A Just Transition

Solar can eliminate energy poverty and restore the self-determination of Native American Tribes.

Project Report: Covenant Solar Initiative

A quick glance at social media confirms that there is a tremendous climate justice uprising happening in the United States. From the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock, to the Northern Cheyenne standing up to Arch Coal, to the Fort Peck Keystone XL Pipeline protests of the last few months, Native people are catalyzing a movement, sending a clear message to elected leaders, to industry, and to the world that they will no longer tolerate the fossil fuel regime and its destruction of sacred lands and Indigenous ways of life.

photo of a gathering in front of a tent
Rooftop solar at the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. The desire for a return to self-determination is driving Native American tribes to look to renewable energy. Photo by Dusty Hulet.

Many tribes are now rejecting extractive industries and dirty energy, and are seeking alternatives to replace them. They are seeking culturally sensitive and holistic approaches to building sustainable economies, while honoring sacred covenants to protect and preserve our planet and its natural resources.

“Now the world is falling apart, so it’s time when us, as Native people, have to use our ancient wisdom to show this country how to live sustainably,” Cody Two Bears, founder of Indigenized Energy on the Standing Rock reservation and development director of Covenant Solar Initiative, told Rolling Stone. “And what better way to do that than with renewable energy?”

Indigenous communities have been exploited by the fossil fuel industries for over a century and a half. Without clean alternatives, Native people are forced to buy dirty energy from local utilities, paying discriminatory rates that are sometimes more than double that of neighboring, non-Native communities. This has resulted in rampant energy poverty in Indian Country.

Compounding the problem is the fact that fossil fuel industries are currently one of the only sources of employment in these regions. As such, tribes have become dependent on the very companies that are destroying their homelands while mining for coal and drilling for oil. This situation is completely counter to Native culture and belief systems.

“For eons, my people were self-reliant. The Earth provided for all of our needs. The devastating effects of colonization, westward expansion, manifest destiny, and the deliberate extermination of the buffalo by colonists stripped us of our ability to provide for ourselves, causing us to be reliant on outsiders for our survival,” says Otto Braided Hair, Northern Cheyenne Tribal Member and executive director of Covenant Solar Initiative.

That desire for a return to self-determination is driving Native American tribes across the US to stand bravely in the destructive path of fossil fuel development and look to renewable energy. Solar is an especially viable alternative to coal and oil as it is in line with Native belief systems, and it is now the lowest-cost source of new energy development and a well-established, reliable investment.

Still, there are numerous challenges to developing solar at scale in tribal communities. Traditionally, funding for solar development on reservations has been provided by the federal government. Typically, these grants don’t provide enough money to cover the entire cost of a project, leaving tribes to seek millions of dollars in matching funds in order to see it come to fruition. Poor management also often hampers these solar projects. In 2015, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported poor federal management has hindered energy project development on tribal lands “resulting in missed development opportunities, lost revenue, and jeopardized viability of projects.”

As such, Native American communities have been slow to make the oil- or coal-to-clean transition, despite the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Indian Energy issuing an annual average of $7.8 million in federal funding for new renewable energy projects since 2010. These funds have added 43 projects totaling 18.5 megawatts of new tribal renewable capacity. However, financing these large projects is complicated. Typically, 50-50 partnerships are formed between a tribe and a project developer. Unfortunately, there are countless examples of how this model has failed over the years, leaving tribes with unfinished projects littering the land.

photo of solar panels and teepees
Solar array at Standing Rock Reservation. For clean energy projects to be successful on tribal lands a deep understanding of tribal culture and governance is a must. Photo by Cody Two Bears.

GAO’s report also cited limited tribal technical capacity as a significant barrier. Specific expertise is necessary to overcome some of these limitations. A deep understanding of tribal culture and governance is necessary to be successful in developing projects with tribal communities. It requires more than technical expertise and development savvy — especially if we want to avoid falling into the same exploitative and discriminatory energy practices that have plagued Native American communities for more than 160 years.

While many tribes have the desire to create new, solar-driven economies for their people, few possess the capabilities to pursue clean energy development in a holistic way that maximizes its effects in their communities.

The team behind Covenant Solar Initiative is directed by Native American leaders who have emerged as champions for change and of solar energy in their communities, working alongside experienced educators, solar industry professionals, and energy finance experts. Collectively, our team is well equipped to nurture change in Native American communities while also navigating the nuances and complexities of solar energy development.

“We are building capacity for added employment, low-cost electricity generated onsite, the formation of tribal utilities, and creation of revenue by supplying clean power throughout our region,” Braided Hair says. “The success of this initiative means the regenerative results of solar energy deployment will ignite a systems-level change in the economic and social conditions in our Indigenous communities, leading to a restoration of self-determination ... and of hope. That is what energy sovereignty means to us.”

Covenant’s scope of work for 2021 includes the development of residential, commercial, and utility-scale projects totaling more than 3 megawatts on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, and more on Standing Rock.

Our approach differs from others. It is oriented towards capacity building, long-term economic development, and job creation. At the heart of each tribe’s program is an innovative revolving fund. “We believe that approaching solar in a different way, using a combination of public and philanthropic funds, coupled with solar industry and financial expertise, managed by a nonprofit like Covenant, is a model for success,” says Kyle Alderman, renewable energy manager for the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. “To ensure success of our DOE-funded and other projects, and to truly achieve energy independence, my tribe needs the CSI team. We can’t do this alone.”

Learn more about this Earth Island project at: covenantsolar.org

Our program results in the establishment of Native-employee-owned solar cooperative utilities, enabling tribes and their members to reap 100 percent of the benefits of solar. Through the national network of Tribal Colleges, Covenant is teaching solar entrepreneurship, installation, maintenance, and financing. These programs enable tribal members to develop, construct, and maintain solar energy systems in a way that is responsive to their unique economic, ecological, cultural, and social conditions, and that maximizes the inclusion and engagement of local labor and businesses.

Covenant Solar Initiative engages with tribes in parts of the US where energy poverty is of particular concern, and where solar energy can affect the greatest positive impact. We welcome inquiries from any tribe that is ready to make resolutions to eschew fossil fuels, and replace them with clean, regenerative energy from the sun.

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