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Off-Grid Solar, Battery Energy Storage Gains Ground on Native American Tribal Lands

The U.S. has long looked to Native American Tribal lands as a source of mineral and energy resources and a thoroughfare for delivering the power, energy and water needed to fuel and support development and growth of cities, suburban areas, agriculture, industry and commerce throughout the western U.S. The great irony is that access to basic public services on Native American Tribal lands, including electricity and water, continues to rival that found among the most impoverished regions in the world.

Native Americans have been increasingly vocal and organized in demonstrating their opposition to what they see as exploitive or life-threatening investments and activities on the part of energy and mining companies, the benefits from which have historically largely bypassed local residents and communities and left behind a legacy of pollution and environmental remediation efforts that pose threats to human and environmental health and well-being.

In addition, Native Americans continue looking to take advantage of ongoing declines in cost and improving performance of solar PV, energy storage and supporting smart grid technology and systems in order to craft and implement solutions that resolve the intertwined issues of energy and socioeconomic poverty and ecosystems health and integrity.

A Rich Diversity of Cultural, and Renewable Energy, Resources

The U.S. federal government recognizes 567 Native American Indian tribes. Alaska is home to the single largest contingent, while others can be found in 33 U.S. states. In terms of geographic area, there are 326 Native American Indian reservations spanning a collective 22.7 million hectares (87,800 sq mi or 227,000 sq km) – most of them west of the Mississippi River. According to a 2012 census, they’re home to an estimated 1 million of a total U.S. Native American Indian population of 2.5 million.

In addition, Native American Tribal lands account for two percent of U.S. geographic territory and hold an estimated five percent of national renewable energy resource capacity, according to a comprehensive study undertaken by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) for the Department of Energy Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs.

Struggling to address a variety of longstanding socioeconomic and environmental issues, Native American Indian Tribes are eligible to receive a range of services from the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, and they are increasingly looking to leverage and capitalize on them to help develop local renewable energy resources.

Proponents, as well as public watchdogs, also are keen to see Native American communities benefit directly and much more substantially than they have historically from fossil fuel energy and mineral resource development. That includes local job creation, education and training, as well as access to affordable, reliable and resilient zero or low-emissions electricity generation and distribution.

Environmental threats and injustice figure into Native American solar and renewable energy initiatives, as well as the highest profile public protests related to fossil fuel project investment projects in the U.S. – Energy Access Partners’ $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline. In North Dakota, the Standing Rock Sioux continue their fight to halt construction of the 1172-mile (1886-km) long Dakota Access Pipeline, which they assert presents a real and present danger to vital freshwater resources. Some opponents have highlighted the long-stalled effort to develop wind power resources in the area, which are considered among the best in the nation.

The Standing Rock Sioux’s protest continues to expand and gain supporters nationwide despite federal, state and local government authorities recently clearing protesters from a campsite they had occupied since early 2016. Adding fuel to the protest movement, the Trump administration instructed federal authorities to skip further federal review and approve the project, which the U.S. Army Corps wasted no time in doing.

Illuminating Roadways and Outdoor Spaces

Native American Tribal leaders also are being proactive as they seek to expand on efforts to develop local, sustainable energy resources and create associated new tribal business and employment opportunities. Solar, wind energy and community-driven cleantech vendors and project developers are keen to work with them.

“The reason that we have found that tribal communities really get a lot of value with us is because it’s off-grid solar lighting,” Inovus Solar marketing director Nic Kawaguchi explained in a recent interview. “You never have to dig a trench, you don’t have to lay wiring in the ground, you don’t have to put copper, metal in the ground. In terms of remote locations, or even just cost savings, we’re actually cheaper than traditional lighting.”

Inovus provides a growing range of off-grid solar lighting solutions to public and private sector organizations. The latest intelligent, networked off-grid solar PV-battery energy storage systems make for much more efficient energy usage and hence reductions in energy usage and bills, Kawaguchi added in a phone interview. Connected to motion sensors, LED lighting can be dimmed, or switched off completely, for example. Furthermore, “when there’s too much cloudy weather, the poles go into an energy saving mode.

“In terms of remote locations, or even just cost savings, we’re actually cheaper than traditional lighting… [I]f it is new construction, we are going to be cheaper than the alternative, especially with tribal communities. They have to own the cost from start to finish.”
Read full article at Solar Magazine