New England Tribes Prepare to Enter Hydropower Market

A consortium of New England Tribes may be ready to kickstart an effort to get into the energy market after their first attempt crashed into a budget black hole. 

This article originally appeared in Native Business Magazine’s January/February 2019 “Energy” print edition

A consortium of New England Tribes may be ready to kickstart an effort to get into the energy market after their first attempt crashed into a budget black hole.

Hiawatha Brown, former Narragansett Tribal councilman, and Lance Gumbs, now Shinnecock Vice President, partnered with representatives from the Aquinnah and Mashpee Wampanoag Tribes in 2014 to discuss a common goal: “What industry can we enter into that will have a direct, but long-term impact for our people to provide economic development?”

Brown notes that over the past 500 years of European occupation of New England, much infrastructure was put into place, including damming nearly every river to provide power.

“We talked about renewable energy,” he says. “We talked about wind towers, hydro, solar, biofuel and other sources.” But ideally, in New England, Brown says, the group determined that the most practical source is hydropower. 

In fact, Brown says, “We found more than 6,000 hydro plants throughout New England from Maine to Connecticut.” These waterways are very important to Native peoples in the region, and the dams had had a negative impact on their communities and homelands, disturbing waterways as well. “But we were also aware of the industrial development over the past 600 years since the Europeans came here,” he says.

Many of these plants’ leases were coming up for renewal, and the consortium devised a plan to put together and lease 10 dams at a time. “We would generate electricity, sell some on the grid [the electric market] and send some to our homes,” he says. The group soon found a team of 16 attorneys, grant writers and electric utility experts to support the effort, including “a member of the team that retrofitted the world’s largest dam in China,” says Brown. They developed a working plan and created a nonprofit energy organization to run the plants.

The group studied several dams and decided that a group of 60 dams would best meet their needs. They then created a smaller contingent of 10 dams to start the project. “The idea was, once we worked through all the environmental and government processes, it would take about 2 to 3 years to get the first one going,” Brown says.

After three years of preplanning and preparation, everything was ready to go, with one exception: the funding to make it happen. The U.S. Department of Energy had no funding source for Tribes wishing to enter the hydropower industry, he says, although there was funding available for other sustainable energy projects. Lacking government funding or a way to raise enough resources in the private sector to get the first dams online, which would help provide funding for the next ones, the group became discouraged and melted away.

Brown left office in 2016 after serving his Tribe off and on for nearly 35 years but is still hoping to restart the energy project, now that he’s learned that hydropower funding may be available from the Department of Energy. “The first thing we’re going to do is go out and see which of our original team are still available,” says Brown. The group is also exploring the possibility of ocean wave energy generation.




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