Building on a successful workshop in January of 2018, SFIP’s Microgrid Systems Laboratory (MSL) has partnered with the Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative (SNCC) to form the Energy Sovereignty Institute (ESI). ESI is a not-for-profit social initiative, designed to promote the benefits of decentralized energy systems and technologies for Native American communities, and to advance their availability and use.

SNCC focuses on culturally and environmentally sustainable development with American Indian, First Nations, and Indigenous communities. As sustainable energy, housing, and community design are inextricably woven together in any effective development framework, SNCC and MSL combine the needed skills, experience, and networks to advance a shared mission and agenda.

Energy Sovereignty

Energy sovereignty has been defined as “…the right of conscious individuals, communities and peoples to make their own decisions on energy generation, distribution and consumption in a way that is appropriate within their ecological, social, economic and cultural circumstances.” This concept is garnering interest from communities nation-wide, abetted by a range of new and emerging energy technologies; and it is particularly resonant for many Indian tribes as part of their sovereignty goals and values. These may include more control over their energy resources and operations under normal conditions, and also their ability to withstand power outages due to extreme weather events or attacks on the bulk grid (known as “community resiliency”).

Mission

ESI’s mission is to ensure that indigenous communities have access to the most current cultural, technological, policy and regulatory, and financing resources in support of their goals in energy generation, distribution, and consumption. By pursuing this mission in three main areas of endeavor, ESI will serve as:

  1. A thought leader and principal point of contact for tribal energy sovereignty matters
  2. A nationally recognized clearinghouse for related information, resources, and initiatives
  3. A respected contributor to research critical to understanding the needs, challenges, and opportunities in the field

More specifically, ESI will operate a range of programs and projects, including demonstration projects, and engage with a range of key stakeholder collaborators. The research agenda may include appropriate technology design and development, including best practices from MSL Members and Advisors working in Africa and Asia on rural electrification solutions.

The Need

A significant portion of the Native American population is without any grid connection at all, or any alternative source of electricity. For example, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, over 40 percent of residents live without access to electricity. On reservations across the U.S., the Energy Information Administration estimated in 2015 that 14 percent of households have no access to electricity, 10 times higher than the national average. Even for those communities with a grid connection, their rural location is often at the end of a single distribution line, resulting in sub-par reliability and resilience issues. And for lower-income groups in general, energy represents a disproportionately high percentage of monthly household expenses, placing an additional and undue burden on Indians struggling with limited economic opportunities and high unemployment. Finally, because community-based systems lend themselves to local renewable energy generation, they support environmental stewardship values.

Microgrids and related technologies speak to these issues, and can provide a cost-effective solution to many of these needs and challenges, while also creating jobs and economic opportunity. Of the more than 5 million indigenous people in the U.S., comprising 567 federally recognized tribes, more than 1 million live on 326 reservations and trust lands, many of which are home to multiple communities. These communities can help lead the national transition to a modernized energy system. But while there have been several successful pilot projects, there is no reliable centralized source of information, data, or resources to make the field better known, well understood, and widely accessible. Therefore, a clear need exists for such a central expert hub, focused on energy sovereignty issues and decentralized technologies, and designed to support tribal entities and sustainable development.

Partners & Participants

The Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative was founded in 2009 to advance the development of culturally and environmentally responsive housing design within American Indian communities. SNCC helps tribal communities gain self-sufficiency, improve their impacts on the natural world, and develop healthy, green, culturally-appropriate communities through planning, architectural design, technical assistance, and research.

Other initial ESI stakeholder participants include Santa Fe Community College’s partnership with MSL (for workforce training). Specific projects and service delivery on-site will be pursued with local and regional partners. These could be tribal entities or associations, state agencies, or NGOs, depending on the particular location.

Funding

ESI will seek funding through grants, gifts, and industry sponsorships. Interested parties should contact the Project Director.