Like many of the people in her Navajo (Diné) community, Wahleah Johns suffered from a lack of resources as a child. “Growing up, we did not have electricity or running water and lived in the shadow of the Black Mesa coal mine,” said Johns. “Many Native people today still live without electricity or water, or are dependent on fossil fuels, and dependent on others for our energy—energy that is essential to provide us light, energy to keep our food cold, energy to keep us warm, and energy to help our communities grow.”
Today, Wahleah Johns, a member of the Navajo Nation, is the director of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs. She said, “My upbringing and the plight of Native peoples across the country is what makes our mission at DOE’s Office of Indian [Energy] so very personal.”
Today, the Navajo Nation has one solar project that produces electricity for more than 28,000 homes and is in the process of building two more, which will not only supply electricity but revenue to the tribe as they will export energy to outlying communities. These are just some of the of renewable energy projects that are in progress or have been completed on tribal lands. Since 2010, more than $100 million in DOE grants have helped support more than 190 tribal energy projects, from the building of a single wind turbine to construction of full wind and solar farms and hydroelectric dams. According to Johns, these projects “not only build capacity within these Native communities, but also will collectively save these communities more than $275 million over the life of these clean energy systems.”
Taking On a Megadam
One of the largest man-made structures in the Pacific Northwest is located on the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana. These homelands of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes comprises an extensive 1.2 million acres, the northern part of which overlaps Flathead Lake.
Near the town of Polson, where the Flathead River connects to the southern end of this lake, is the hydropower dam formerly known as the Kerr Dam and now called the Se̓liš Ksanka Ql̓ispe̓ Dam, after the three tribes on the Flathead reservation—the Bitterroot Salish, Kootenai and Upper Pend d’Oreille. The 200-foot high, 381-foot-long concrete structure has three electricity-generating units. When water is released through the dam, it spins a turbine connected to the generators that then produce electricity. The water returns to the river on the downstream side of the dam.
Brian Lipscomb has spent more than 30 years managing natural resources across the Northwest, including the Seli’š Ksanka Qlispe’ Hydroelectric Project. According to Lipscomb, an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the CEO of Energy Keepers, Inc., the company that operates the dam, the megastructure supplies electricity to tens of thousands of homes and could do more. “In the Northwest, we use about 11 megawatts per year for an average household.” He estimates that the dam “could power 100,000 homes for a year in the northwestern United States.”
Ironically, this dam that is so beneficial to the tribe was originally developed “as a result of federal assimilation policies imposed on the Flathead Indian Reservation,” said Lipscomb. From their treaty with the United States in 1855 until 1930, he said, “we went from 100 percent land ownership to about 20 percent land ownership by the tribe and tribal members.”
“The Homestead Act allowed for excess allotments to be homesteaded by nontribal members. The Montana Power Company came on to the scene, working from the perspective that the reservation was going to go away. They convinced the federal government that they should get a license under the Federal Power Act to develop this facility.”
In 1930, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a 50-year license to the Rocky Mountain Power Company to begin construction. This was then transferred to its subsidiary, the Montana Power Company, when the dam’s construction was completed in 1939. The dam was originally named after Montana Power Company President Frank Kerr.
In 1976, the project’s license was up for renewal. The tribes took advantage of the moment and filed a competing application. The tribes ultimately ended up as co-licensee on the subsequent 50-year license, with the option to acquire the project in 2015. They did so and are now the sole licensee until 2035.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reports that “hydropower is better for the environment than other major sources of electrical power, which use fossil fuels. Hydropower plants do not emit the waste heat and gases—common with fossil-fuel driven facilities—which are major contributors to air pollution, global warming and acid rain.” The dam produces 1.1 million megawatt hours of electricity annually. Lipscomb said a “coal-fired power plant producing the same amount of electricity would produce 1,226,500 tons of CO2 per year.”
This dam also was originally constructed to be a method of flood control in the Columbia River Basin. However, such megadams take up an immense amount of the landscape and can have environmental consequences. For example, rather than the lake having its normal cycle of flooding and receding, the dam keeps water in Flathead Lake nearly year-round. When the reservoir is manually lowered by 10 feet annually, it leaves behind a vast wasteland that would have repopulated with vegetation during its natural dry cycle during the year.
The tribes worked closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to mitigate potential impacts to fish and other wildlife. They have also spent a half-million dollars replacing the more than 3,000 acres that circle the lake with vegetation annually.
Though the tribes are reclaiming the projects on their land and making revenue in the process, Lipscomb reiterated that the dam has had its other costs. During its construction, tribal members were given some of the more dangerous work and 11 died.
“We’ve made some great headway in restoring our reservation. It’s important to us as part of the solution. Is it lucrative? I’m sure. However, it is greatly impactful from a lot of different perspectives,” he said. “This dam was imposed upon us. If it were left to us, if there was no dam here today, I doubt we would build it. Despite the value of it, not only did the tribes sacrifice natural and cultural resources, it was a tremendous sacrifice of life.”
Harnessing the Wind
If you drive along Highway I-8 in California, you can see the spinning blades of the towering turbines on the Kumeyaay Wind Farm on the Campo Kumeyaay Nation in southern California. When it reached commercial operation in 2005, it was the first utility-scale wind farm on tribal lands.
Campo Kumeyaay Nation Chairman Marcus Cuero said he can still remember the massive size of the wind turbine blades he saw as a child when his father served on the tribe’s council. “You don’t really appreciate the size until you get next to them, and then you get a real sense of how big they are,” said Cuero.
That the tribe harnesses the power of the wind seems fitting. As Cuero explained, the winds have always been a part of his tribe’s traditions, for the winds knock down the acorns and then dry and preserve them. “A lot of our elders still practice our traditions. We collect the acorn from the oak trees. It was a staple food for our people.”
Today the 25 turbines on the Kumeyaay Wind Farm provide power to more than 30,000 homes on tribal lands and in San Diego County, offsetting approximately 110,000 tons of greenhouse gases a year that would have been produced by coal-powered plants. The tribe is considering building 60 more.
Yet the turbines are more than 580-feet tall and some local residents near and within the Campo Kumeyaay Nation are concerned about the obstructed desert views or the potential of the spinning turbines to block the paths of migratory birds. According to a 2017 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report, anywhere from 140,000 to 327,000 migratory birds are estimated to be killed by land-based wind turbines as compared to about 365 million to 988 million killed each year by flying into glass in buildings. Cuero said he and his tribe are practicing due diligence to operate the wind farm with the safest methods possible to protect wildlife. The project is still under review.
Yet even though some people object to adding more turbines, Cuero said he sees hope in the eyes of his children when he talks to them about the wind farm. “They’re proud of this project because we’re trying to stop climate change. It’s something that the younger generation really gets behind. They see it as us making a positive change, not just in our community, but outside the community.”
A Bright Energy Option
The Moapa Band of Paiutes’s sprawling 72,000-acre desert reservation in southern Nevada seems like it has plenty of room for an industrial-scale solar farm. However, the project’s 2,000-acre plot still had to be carefully positioned to avoid sacred sites and a historic Spanish trail. The tribe also had to mitigate impacts to the habitat of the endangered desert tortoise.
Once the place for the panels was selected, William Anderson, a member of the Moapa Band of Paiutes and the tribe’s chairman at the time, had to quickly learn as much as possible about bringing a solar farm to his community. “I had a crash course in solar,” he wrote in a Department of Energy report. “I had to find out everything I could in a month . . . I saw the opportunity for our people and decided I’m going to do everything I can to make this project come into being.”
On March 21, 2014, tribal leaders, community members, utility company representatives and even the late Senator Harry Ried were in attendance to see the groundbreaking ceremony of what is now a 250-megawatt Moapa Southern Paiute Solar Project. It was a historic day: the project became the first utility-scale solar farm on tribal land.
According to First Solar, the company that helped the Maopa tribe create the project, the farm provides electricity to about 111,000 homes on tribal lands and Los Angeles per year, displacing approximately 341,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide that would have been produced annually by power plants to do the same—”the equivalent of taking about 73,000 cars off the road.”
“I think there are endless opportunities for tribes in renewable energy,” Anderson said. “We’ve set the template for others to follow. We are a small tribe in the middle of a desert. If we can do this, anyone can.” Anderson, who passed away at just 44, was honored for his contributions to renewable energies for his tribe.
Land of Hidden Possibilities
In a state known for being dark half of the year and having communities that are small and far apart, Alaska may not seem like an ideal spot for alternative energies such as solar and wind farms. Michelle Wilber is an engineer at the Alaska Center for Energy and Power, a research institution at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said she has to deal with that stereotype a lot. She said, “Believe it or not, we have to justify ourselves with every grant application we write.” Yet Alaska, she said, offers “an abundance of opportunity for renewable energies.”
Certain areas of Alaska receive nearly 24 hours of sunlight in the summer and 24 hours of dark in the winter. “Yes, our sun angle is low,” Wilber said, “But if you look at the solar resources that we provide year-round, we are about the same as Germany. Germany had for the longest time the highest per capita solar installation anywhere.”
Success also does not have to be measured by scale. Hughes village sits along the Koyukuk River about 210 miles north of Fairbanks. Its slightly more than 100 residents go through 40,000 gallons of diesel fuel annually in order to generate enough electricity. To get the fuel to residents in remote villages, Korean War-era planes fly in the barrels of diesel. Residents who use more than 500 kilowatts per month pay utility companies more than .70 per kilowatt hour, nearly four times the average of other Alaska residents.
In September of 2016, the DOE Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs provided a $623,900 grant to build a 120-watt solar photovoltaic grid for the village. The grant aimed to cut the diesel fuel use by 25 percent. According to a 2021 annual report, by November 13, 2021, Hughes village ran on electricity with diesel generators completely off, and no residents lost power. “Just seeing it and seeing how it operates gives people a different mindset,” wrote David Pelunis-Messier, the rural energy coordinator for the Tanana Chiefs Conference, an Alaska Native nonprofit that works on behalf of Alaska Native tribes, including providing health services and natural resource management. “Hopefully, they can see a project of this size and say, hey, we can probably have that here in Huslia, Galena, Bethel, Holy Cross or Ketchikan.”
Wind is also a resource being tapped into in Alaska. Kotzebue Electric in Kotzebue, Alaska, was one of the first communities to put up wind turbines. According to Kotzebue Electric, the village’s wind farm is made up of 17 turbines that can produce 1.14 megawatts of electricity.
Jodi Mitchell is Tlingit and the chief executive officer at Inside Passage Electric Cooperative. This nonprofit, consumer-owned utility company based in the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska serves more than 1,400 residents of the rural communities of Angoon, Chilkat Valley, Hoonah, Kake and Klukwan. It has been developing small, state-of-the-art hydroelectric power dams that produce less than 500 kilowatts. They are designed to allow for safe fish passage while weaning Alaska residents off diesel.
“A vast majority of rural Alaska is dependent on diesel generation, which is polluting. For each gallon of diesel fuel used, it puts 22.4 pounds of CO2 emissions into our pristine air in Alaska,” Mitchell said. It is also very expensive. “It’s not just the fuel that you have to buy, but it’s also the variability in price [that you have to consider.] So as fuel prices go up, our rates have to go up as well.”
“The best technology that we have found for our communities is small salmon-friendly hydro,” she said. Her company has created hydroelectric dams for the Alaska Native communities Hoonah and Kake, which are dependent upon their salmon resources. “There are more salmon in the stream now,” she said. Mitchell said the dams also can help get villages off diesel, so long as the river flows are strong. She said, “There are times when it’s raining hard, and we can turn our diesels off.”
While renewable energies have not come without some cost to communities, or in some cases, to the environment, the benefits of even small projects such as these in Alaska have been great and far-reaching. During the past few decades, Native nations have become some of the largest producers of renewable energies across the United States, some even providing or have the potential to provide energy to nearby non-Native communities.
Johns said, “We know that many of the 574 federally recognized Indian tribes in this country have borne the brunt of the effects of fossil fuel extraction yet have vast clean energy resources to not only help their people, but also to contribute to the energy security of the entire nation.”