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How Indigenous communities build energy sovereignty

An inlet on the island of Moloka'i, Hawai'i.

An inlet on the island of Moloka'i, Hawai'i.

Bob Pool

In the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i, residents — many of whom are Native Hawaiian — pay a high price for electricity: 41 cents per kilowatt hour compared to the United States average of 13 cents. Although Moloka’i residents use the least energy of all the Hawaiian Islands, they are saddled with the greatest expense. This energy inequality has led the community to try to gain more control over how their energy is sourced and distributed.

The Moloka’i are one of many Indigenous groups around the U.S. making inroads toward energy sovereignty. But the approach and methods differ depending on communities’ belief systems, landscapes and local politics. For two rural cooperatives in Hawai‘i and New Mexico, energy sovereignty means taking actions toward decentralizing resources, increasing solar power plus storage and centering community and the land in the process.

Not all renewables are created equal

Residents of Moloka’i are still in the nascent stages of gaining more community control over their energy. To find the best renewable solutions that fit both their culture and the natural environment, they have turned to their traditions and beliefs.

"The land is the chief, and we are the servants," says Lori Buchanan, vice president of Ho’ahu Energy Cooperative. The cooperative was formed in 2020 and was officially incorporated in February with the aim of providing locally owned, affordable, renewable energy. "The people are there to serve the resources and to ensure that the resources are not only sustainable — which is a word I don’t like to use — but make them abundant in perpetuity, because we think hundreds of years down the road. Our vision is not shortsighted like corporate greed and a quick buck, but very longsighted for the next generation and the next generation."

The first step toward reaching that goal has been devising a proposal to submit to Hawaiian Electric, the main energy utility in Hawai‘i. In 2015, the state mandated that Hawaiian Electric consider community-based renewable energy projects in their work, so Ho’ahu Energy Cooperative and the Moloka’i community are demanding to be considered.

The solar power project would create revenue for Picuris, meet 100 percent of daytime energy demand with solar power, and reduce energy costs for tribal members.

Their plan is for the cooperative to own solar panels and battery storage while Hawaiian Electric would continue to own the poles and wires that transfer electricity to residents’ homes. Hawaiian Electric would purchase the solar power from Ho’ahu Energy Cooperative and provide renewable energy to cooperative members at a discounted rate.

Buchanan is Native Moloka’i and one of many on the island who has staved off extractive energy projects through protest. In 2012, she and other residents of Moloka’i organized to stop 50 wind turbines from being put on the island because of the degradation it was anticipated to cause to both the environment and the residents living there. While wind is considered a renewable energy source, it alone cannot supply a community’s energy portfolio. When the wind stops blowing, tapping into energy storage, including batteries, could help power the turbines. After that storage is used, a community may still need to use the fossil fuels provided by the existing grid. Wind turbines range in size, and the larger the turbine, the more chances there are for environmental interference as seen from the much-protested wind farm in Kahuku on the island of O’ahu.  

"There’s a Hawaiian saying," says Todd Yamashita, president of Ho’ahu Energy Cooperative, “He wa’a he moku, he moku he wa’a — ‘the canoe is an island, the island is a canoe.’ Of 7,000 people, we only have what we have and that’s all we have. So if you have anything to do here — whether it is cultural, educational, environmental, economic — if it’s extractive in nature, you are absolutely unwelcome."

Time of transition

In 2020, renewable energy usage (wind, solar, and hydro power) in the U.S. accounted for 19.8 percent of total kilowatt hours, compared to 60.3 percent from fossil fuels (natural gas, coal, petroleum and other gases). A meaningful transition to renewables at scale will involve both existing electric utilities and new models, like that of Picuris Pueblo.

Located in the mountains of northern New Mexico, Picuris Pueblo is the smallest tribal nation in the state. With relatively few opportunities for economic development in its remote location, Picuris partnered with Kit Carson Electric Cooperative in 2018 to embark on a solar power project that would create revenue for Picuris, meet 100 percent of daytime energy demand with solar power, and reduce energy costs for tribal members.

Through funding by the Department of Energy, Picuris built a 1-megawatt solar power system with about 4,000 solar panels. The energy generated is sold to Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, which relies on a mix of solar and non-renewable energy sources to provide power to its membership, including Picuris. Thanks to the solar array, residents of Picuris receive a $50 to $75 credit on their energy bills.

The sector will likely see myriad community-led innovations and improvements.

The project has been so successful that Picuris Pueblo is expanding its solar power operations to include a second initiative. Kit Carson is also increasing its solar power grid. The cooperative estimates that it will be able to buy solar power at 3 cents per kilowatt hour compared to the 5 cents per kilowatt hour it costs to purchase coal. Its members will save the difference on their energy bills. 

"We define [energy sovereignty] as you’re free to decide which type of fuel source you want to use," says Luis Reyes, CEO of Kit Carson Electric Cooperative. "So, in the case of Kit Carson, if we don’t want to be tied to the fossil fuel pipeline, our power suppliers would allow this kind of energy independence to find a fuel source that best fits our needs."

The partnership benefited Kit Carson Electric Cooperative too: Picuris Pueblo’s added solar capacity brought it closer to providing 100 percent daytime solar power to its 33,000 members, a goal it is on track to reach by 2022. More solar power also means less reliance on natural gas and coal, some of the main sources of energy used in New Mexico. The cooperative will provide solar-generated power to its membership during the day, and at night, it relies on stored energy in batteries the cooperative owns, as well as supplemental energy from Four Corners, the site where it sources non-renewable energy.

In 2016, Kit Carson bought out of its contract with its former vendor, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, because it was only allowed to provide 5 percent solar power to its customers. The cooperative then partnered with Guzman Energy, an independent energy contractor to pursue their solar power plan.

Since Kit Carson has developed its solar infrastructure, the cooperative has purchased less coal energy from Four Corners. What was a 90 percent purchasing rate of coal energy in 2016 has decreased to around 40 percent in 2021. However, if Four Corners were to incorporate more solar sourcing into its model, it could help retain vendors who prioritize sustainability, such as Kit Carson, in the long run.

"If Four Corners today were to put solar, maybe some wind, then we would continue to buy from them and then we would continue to build solar locally," Reyes says.

A new energy future

As countries across the world have pledged to reduce carbon emissions, many Indigenous communities across the U.S. have been and are creating new energy futures. Blue Lake Rancheria, a tribal nation in Humboldt County, California, has developed enough of its own solar energy grid that it can "island" — a term that the renewable energy sector uses to describe communities that can use power separate from the grid. When rolling blackouts were happening across the western part of the United States in 2020 and 2021 because of an overtaxed grid, Blue Lake Rancheria was able to still provide electricity to its residents on the reservation and reduce stress on the main grid.

Even with success stories such as these, the renewable energy sector is facing significant questions. As of now, the industry does not have a responsible way of disposing of certain pieces of the solar panels once they have exceeded their lifespan, usually an average of 30 years. There are also concerns about the environmental degradation and human rights abuses associated with mining the materials needed to make electric battery storage. But experts argue renewable energy is still less damaging than our current model of fossil fuel dependence. And as the world invests big in renewables, the sector will likely see myriad community-led innovations and improvements, which continue to inspire the residents of Moloka’i.

"As we go, we’re hoping to do many creative projects that pushes the technological envelope for what you can do on a small island community,” says Yamashita of Ho’ahu Energy Cooperative. "Projects that have equity, that directly benefit the people. And I can’t think of any better way than the people here building it themselves."

This story first appeared on:

Yes Magazine

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