Tribal Communities Want Energy Resilience with Microgrids: Is the U.S. Stepping Up?

May 13, 2024
A major goal for outage-prone tribal communities is becoming energy resilient through the deployment of microgrids and renewable energy. They’re also looking to take control of their energy future and lower their energy costs.

A major goal for outage-prone tribal communities is energy resilience through the deployment of microgrids and renewable energy. They’re also looking to take control of their energy future and lower their energy costs.

The U.S. government is stepping up to help tribes achieve these goals. 

Conditional loan guarantee for California microgrid project

The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Loan Programs Office recently announced a conditional commitment under the Tribal Energy Financing Program for a loan guarantee of up to $72.8 million for a solar-plus-long-duration energy storage microgrid on the tribal lands of the Viejas Band of the Kumeyaay Indians near Alpine, California. The loan guarantee covers 90% of the loan for the Viejas Enterprise Microgrid project, said Nicole Reiter, vice president of development at Indian Energy, a Native American-owned developer and systems integration firm that’s developing the project.

This effort is the first to be offered a commitment through the Tribal Energy Financing Program, which was expanded and provided new loan authority under the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

The California Energy Commission (CEC) earlier gave the microgrid project a $31 million grant to study long-duration, non-lithium ion energy storage for the microgrid.

A milestone for Native American communities

“This commitment by the DOE not only represents an incredible milestone for our microgrid project with the Viejas, it represents an even more important milestone for our people as a whole,” said Allen Cadreau, principal at Indian Energy. “This is truly tangible value provided by the U.S. government in support of Native America and our perseverance toward true sovereignty.”

Additional federal funds are also helping tribal communities. Six tribal microgrids are being built on Native American lands thanks to a $39 million investment from the tribes and DOE.

Money is coming indirectly from the DOE as well. With funding from the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, the Minnesota Valley Electric Cooperative (MVEC) is partnering with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community to help achieve the community’s resilience and sustainability goals with a microgrid installed at a substation.

Viejas Enterprise Microgrid aims to provide resilience

Achieving resilience is a major goal of the Viejas Enterprise Microgrid project as well, said Reiter. 

Indian Energy is designing and building three assets for the Viejas Enterprise Microgrid. They include a 15-MW photovoltaic solar generation system on a carport, a 38-MWh non-lithium long-duration energy storage system and advanced microgrid controls, she said.

By 2025, the project aims to achieve 100% renewable energy for the community’s enterprise and commercial business center, resilience during grid outages and energy resilience for emergency services and support facilities. In addition, the tribe’s goal is to achieve cost savings the first year that would be sustained for a minimum of 30 years, said Reiter. The project includes an ownership buy-out provision for the tribe and equitable career opportunities in energy development.

Achieving a number of firsts for Native America

The Viejas Enterprise Microgrid project achieved a number of important firsts for tribal communities, said Reiter. The project garnered the largest CEC grant for a tribal project and it’s the largest 100% behind-the-meter microgrid on tribal land.

The project also received a 40% Investment Tax Credit under the IRA – a 10% bonus – because materials will be sourced in the U.S. and manufacturing will be conducted in the U.S. in compliance with the Build America, Buy America Act, she said.

Cooperative’s bid leads to DOE funding

In Minnesota, funding for the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community project was awarded after MVEC participated in a consortium bid with seven other cooperatives led by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. The cooperative attracted funding from the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, which provided 80% of the $9 million cost of the microgrid.

The Minnesota cooperative plans to install a 4-MWh energy storage system at a substation that provides power to the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, along with 1 MW of solar.

A partnership between the cooperative and the community, the project aims to help achieve the community’s ambitious climate and sustainability goals, said Sarah Pierson, vice president of engineering for MVEC. The tribal community wants to lower its carbon footprint, electrify its assets and add resilience.

The community – in an area with growing population – is served by a single transmission line, and the microgrid will provide redundancy, resilience and clean energy, said Mike Dietz, vice president of operations for the cooperative. MVEC looked at installing another line but found that it was nearly impossible to find easements that would allow for the line. And that option was too costly, he said.

Experimenting with discharging batteries at different times

We’re trying to learn how a microgrid fits into our system. We’ll be taking solar in and charging and discharging batteries at different times to meet load,” said Dietz. Ultimately, the cooperative might deploy microgrids at other substations, especially those that aren’t supported well by transmission.

In addition to wanting resilience, tribal communities are looking to eliminate the health risks associated with power outages. When power is out, they can’t obtain needed health care or continue to power medical devices. An August 2023 report from the DOE found that Native American communities, generally served by rural electrical cooperatives, frequently pay a higher-than-average rate for electricity and funnel a higher-than-average proportion of their income into energy costs. They have a high proportion of unelectrified homes and are subject to electric reliability challenges, along with high poverty levels. 

“Reservations are plagued with unreliable power and the ever-increasing costs of energy,” Reiter said. “Indian Energy is building microgrids and renewable energy power plants that are solving this problem for tribes and giving them the power to control their electricity and the reliability needed for business continuity and community growth.”

About the Author

Lisa Cohn | Contributing Editor

I focus on the West Coast and Midwest. Email me at [email protected]

I’ve been writing about energy for more than 20 years, and my stories have appeared in EnergyBiz, SNL Financial, Mother Earth News, Natural Home Magazine, Horizon Air Magazine, Oregon Business, Open Spaces, the Portland Tribune, The Oregonian, Renewable Energy World, Windpower Monthly and other publications. I’m also a former stringer for the Platts/McGraw-Hill energy publications. I began my career covering energy and environment for The Cape Cod Times, where Elisa Wood also was a reporter. I’ve received numerous writing awards from national, regional and local organizations, including Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Willamette Writers, Associated Oregon Industries, and the Voice of Youth Advocates. I first became interested in energy as a student at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, where I helped design and build a solar house.

Twitter: @LisaECohn

Linkedin: LisaEllenCohn

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