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Energy Transition On Tribal Nations: From Energy Insecurity To Energy Sovereignty

by Isatis M. Cintron-Rodriguez
October 08, 2021

Native American land in the contiguous U.S. has an astounding solar energy potential of 4.2 times the total U.S. utility-scale electricity generated in 2018. Despite this, they still face energy insecurity.

Despite the ample resource potential that exists on Indigenous lands, energy access is still a major concern for Native American nations. These lands have 17.6 TWh of solar energy potential which is an astounding amount, yet it is estimated that 14% of Native American households lack access to electricity. Specifically, the Navajo Nation accounts for 75% of the Native American households without electricity meaning that they are particularly at risk. The Navajo Nation sits in northwestern Arizona, southern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico. Most of its people are farmers, pastoralists, ranchers, coal miners, coal plant workers, entrepreneurs, healers, artisans, tribal employers, and mechanics. They all need energy security and climate justice. 

Native Renewables is an indigenous-led, women-led organization working to address energy security while overcoming the trends of climate change. They are focused on increasing energy independence and access to affordable off-grid solar power on the Hopi reservation and the Navajo Nation. Their work is helping to enhance the renewable energy economy by bringing jobs, training, and electricity to tribal communities. Truly inspiring work that not enough of us know about.

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Barriers to scaling tribal renewable energy

Affordable access to energy in rural reservations is incredibly difficult, resulting in disproportionately high electricity rates. In some rural Alaska communities, electricity cost can exceed $1/kWh, which is eight times the national average of $0.12/kWh. In the case of the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American tribe with a reservation the size of West Virginia but a tenth of its population, electricity distribution is still a major challenge as extending power lines is often not financially feasible. Moreover, the average per capita family income is estimated to be under $11,000. Therefore, low-cost energy is essential to these families. By advancing renewable energy sources near their homes, families would see a benefit to both their lifestyles and their pocketbooks. 

Native lands contain almost 30% of all the coal reserves west of the Mississippi and 20% of known oil and gas reserves. Think about that. Despite this, there is a legacy of exploitation and extraction that has created fossil fuel-dependent economies at the expense of Native Americans while exacerbating the worst effects of the climate emergency. For example, the 2.25-gigawatt coal plant Navajo Generating Station (NGS) kept the tribal nation subjugated for 45 years as it was one of the main sources of revenue and employment while 38% of the Navajo Nation population was left in the dark both electrically and politically. This is unacceptable in a fair and just society.

one of the 2.1 kW systems we installed for a family on the Navajo reservation. The system is able to power an energy star rated refrigerator, lights, and small electronics.

A 2.1 kW system that Native Renewables installed for a family on the Navajo reservation. The system is able to power an energy-star-rated refrigerator, lights, and small electronics.

Native Renewables

Sandia National Laboratories reported that the Navajo Nation lacked technical and legal capacity to expand renewable energy generation on tribal lands. Meaning that clean energy projects have been limited for the Navajo Nation. Although there have been opportunities for some government funding, these resources are rarely enough to cover full project implementation. Our government must do better; we must do better. 

Moreover, there are many constraints for clean energy development on the reservation, including lack of wi-fi/cellphone service, paved roads, running water, and financing options to help families. Taking into consideration the limitations surrounding the reservation, Native Renewables’ Navajo Clean Energy Program offers each household lacking grid-power access the opportunity to lease a 2.5 kW off-grid solar power system and battery storage to power lights, cellphones, and household appliances. It is a worthy endeavor to help offset the lack of basic human necessities.

 

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Learning on the roof

Furthermore, Native Renewables is committed to celebrating their uniqueness as native people and to incorporating culturally sensitive teachings around the sun by educating all tribal members. As part of their effort to scale off-grid photovoltaic knowledge and installation, they use cultural knowledge to translate technical details into practical information for demystifying how the systems work. “With a better understanding, we hope that owners are able to use the system as intended and have them last the expected lifetime.” said Suzanne Singer, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Native Renewables. Clients effectively take ownership of the system by learning about their energy consumption, limiting usage, system installation, battery change, and system maintenance. 

Proper maintenance is key for the durability of solar photovoltaic systems and batteries. The Hozho Homes Program of Native Renewables, in addition to offering affordable energy access to Native American homes without grid-tied electricity, aims to provide photovoltaic system-related maintenance skills. Their workforce training program includes both introduction to off-grid solar systems, safety, electricity and wiring, design of systems, balancing of system components, battery storage, and site evaluation. There are advanced courses for different skill levels in an eight-week program. Trainees emerge understanding how to build, design, and maintain off-grid photovoltaic systems while incorporating customer service, marketing, and project reporting skills. It is one thing to build a renewable energy system, but quite another to make sure it lasts for the foreseeable future. 

 

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Conclusion

Access to energy is a human right and, through their holistic approach, Native Renewables is catalyzing a just transition to energy for all while helping to lower the Navajo unemployment rate of 48.5%. This is possible by engaging the tribal utility, Navajo families, and international off-grid solar providers to understand typical fuel costs and the system size needed for families. In order to uplift the renewable energy transition and ensure access to reliable clean energy for Native American communities, we must invest in community-based organizations to grow capacity within the community.

Singer explained that this includes “donations, volunteering, sharing our work, or continuing political actions that favor renewable energy, workforce development, and STEM education.” All future renewable energy projects continue to have a strong partnership with the local communities by deploying long-lasting and impactful energy production solutions for the Navajo Nation. This is the true definition of energy sovereignty.

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