Here Comes The Sun: Ho-Chunk, Inc. Wins Another Big Grant For Solar

“We’ve done great things in renewable energy in our community, but I think [this DOE grant] is going to launch us into being a bigger player on the policy level as a result,” says Ann Marie Bledsoe Downes, Executive Vice President for Community Impact and Engagement at Ho-Chunk, Inc. (Courtesy Sam Burrish, Communications Manager, Ho-Chunk, Inc.)

The future is bright for the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska after acquiring funding that will increase its solar-power presence on Tribal lands to 2,000 panels. The greater capacity will bring the Tribe’s solar power production from 400 kW to 720kW, a significant gain toward the Tribe’s near-term goal of 1MW.

Renewable energy has been a priority for Ho-Chunk, Inc., the economic development company owned by the Winnebago Tribe, for about a decade.

“We first started our foray into renewable energy with wind,” says Ann Marie Bledsoe Downes, Executive Vice President for Community Impact and Engagement at Ho-Chunk, Inc. “But after a few years we realized that was costly to maintain, and we wanted to explore solar. We had dabbled in it a little bit. But then the price point came down and these renewable energy grants became available, and it made solar even more affordable and attractive given our experience with wind.”

In 2016, Ho-Chunk, Inc. applied for its first grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Indian Energy, and in 2017 raised funding of $749,037 — a $374,653 Federal grant matched by the same amount of Tribal dollars. That money was partially used for upgrades of the wind project, but the bulk of it served to launch the solar project that is now the Tribe’s focus.

Ann Marie Bledsoe Downes

Ho-Chunk, Inc. was well prepared when the money came through. “We were able to finish the installation within a handful of months of the award,” Bledsoe Downes says. “We’ve got a great technical team, and our company has its own construction company. We were able to keep the cost of install down and complete it really rapidly because we control the whole system.”

The process went so smoothly that the Tribe went back for a second grant a year later, reaping a combined Federal-tribal award of $720,851—this time around, 100% of the funds go to solar.

This round of solar improvements brings more cost-efficient energy to some elder housing units in the community, some of Ho-Chunk, Inc.’s structures, and some Tribal buildings, including the veterans’ building at the pow wow grounds. The energy collected there over the course of a year is enough to power the Winnebago Tribe’s summer pow wow, which takes place over four days in July.

As you might expect, proposals like the ones Ho-Chunk, Inc. prepared require a lot of work — identifying sites, paying for surveys, investigating the architectural work or any retrofitting that might need to be done, and collecting bids from contractors and vendors. “We basically know, from start to finish, what it’s going to take for us to launch and execute a project on a particular site,” Bledsoe Downes says. “We package that so [DOE has] a sense of our capacity, they know we’re working with reputable vendors.” The bottom line is to show, beyond specs, “the overall why” Ho-Chunk, Inc. is doing the project.

But you can’t control everything. Solar is the most cost-effective renewable for the Winnebago Tribe right now, but it is a volatile market. Considering the slow pace at which government agencies can operate, there was a danger that the budget would have to be reworked if prices change. “We were fortunate with this last award,” Bledsoe Downes recalls. “Because we had worked with our vendors before, they made sure they were able to come in really close to those original bids that were part of the application package. But had [the vendors’ bids] been higher, we might have had to make some choices about some sites that we weren’t going to do — because a grant dollar is a grant dollar.” That wasn’t the case, fortunately — Ho-Chunk, Inc. will get to build at all nine sites proposed in the application.

After two successful funding campaigns, what’s next? Bledsoe Downes would like to see more residential use — and in particular, solar panels on new private residential structures on the reservation. The community is expanding, she explains, and more Tribal members are looking to build their own homes and pay mortgages. For these new homeowners, money-saving solar technology could be a great help.

Bledsoe Downes also sees a greater role for Ho-Chunk, Inc. — that of policy leadership. In December, the DOE Office of Indian Energy hosted its 2018 Program Review, where representatives from the various Tribal organizations met to present their projects. In all, there were 15 projects that were awarded funding. Bledsoe Downes was fascinated by the variations in legal and policy limitations; the challenges that the Winnebago Tribe had to navigate to build its solar project in Nebraska were different from those faced by other Tribes, doing other projects in other states. In particular, Nebraskan communities — Tribal or otherwise — must contend with a net metering limitation that can prevent them from harvesting as much solar power as they might like.

Thanks to the DOE Program Review, Ho-Chunk, Inc. now has appreciation of the laws and standards in other states, which could help the Winnebago Tribe to improve policy in Nebraska.

“I think that’s the next area for us,” Bledsoe Downes says. “We’ve done great things in renewable energy in our community, but I think [this DOE grant] is going to launch us into being a bigger player on the policy level as a result. That’s typically what happens in Indian country, right? We’re taking care of our own, and then we find these barriers, and then we become political leaders in the field. And renewable energy—for us, in Nebraska—I think it’s no different.”