CANNON BALL, N.D. — At the peak of protests against the Dakota Access pipeline in 2016 and 2017, when speakers needed help to be heard by the hundreds of demonstrators who had gathered near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, they grabbed a microphone powered by a mobile solar unit.
The sound system was one of several green energy examples that stuck with Cody Two Bears, a young Standing Rock leader who occasionally took the mic. After the protests ended without stopping the pipeline, Two Bears announced he was creating a nonprofit — Indigenized Energy — aimed at boosting development of renewable energy.
“There were a lot of people creating energy within that camp,” Two Bears, 35, told The Associated Press. “I looked at my community and said if Standing Rock changed the world, maybe we can change within ourselves.”
With publicity from the tumultuous protest still fresh in people’s minds, Indigenized Energy and other nonprofits worked together in the last year to build and launch a solar farm on Standing Rock. In doing so, they became the latest American Indian tribe moving into green energy.
In Nevada, the Moapa Band of Paiutes is two years into a utility-scale solar project that’s powering 110,000 homes in Los Angeles. In Arizona, the Navajo Nation this fall doubled the production of its own solar project to potentially power 36,000 homes. And in South Dakota, six Sioux tribes are partnering for a pair of massive wind farms projected to produce 570 megawatts by 2021 — enough to power 360,000 homes.
The tribal projects are often fostered by a network of nonprofits — many focused on combating climate change — that help with strategy, grant-writing and funding. Standing Rock’s project drew $370,000 of its $470,000 cost from San Francisco-based GivePower, the nonprofit that provided the solar-powered sound system during the pipeline protests.
“Everybody wants energy independence,” said Nick Tilsen, founder of NDN Collective, a Rapid City, South Dakota-based group working to help tribes develop green energy. “We believe that urgency exists for humanity.”
Hilary Tompkins, an attorney who worked on energy and economic development in the Department of Interior under President Barack Obama, said solar and wind can work well for many tribes since many reservations are in arid, sun-filled regions with vast, open spaces. The Obama administration enacted regulations to spur renewable development on tribal land and there are tax incentives, grants and rebates for such projects, she said.
Solar has benefited as equipment costs have fallen thanks to the rapid development of technology and the panels have become easier to install. The Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley estimated small-scale installation has fallen 60 percent in the last decade as efficiency has increased.
The Standing Rock project, which also was backed by a $100,000 grant from the nonprofit Empower by Light and 1,000 donated solar panels from Jinko Solar, has allowed the tribe to sell energy to the state’s grid and use the money to power a community center and event center, saving as much as $10,000 a year, GivePower executive director Barrett Raftery said. The remaining profits go toward Indigenized Energy and Indigenized Youth and their programs, including a language school, sports for youth and future solar projects, he said.
The project’s second phase includes rooftop solar panels on homes in Cannon Ball, which has about 900 people, though the timetable isn’t set.
While Standing Rock is starting small, a few tribes are already making money.
The Moapa Band’s project in Nevada was the first utility-scale project approved for tribal land, meaning the first aimed at producing energy beyond the reservation. First Solar Inc., which developed the plant and then sold it soon after it opened in 2017, said the project should generate millions for the tribe in lease payments, consulting fees and sale of goods and services.
The Navajo Nation retained ownership of its project in Kayenta, Arizona. The tribe projects about $18 million in profits over the life of the project; building it provided jobs for more than 300 Navajo.
The U.S. Department of Energy says the largest wind energy project planned so far on reservation land is on the drawing board in South Dakota, where six Sioux tribes are launching the Oceti Sakowin Power Project with the help of a federal production tax credit. They’re partnering with Apex Clean Energy, a Virginia-based private wind and solar project developer that will collect at least half of the profits.
The Office of Indian Energy, which is part of the Department of Energy, invested $25 million in renewable projects on tribal lands between 2010 and 2016. A solar farm the agency is helping to fund on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington state is projected to drop utility bills for most homeowners from about $240 a month to less than $9, according to Department of Energy officials.
The DOE doesn’t track the number of tribal green energy projects, but earlier this summer the agency awarded $16 million to 14 reservation infrastructure ventures, most involving solar. That ranged from more than $9 million to expand the power supply on the Colusa Indian Community in California to more than $626,000 to the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana for solar panels on a new 50,000-square-foot wellness center.
Meanwhile, some tribes are looking beyond solar and wind to biomass, geothermal and hydro-power energy. A feasibility study by three California researchers found that a biomass plant on the Cocopah Reservation in southwestern Arizona, which has about 1,000 residents, could supply all the tribe’s energy needs with a small combustion stoker boiler fed with crop residues from nearby agricultural lands.
Other sources of biomass are wood, animal manure and food waste, the latter of which supporters say could be easily collected from bars and restaurants at tribal casinos.
“You just never know what the next industry is going to be as we burn through fossil fuels,” said Jennifer Irving, deputy director of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corp., which is managing a green energy project on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. “We’re going to have to get more and more creative about where energy comes from.”
AP researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.