What direction is renewable energy going in Indian country? Roof top solar is piecemeal and requires multiple individual actions to achieve a meaningful movement toward a green energy future. Utility scale solar and wind can impact large swaths of land and impact landscape-scale cultural viewsheds. Are community scale renewable energy projects the right fit for Tribal communities? More and more, it is appearing that this is the case.
In California, utility scale renewable energy facilities–those sized with the capability to sell energy to the energy grid in the hopes of making a profit–are facing the difficult situation of excess electrical generation during daylight hours that significantly complicate and undermine the financial viability of such facilities. However community scale facilities–those sized to serve a specific community, or portion of a community–are receiving increased attention and may be the direction of future Tribal projects. Community renewable projects allow for Tribal governments and businesses to survive off the grid, increasing energy security and in some places, providing cost effective energy in Indian country for the first time.
The need and wisdom of community scale renewable utilities were recently addressed in Rachael White Hawk excellent review of the forces and opportunities supporting the movement. As if on cue, shortly after the publication of her article, the Chemehuevi Tribe announced the opening of their community scale project in Southern California and the Blue Lake Rancheria announced the groundbreaking for a new community microgrid.
The Chemehuevi Tribe worked with community partners and UC Riverside to demonstrate how a modest-scaled solar project can serve community facilities with long-term research and energy savings results. The project includes a 90-kW solar array plus a 25kW/125-kW battery storage system which allows the benefitting facilities–the Tribe’s community center and housing agency offices—to remain functional during grid outages.
Like the Chemehuevi project, Blue Lake Rancheria has begun construction of a solar facility and battery storage that will allow the Tribe to continue operations in connected buildings without another connection to the grid. More ambitious, the Blue Lake Rancheria project combines a 500 kW solar PV array with a 950-kWh Tesla battery storage facility, and a microgrid that was developed in connection with Humboldt State University’s Schatz Energy Research Center, Idaho Natural Laboratory, and funding from the California Energy Commission.
Collaborative projects such as these may provide Tribal communities the best avenue to fund, develop and generate a dependable energy system that will reduce costs and could help support future economic development. What are your Tribe’s plans for greater energy security?