Selecting the right partner is key to successful tribal microgrids

May 5, 2022
Tim McDuffie, senior business development engineer at Smarter Grid Solutions, offers guidance for Native American communities that are developing tribal microgrids.

A growing number of American Indian and Alaska Native tribes, nations and communities are turning to microgrids for both resilience and energy independence. To help ensure the success of their microgrid project, it’s critical that they partner with a developer that has experience working with tribal communities.

Tribal microgrids provide resilience
There are two primary reasons why tribal entities are looking to invest in microgrids. First is the desire to be as self-sufficient as possible. Tribal leaders want energy independence for their members – so that they can generate and create their own power to do with as they choose. They’re not necessarily looking to disconnect from the grid, but rather supplement grid energy with their own.

The second and perhaps most important reason tribes are turning to microgrids is that these communities need the reliable, resilient electricity they can provide. Electricity powers our modern lives and access to a constant flow is absolutely essential for any community to thrive. Tribal villages and nations tend to be in remote locations without a strong connection to the grid, making them more prone to outages. These communities are often at the end of a single distribution feeder line, with no redundancies. Unlike other communities that have improved reliability and resilience through multiple feeder lines, if there’s a public safety power shutoff or an extreme weather event takes that single line out of service, the entire community is without electricity for the duration of the event.

Tribal microgrids can provide the resilience needed to power critical infrastructure during outages. Tribes are using microgrids to power police, fire and health care facilities. Community centers or even casinos are other potential locations for a tribal microgrid. Both are well-suited to support the community as emergency shelters during extended power outages. Casinos, in particular, have extensive HVAC systems allowing them to serve as warming or cooling centers, they have kitchens and food storage capabilities to distribute meals to the community, and they have extensive sewage facilities.

Selecting the right partner is key

The development and installation process for tribal microgrids is not a quick one, and it tends to be a lot smoother if the tribe partners with a company that understands Native American communities. Each tribe has its own judicial and tribal council system, as well as its own governance. A good partner will take the time to understand the tribe’s processes through face to face meetings with leaders. They’ll ask good questions about the tribe’s goals and needs so they can really understand that community’s unique situation and define what a solution could look like.

A good microgrid development partner is also interested in reinvesting in the tribe through workforce training initiatives. Most tribal communities have a workforce engagement program that’s designed to help create new jobs for members. A partner should be willing to participate in those job creation opportunities, whether that be leveraging existing construction skills within the community rather than outsourcing to a third party or training tribal workers in new skills.

Finally, companies that are experienced in developing tribal microgrids are excellent guides through what can be an incredibly complicated funding process. There are a number of grants available from the Department of Energy (DOE), the DOE’s Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. There are also federal and potentially state incentive programs as well. For example, tribes in California may soon have access to part of the $200 million the California Public Utilities Commission has earmarked for developing microgrids for disadvantaged communities as part of the Microgrid Incentive Program.

These grants or incentives won’t pay for an entire microgrid project, but they can bridge the gap between private funding and the actual cost of the project. They are designed to lower the barriers between tribes and energy independence — which is a good thing for these often underserved communities.

Tim McDuffie is senior business development engineer for Smarter Grid Solutions.

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