Tribal Communities Use Corporate Investment for Solar Power

TFive years ago, the first utility-scale plant of its kind on Indian tribal land began operation. This 250 megawatt plant, which was constructed on approximately 2,000 acres of Moapa River Indian Reservation land in Clark County Nevada, supplies enough electricity to power over 100,000 homes annually. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power sells all the excess power about 300 miles away. In the next two years, two more major Moapa-led utility-scale projects will come online—at a combined 500 megawatts, the additions will be among the biggest yet on tribal lands.

The $2.38 million Grant from the Department of Agriculture was used for the first solar farm. However, this project would not be possible without partnerships with energy companies. It has resulted in steady, clean-energy employment and millions of dollars in tribal revenues. Nationwide, tribal leaders are beginning to take a more serious approach to solar. Private companies and entrepreneurs have begun investing in Indigenous-led solar energy projects as a way to speed up clean-energy development. Although such projects remain in the hands of Indigenous communities, it is important that private capital be available to enable tribes to harness their natural resources.

Tribal lands comprise approximately 2% of the U.S., but hold 5% of all the country’s renewable energy resources, according to a 2013 study commissioned by the Office of Indian Energy at the Department of Energy (DOE). This includes an estimated 14 billion megawatts of potential electricity generation from utility-scale rural solar resources—5.1% of the total U.S. potential.

Today, many tribal communities in America are now equipped with community-scale or rooftop solar. More than 12 projects are currently underway. However, tribes desire to increase their utility-scale capabilities and become more competitive in the energy markets. But while government grants often help kick-start tribal renewable projects, it isn’t enough to keep them growing.

It is significant that funding for large-scale, utility-scale projects differs from local projects. Community and rooftop solar are expensive, with a cost of a few millions dollars. These giants could be worth hundreds of millions. This would not be possible with government funding. It would take a significant shift in congressional appropriation for all costs, including workforce training and transmission line access. “I think Congress needs to appropriate a threefold amount of investment in Indian Country just to meet those goals and to get to where we need to be for climate change,” says Tim Willink, director of the tribal solar program at GRID Alternatives, an environmental justice nonprofit that offers solar energy systems training and installation to underserved communities. Many tribes instead are looking to corporate and philanthropic investors.

For many reasons, renewable energy appeals to tribes: It allows for self-sufficiency as well lower energy prices, economic development and adaptation to climate change. The DOE has awarded 214 grants to green-energy projects since 2010, totaling more than $85 million, to 147 tribes, Alaskan Native villages, corporations, tribal utilities and tribal enterprises. However, no matter how big the project may be, it’s always been difficult to secure funding. When it comes to rooftop solar, for example, unlike most other communities in the U.S., tribes aren’t eligible for the federal tax credits to reduce the upfront cost of these projects. A 2022 DOE study found that tribes lost $4 billion in state-distributed rebates and $15 million in federal tax credits since 2013. The study suggests that tribes and non-profits should partner with third party investors to receive tax credits, such as private and nonprofit investors.

GRID Alternatives worked with approximately 50 tribes to offer technical assistance. The organization understands the difficulties of seeking out outside funding. Willink says that they have assisted many tribal countries. “It is time consuming, but it is doable.” This is where private funding can help make a difference. One major boost came in 2018, when GRID Alternatives’ tribal solar program got $5 million from Wells Fargo to launch a new Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund, which supports technical assistance and job training. Another $12 million was then donated by the Bezos Earth Fund at the close of the last year. On average, just one of these corporate donations is roughly equal to all of the grants allocated by the DOE’s Office of Indian Energy this year—$9 million worth—most of which went to solar projects.

“As we’ve been able to carry out a number of projects, we’ve seen an increase in tribes approaching us, to enlist us as partners,” says Willink, who is indifferent to where the money comes from to support these projects; he’s for “diversified funding,” as he puts it. Often the first projects in renewable energy are being undertaken by tribes GRID Alternatives helps. And the potential is huge: a one megawatt solar project can help offset over 10% of a tribe’s emissions and save nearly $175,000 a year in electricity expenses. This nonprofit is also a major player in the development of a skilled workforce and filling gaps in training to operate, maintain, and install such projects. Its role has grown due to recent philanthropic funding.

After the foundation is set with trained workers and local installations, the community can begin to think about expanding their reach where there could be greater payoff. “In the context of solar, the main difference is that the large utility-scale projects are selling power,” says Jake Glavin, founder of Woven Energy and executive director of Midwest Tribal Energy Resources Association (MTERA), “whereas with these community-scale and smaller-scale projects, they’re actually offsetting [electricity] purchases.”

With some tribes eyeing private funding, Glavin says, utility-scale projects could be a burgeoning space for them—and so far the Southwest is leading the way. But even there, where, according to a 2019 report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a “paradigm shift is at work….development of these resources has moved at an almost-glacial pace.” Last year, potentially signaling an uptick of interest, DOE hosted a webinar on how to develop utility-scale solar on tribal land.

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe is one tribe that wants to move into this area. It has land in sunny Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. After years of falling oil and gas revenue, a decade ago the tribe started looking for ways to boost their economy—and turned toward solar energy. Bernadette Cuttinghair, a tribal citizen, is the director of planning, development, and administration for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. Her efforts have resulted in two small solar projects being built over the years. “We’re done considering how to adapt,” says Scott Clow, environmental director for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. “We’re all about action.”

Now, the tribe wants to grow. The tribe is looking for investors who will help them build a large-scale utility-scale solar plant that would serve both their residents and bring their solar energy to the market. It’s a massive jump—going from community-level projects costing around $2 million to utility-scale energy generation requiring hundreds of millions of dollars—but the ambition is there. Cuthair states that their goal is to create a 200-300-megawatt, solar power plant, depending on whether they are able to secure support. “That is our appetite.”

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