependent on them, and they put up all kinds of barriers.”
Another issue Native Sun ran into was what to do with the excess energy that their new solar farm will produce. First, they proposed selling it back to the local utilities co-op, a common practice called “net metering.” The utility co-op refused. Instead, the tribe will charge its extra energy to a 40-kilowatt battery, using a system called solar-plus-storage. While this will benefit the community—they plan to use their solar batteries to power lights for evening events like pow wows and basketball games—it also means the tribe is losing out on potential revenue generation from its solar energy.
“There’s not a lot of [outside] interest in seeing tribal nations transition into these renewable energy microgrids,” Blake says.
Taking Back Power
Because so many of these roadblocks come down to policy decisions, it’s clear that tribes need a seat at the table when it comes to managing energy resources.
One way Covenant is making its work self-sustaining is by creating a revolving fund in which tribal communities contribute some of the money they earn from solar power, while other tribes can pull money out to develop their own solar installations. Right now, Covenant’s projects are funded by a combination of tribal funds, Department of Energy grants, and individual donations. Smith estimates the revolving fund will be solvent in three to five years. This will create a tribal solar energy ecosystem and ensure tribes aren’t reliant on chasing down short-term, external grants or donations for their solar energy infrastructure, which would threaten the stability and long-term sustainability of these projects.
Beyond tribally run utilities, Blake thinks tribes should also create tribal utility commissions that work alongside public utility commissions. In the U.S., public utility commissions are state-run bodies meant to regulate companies that provide public services, such as electricity, natural gas, and water. By forming tribal utility commissions, Blake hopes tribes will have a greater say in policies that directly impact tribal communities’ ability to develop economically, address climate change, and strengthen their self-determination.
Not all tribes see it that way, and development or sale of oil, coal, and natural gas resources still offer strong economic incentives. The Crow Tribe, for example, which lies just west of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, signed a deal with Cloud Peak Energy Inc. in 2013, allowing them to mine 1.4 billion tons of coal from the reservation. The Council of Energy Resource Tribes estimates that traditional energy sources in Indian Country—including oil, natural gas, and coal—could generate $1.5 trillion in revenue. But investment in fossil fuels isn’t a long-term solution: U.S. fossil fuel use declined by 9% in 2020 and research shows that fossil fuels are a vulnerable and declining industry.
For Blake and Smith, this is all the more reason to create renewable energy economies. The fossil fuel industry won’t last forever, and tribal communities can be part of a climate-conscious solution today.
“We need to stop fossil fuel from encroaching,” Smith says. “But, what’s next? This is the ‘what’s next.’”
This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
Teaser photo credit: Covenant Solar Facebook page.