Indigenous Peoples & Clean Energy — CleanTechnica Interview

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In many US states, municipalities have evolved from celebrating Columbus Day to designating the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which shows respect for the original people who inhabited what is now called the North American continent. The climate crisis and its accompanying impacts and risks has also caused many people to rethink another norm in western society — western habits of dependence on fossil fuels for energy, transportation, and conveniences.

Fossil fuels have created an existential crisis for humans, and many people are turning to native peoples to rethink and reconsider the reliance on conventional energy sources. Local and indigenous communities are reasserting global leadership in climate action by moving away from fossil-fuel based extraction and toward renewable energy initiatives. As the framework for a green energy economy becomes more and more mainstream, indigenous and local communities are positioning themselves to initiate culturally appropriate energy solutions that promote assert their rights, attract investment, and model symbiotic relationships with nature.

Photo by Carolyn Fortuna, CleanTechnica (available freely for reuse if correctly attributed)

The shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources supports global goals for a low-carbon society. Many indigenous communities are embracing effective, inexpensive, and restorative climate solutions. And while these solutions seem elusive to many US office-holders today, sustainability, self-sufficiency, and saving money are clear benefits of indigenous efforts to operationalize renewable energy.

Balancing Needs of Indigenous Peoples & Renewable Energy Initiatives

“The truth is nobody can own anything. That was an unheard-of concept among indigenous people. We invented that.”

– Tom Shadyac, American screenwriter and producer

The climate crisis is already changing people’s relationships all over the world with the land on which they rely. That complicates many climate solutions, which, unless carefully considered, can be land-intensive. Solar and wind energy, carbon dioxide sequestration, and locating new homeland for persons displaced by climate change all pose challenges to existing ways of being. The result is an ever-increasing competition for land, as well as governance and justice challenges that often seem both unmanageable and inextricably linked.

Some 60% to 80% of the world’s biodiversity lies in indigenous peoples’ territories, primarily due to their customary practices of sustainable landscape management. This is based on their intrinsic relationship with their lands, territories, and resources. But — too often — indigenous peoples live on the frontlines of climate change impacts, and their existing capacities and resilience face serious challenges because of the severity, intensity, and unpredictability of climate-related disasters.

The renewable energy transition must not come at the cost of the rights of people, especially indigenous peoples who are disproportionately negatively impacted by the expansion of renewable energy projects. Advocates, engineers, policy makers, and other constituent groups must consider the challenges and solutions concerning renewable energy, climate change, and initiatives presented by indigenous peoples, including community-based renewable energy developments. To pursue appropriate solutions to climate change, a rights-based approach to renewable energy development must ensure that the interests of indigenous peoples are fairly represented.

The IPCC and other bodies researching climate crisis solutions have argued that indigenous peoples should be at the center of such decision-making due to their cultural knowledge, their critical and inherent roles, their contributions in combating climate change, and their achievements in sustainable development.

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CleanTechnica Exclusive: Tanksi Clairmont of GRID Alternatives

“Our vision for Indian Country is a transition to energy sovereignty that is educational, entrepreneurial, and completely renewable.”

– Tanksi Clairmont, Director of Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund, GRID Alternatives

We reached out to GRID Alternatives and to our friend Tanksi Clairmont to discuss the intersections of clean energy, indigenous peoples, and human rights. GRID Alternatives uses a people-first model to make clean, affordable solar power and solar jobs accessible to low-income communities and communities of color.

CleanTechnica: What motivations and desires exist for Indigenous peoples to assume leadership roles, partner, and/ or participate within renewable energy sectors?

Tanksi Clairmont: Federal and state agencies are slowly acknowledging the value and importance of including tribes “at the table” during early planning and conceptualization conversations around renewable energy programs and initiatives. Tribes are also making their voices heard and demanding policy changes that recognize their rights as a sovereign nation.

CT: Some research suggests that many Indigenous peoples are developing renewable energy to break free of colonial ties, move towards energy autonomy, establish more reliable energy systems, and reap the long-term financial benefits that clean energy can provide. Do you feel these are credible reasons, based on your own experiences before and at GRID Alternatives?

For hundreds of years, Tribal and First Nations communities across Indian Country were stewards of their environment and practiced sustainable lifeways by utilizing the power of the sun, whether it was for heating, planting, growing, drying food, or for cultural practices. Tribes and First Nations ingeniously built their communities infrastructure to accommodate the needs of their people and environment. It is no different today, as tribes think innovatively about energy resilience and sovereignty.

The tribal partners of GRID Alternatives consistently express their needs to be a net-zero community like their ancestors left to them generations ago. The current research indicates key benefits of energy resilience, energy sovereignty, cost savings, and long term financial benefits. But with that comes compromise within each community that may not agree with the aesthetics of renewable energy infrastructure or the potential impacts to wildlife, culture, and agriculture.

For most tribal communities, the benefits far outweigh the negative impacts.

Image used with permission of GRID Alternatives

CT: How does GRID Alternatives seek to improve the human rights practices of renewable energy companies? What strategies or solutions are you pursuing to address these issues?

TC: It’s not just about who the renewable energy industry is serving, but who the industry is. Our mission is a transition to clean energy that includes and benefits everyone — and a core part of that is training the skilled workforce the solar industry will need to grow.

Many tribes and individual tribal members have trained and worked in the renewable energy space for years and have taken the initiative to develop their own solar businesses, energy co-ops, and small utility companies that meet the needs of their community and region. A lot of work and financial support is needed in the rural parts of Indian Country, but with organizations like GRID Alternatives and the Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund, training and certification and workforce development pathways are making solar more equitable and accessible for tribes.

CT: How can we grab onto this unique moment in time to coalesce human rights, trade unions’ worker demands, indigenous peoples’ knowledge, and climate change movements to come together for a better tomorrow for all?

TC: The amazing thing about renewable energy is that it has power to solve so many problems all at once. GRID work isn’t really about one technology; it is about how solar can have a positive impact on a local economy by creating career opportunities, on the climate by reducing emissions. It touches environmental and economic justice.

Something about the momentum is really exciting. Young people, indigenous people have been leading on this issue for a long time, and it is about time we recognize and follow their lead.

Image used with permission of GRID Alternatives

Final Thoughts

“History is written by the victors.”

— Winston Churchill, British prime minister who rallied people during WWII

The conventional western narrative is that Columbus’ arrival is a beginning place rather than the marker of the decline of an entire existing and robust civilization. Why isn’t it taught, though, in today’s history books that native people in the US can be archaeologically dated to a minimum of 11,300 years ago?

Much of the denial is rooted in early colonial media. Printers like those in the early Publick Occurrences (1690) reported domestic events entirely from the perspective of the European settlers, who were their only readers. “Barbarous Indians.” “Miserable savages.” “Skulking.” “Inhuman.” Such early depictions set the groundwork for a dominant, running newspaper narrative where native Americans were represented as devious, bestial, and heinous. Such an ideology served as rationale for usurping the vast lands of the territory that would become the United States of America.

The narrative that exists and is perpetuated with continuation of a holiday like Columbus Day is told by a colonizing population to its descendants. It is one of cultural demise, of an abrupt and fatal end to a civilization who lived in harmony with the planet rather than sapped its resources. What is too easily overlooked is that indigenous stories tend to focus on themes of survival and resistance — indigenous peoples insist on the inclusion of the Native presence in stories of history rather than narratives solely recounting destruction and demise.

Every GRID Alternatives project carries with it a story — a family that will be able to pay for their children’s textbooks with their solar savings; an out-of-work contractor who is finding passion-and a new career-in solar; or an African immigrant who wants to bring solar back to his or her hometown. While many in the US federal government currently dismiss the urgent need for climate action, GRID Alternatives is  working across the US and internationally to make renewable energy technology and job training accessible to underserved communities.

Those are the stories we should be telling in these turbulent times of climate crisis.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

Carolyn Fortuna has 1309 posts and counting. See all posts by Carolyn Fortuna