Tribal communities across the US have a long history of energy exploitation, particularly with extractive industries. GRID Alternatives, which uses a people-first model to make clean, affordable solar power and solar jobs accessible to low-income communities and communities of color, recently announced the selection of a new director for the Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund (TSAF). Tanksi Clairmont, an enrolled tribal member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate (Dakota) and a member of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate, will oversee the $5 million fund, which aims to catalyze the growth of solar energy and expand solar job opportunities in tribal communities. We were delighted at CleanTechnica when Ms. Clairmont agreed to participate in an interview.
Question: Many people in the larger solar community would like to support tribal solar initiatives. What can they do, whether it be to argue for local knowledge and autonomy or to promote supporting initiatives?
Clairmont: The solar industry can learn from tribal members who are experts in traditional ecological knowledge and have practiced sustainable living for generations. The TSAF invites all supporters to become aware of the energy challenges that tribal communities face, such as energy policies and legislation, public utility regulations and pricing, economic and reliability benefits or lack of, and many more clean energy options that remain mostly inaccessible to tribes. There is a sense of urgency in tribal communities to move toward energy sovereignty and resilience, but lack the technological resources and funding necessary to develop the infrastructure.
Clairmont has worked extensively across Indian Country and brings her experience in grant administration, coordination, research, and evaluation from the National Conference of State Legislatures and the American Indian College Fund to the Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund. Personally, she is deeply rooted in Lakota/Dakota culture through ceremony, language, and social dancing (pow-wow).
“Tanksi is an inspirational leader who understands the importance of energy sovereignty and the opportunity to impact Indian Country in all aspects of our triple bottom line: people, planet, and employment. She is well positioned to lead the Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund as we partner with tribes and American Indian leaders, entrepreneurs, and energy innovators,” said Adam Bad Wound (Oglala Sioux), vice president of philanthropy at GRID Alternatives and founder of the Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund.
Question: What are the interconnections among the Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund, energy independence, and local knowledge?
Clairmont: Tribal communities face unique economic, employment, and environmental challenges that require courageous and innovative solutions to energy independence. That’s why the TSAF was created. The fund provides financial support for community and residential solar development, which will help tribes meet their energy sovereignty and energy resilience goals. Awarded tribal communities will also get access to technical assistance, solar education, and hands-on workforce training for tribal members.
Tribal communities are well positioned to achieve their energy goals with solar. According to research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, “The potential for tribal leadership in clean energy is significant: NREL geospatial research shows that American Indian land comprises approximately 2% of the total U.S. land base, representing an estimated 5% of the total U.S. renewable energy generation potential.”
GRID Alternatives’ National Tribal Program
What does it take to help tribal communities across the US achieve their renewable energy goals? Using a community-centric approach that partners with tribes to identify, develop, finance and implement solar power projects is a necessary starting point. Meeting community needs, including education, hands-on training, and energy cost reductions for tribal members, must follow as part of true energy sovereignty.
Locally sited and controlled renewable energy offers tribes the opportunity take control of their energy resources, keep local dollars in the community, and reap the long-term environmental and economic benefits of their investment. GRID combines training with project development and strategic support to help tribal governments achieve their vision. Partnering with tribes, GRID assists with the installation of solar electric systems for tribal members and community facilities. These projects can range from single rooftop solar installations to large-scale projects that meet the energy needs of the whole community. In addition to providing a source of clean, local, renewable energy, these projects typically reduce energy bills for households by 75-90%, savings that can be re-invested in the community.
Question: How do you foresee tribal councils across the US using the TSAF to establish new or extend current solar projects on tribal lands in the next 5-10 years?
Clairmont: TSAF staff is dedicated to raising philanthropic support so that tribal communities with the greatest need have access to solar energy resources in the years to come.
Tribal councils have the responsibility of developing long-term energy plans to adequately address climate change issues in and near their communities. The TSAF aims to provide resources to tribes who do not have an existing energy plan/sustainability plan. The TSAF encourages all tribes to research and assess their energy needs so that they can effectively utilize TSAF funding and resources.
For example, the Spokane Tribe in Wellpinit, WA suffered from a large wildfire in 2016 that damaged several homes and caused power outages to all tribal government and community buildings, as well as residential homes which prompted the Spokane tribal council to develop an energy plan that included alternative and back-up energy solutions. Spokane Tribe was awarded funding in 2018 to develop a large scale solar project on several tribal buildings and homes, which is the first step toward tribal energy sovereignty.
Every GRID Alternatives project is an opportunity for tribal members to learn about solar installation and related energy issues. GRID partners with tribal colleges and workforce development programs to:
- Provide students with hands-on solar training and connections to local solar companies
- Offer workshops and energy efficiency education to tribal members
- Work with K-12 schools to introduce students to renewable energy
- Give opportunities to year-long paid fellowship opportunities through the SolarCorps program
How the Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund Works
The Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund provides vital capital for tribes to complete new solar demonstration projects, build workforce development resources, and develop long-term tribal energy plans in alignment with their energy sovereignty goals.
Locally sited and controlled renewable energy offers tribes the opportunity take control of their energy resources, keep local dollars in the community, and reap the long-term environmental and economic benefits of their investment. GRID combines training with project development and strategic support to help tribal governments achieve their vision.
In addition to supporting GRID’s work helping tribes build renewable energy capacity, resilience, and energy sovereignty, the fund provides matching grants for shovel-ready tribal solar projects on an application basis. GRID has installed nearly 3 MW of solar capacity in partnership with more than 40 tribes to date. Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund grantees for 2018 include the Spokane Tribe of Wellpinit, Washington, the Chemehuevi Tribe, and the Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeño Indians.
Question: What is the relationship between solar and sovereignty?
Clairmont: In Indian Country, there has always been a concept of sovereignty and the importance of environmental sustainability. Tribal people have always been and continue to be stewards of the land by intergenerational living and teaching of what is now called “traditional ecological knowledge.” The relationship between renewable/solar energy and sovereignty is the overarching responsibility to protect the land in a way that aligns with cultural and traditional principles, while affirming the inherent powers of tribal nations.
As the US works toward producing more renewable energy, recent solar industry data points to the impacts when women and other underrepresented groups are offered a “classroom in the field,” or hands-on solar career experiences. The rapid growth in solar energy presents a challenge for the industry — what are the best ways to teach the next generation of scientists, engineers, and technicians who will implement solar technologies on a greater scale and integrate these resources into energy systems? Making renewable energy technology and job training accessible to traditionally underserved communities is necessary for a successful transition to clean, renewable energy that includes everyone.
“Building local capacity throughout Indian Country is my personal and professional passion, and I’m thrilled for the unique opportunity to contribute my experience, networks, and cultural values to the Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund,” said Clairmont in a press release. “I look forward to working with, and learning from, our tribal partners to further energy resilience and sovereignty across the country. Pilamayaye (Thank you)!”
GRID has installed solar for more than 13,000 families to-date and helped households and housing providers save $342 million in lifetime electricity costs, while training over 29,000 people. GRID Alternatives has nine regional offices and affiliates serving California, Colorado, the mid-Atlantic region, and Tribal communities nationwide, and serves communities in Nicaragua, Nepal and Mexico.
Images courtesy of GRID Alternatives
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