Native Energy: Rural Electrification on Tribal Lands

If I told you about a place where almost 40 percent of the people live without electricity, over 90 percent live below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate exceeds 80 percent, you might be picturing a rural village in Africa or some other developing country. However, this community is actually within U.S. borders. I’m talking about the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home to the Oglala Lakota. Native American reservations are often referred to as the “Third World” of the United States. For the over one million Native Americans living on reservations today, life expectancy is low and job opportunities scarce. Yet some Native American tribes are embracing renewable energy technologies as a way to access reliable electricity, bring in much needed income, and create jobs.

Access to Reliable Electricity

The Energy Information Administration estimates that 14 percent of households on Native American reservations have no access to electricity, 10 times higher than the national average. Many reservations have homes scattered over large areas, far from a utility grid. With the cost of extending utility distribution lines to remote locations as much as $60,000 a mile, it is often cheaper to power the remote homes with solar energy and battery storage.

That is exactly what’s been happening on the Hopi and Navajo reservations for years. The Hopi Nation in Arizona formed the Hopi Solar Electric Enterprise in 1987, which sold and installed small-scale solar systems to Native Americans. Debby Tewa, a licensed electrician, worked with the Hopi Solar Electric Enterprise, now called NativeSUN, for 11 years as both electrician and project manager. Tewa, who spent the first ten years of her life in a home without electricity or running water in a remote area of the Hopi reservation, helped install 300 residential solar PV systems on homes throughout the reservation through a revolving loan program. The loan required a down payment and subsequent monthly payments until the loan was paid off.

The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) has offered solar PV systems to its customers who don’t have access to the grid since 1999 through an affordable rental program. NTAU is currently renting 263 systems, a small percentage of the number necessary for the estimated 18,000 homes on the reservation not connected to the grid. In this case people don’t own the PV system, but pay for the electricity provided, similar to the SolarCity model. More recently NTUA started offering solar-wind hybrid systems. An 800-watt PV array along with a 400-watt wind turbine costs the homeowner $75 per month which goes towards the purchase of the system, and is enough to power lights, TV, appliances, and an energy-efficient refrigerator. NTUA finances the systems, which is much cheaper for them than to extend their utility lines to the homes.

Just this small amount of power has been shown to drastically improve people’s quality of life. Children can do homework at night raising education levels, family members can make crafts under better lights increasing their income, and people don’t have to breathe the harmful fumes from kerosene lanterns, improving health. Having refrigeration means not having to go into town as often for food, a trip that can be long and time-consuming. And being able to charge cell phones and laptops can help with communication and education.

Native Microgrids

While residents on reservations with widely dispersed homes (in some parts of the Navajo reservation homes are 20 to 30 miles apart) are turning to individual renewable energy systems, others are looking to renewably-powered microgrids. The Moapa Band of Paiutes tribe recently completed a 250 MW hybrid microgrid project that delivers power to the off-grid Moapa Travel Plaza, the largest employer of the tribe. The system includes concentrated PV trackers, a battery bank, and three energy-efficient generators, one of which runs on diesel to provide energy at night when there is not enough battery power.

An outcome of this project is much needed economic development for the Moapa tribe, which until recently only had a gas station, a truck stop, and a small casino to generate income. In addition, three businesses in town run on diesel generators at a cost to the tribe of $1.5 million a year—the microgrid will allow them to tap into solar power, saving over $700,000 in fuel costs annually.

Wind power is helping other native communities reduce their diesel use, too. The village of Tuntutuliak, known locally as Tunt, in Western Alaska is home to 400 Yup’ik people. Tunt, along with 56 similar villages in the region, runs on its own diesel-powered microgrid. But with diesel costing close to $7 per gallon, energy costs consume approximately half of the overall budgets of these villages, compelling many of them to turn to wind power. So in 2012 the Alaska Energy Authority and the Tuntutuliak Community Services Association constructed a 450 kW wind-diesel hybrid system that powers the town of Tuntutuliak.

Five 95 kW wind turbines now dot the landscape of Tunt, reducing diesel use by 70,000 gallons a year, meaning almost half a million dollars in annual savings. Thirty of the homes have electric thermal storage devices, which store the excess wind electricity to help heat homes when the wind is not as strong.

However, putting a renewable microgrid in such a harsh remote environment wasn’t easy. A large sled had to be constructed to pull the rotor blades across the frozen tundra, and due to the remoteness of the community, a lack of bolts in the shipment meant a postponement of several weeks.

Yet even if installing renewable energy projects on tribal lands is challenging, Hopi electrician Debby Tewa believes it’s well worth it. Getting clean reliable electricity is transformative for Native Americans who have lived without light for years. Tewa is now involved in teaching others on reservations about renewable energy. “When you teach your community, you empower your community and you invest in your community,” she says. And investing in renewable energy is helping many Native Americans improve their quality of life.