Tribes Use Federal Grants to Pursue Energy Sovereignty

The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska hopes a federal grant for $350,000 will cover half the cost of a planned 300-kilowatt expansion to their existing 400-kilowatt solar generation plant. The tribe already operates one of the largest solar plants among Midwest tribes, according to a recent AP report. Currently, solar power is cutting average electricity costs for the Winnebago by about $47,000 annually. Those savings are paying off tribal investment in the solar plant, which matched $425,000 in federal grants.

The tribe ancitipates hearing later this summer whether it will receive another federal grant. According to Robert Byrnes, the sustainability coordinator for Ho-Chunk Inc., the Winnebago Tribe’s economic development corporation, the town of Winnebago is “the most dense concentration” of solar panels in Nebraska, a state where utilities and lawmakers have been hesitant to embrace solar, the AP reported.

Since 2002, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has distributed $78.5 million for 250 tribal projects. The largest beneficiary of grant money for renewable energy projects in the Midwest to date has been the Forest County Potawatomi in Wisconsin, who boast 1.61 megawatts of solar.

Earlier this month, the DOE announced it will provide $2 billion in partial loan guarantees to tribes for renewable energy projects. The agency is currently accepting applications through the Tribal Energy Loan Guarantee Program (TELGP), a program that aims to leverage private sector lending and increase the availability of commercial debt financing in tribal energy markets for commercial technologies.

Meanwhile on the East coast in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the Mashpee Wampanoag Community Development Corp (MWCDC) is building a solar microgrid, eco-village and Tribal Utility Authority, reported Microgrid Knowledge. Thus far, two federal grants totaling more than $400,000 are supporting this effort. Funding comes from the Division of Energy and Mineral Development (DEMD) at the US Dept. of the Interior’s Indian Affairs bureau.

Energy grants are helping the MCSDC to develop the utility company infrastructure. “We have always been proud people who haven’t given up any abilities within our powers. One thing we want to retain is energy sovereignty to create something and not take — to be part of the solution and not the problem,” Mark Harding, president of MWCDC, told the publication.

As the MWCDC explains, tribes are increasingly asserting control over their land, resources, and governance of their communities, with the aid of federal grants.

“Different tribes around the country are involved in a wide range of economic activities from tourism, gaming, energy, agriculture, forestry, manufacturing, federal contracting, and telecommunications. In many parts of the country, tribes are becoming regional economic and political power houses and becoming some of the largest regional employers. Tribal governments and tribal businesses engage in a wide range of business and financial transactions as sovereign nations have powers and capabilities not available to individuals.The federal government provides strong incentives for tribes to develop these companies to empower tribal economic self-sufficiency.”