Life, health, jobs and energy sovereignty on Indian / Original Nations lands in North America

February 11, 2017

Lakota Solar Enterprises (LSE) and Trees, Water & People (TWP) are continuing efforts with support from Trees-Water-People to move towards energy independence.  In August 2016 this included conducting a solar air heater workshop and installing ten solar air heating systems for the Sisseton Wahpeton Tribe in northeast South Dakota. The training is teaching twelve tribal members about the uses of solar energy and how to install the energy saving solar heating systems. These solar heaters push the number of total systems the LSE/TWP team has built and installed for tribal families to more than 1,000 systems. Additionally, the vast majority of these systems made at the LSE manufacturing facility at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

Sisseton Wahpeton Tribe members installing a solar air heater during a training with Lakota Solar Enterprises and Trees, Water & People.


It is also the first major installation of our new Off-Grid Solar Heaters, which now operate solely on solar power! Heat is provided even if the grid goes off, as it is apt to do all across Native American Reservations. After this training is completed, the tribe has discussed getting 21 more systems and will use their trained workforce to get them installed.

Next, LSE will be taking down the old defunct wind turbine tower at the Kili Radio Station on Pine Ridge. Friends will install a new 10 kW Bergey wind turbine there in September, and a bit later Henry and the LSE crew will install another 6 kW solar electric array. A few years ago LSE installed a 5 kW solar electric array there, as well as one of their solar air heaters. Together, this should reduce the Radio stationed huge electric and heating bills by more than half.

IMG_0550 - Copy
Henry Red Cloud (left) leads a solar panel installation training at the Kili Radio Station in 2013.

Training and demonstrations like these are possible because of you, our supporters! Your contribution helps build job skills for Native Americans while also reducing CO2 emissions. Please donate today to keep programs like these going into the future.

July 2016, by Sally MacAdams and the Community Power Agency, with review by Jarra Hicks and Manny Pasqualini

The following four stories come from Indigenous communities in Canada and the USA, from the remote villages of Alaska to the lush coast of the Pacific North-West to the deserts of Arizona. These First Nations are using the power of wind, sun and water to provide not only electricity for their community, but also economic development, skills and training, and their self-reliance, moving towards energy sovereignty.

The stories highlight the importance of leadership and local champions, the building of strong partnerships, finding the right funding models and sources, and communities building their own capacity to deliver renewable energy projects, from the inception, planning, engagement and visioning, to the project management and installation and maintenance of systems.

These First Nations also see renewable energy as a path for the sustainable use and protection of their natural resources, and a model for environmental sustainability for others to learn from.

  1. Hopi Solar Initiatives (USA) Hopi tribal members created their own not for profit solar installation company in the 1980s to bring electricity to homes in their remote communities and build skills, so families could operate and maintain their own systems.  Approximately 14,000 homes remain in need of electricity.
  2. T’Sou-ke Solar Community (Canada) What stands out most about the T’Sou-ke First Nation’s renewable energy initiatives is the holistic nature of their approach. Their solar program is part of a culturally-embedded suite of initiatives aimed at increasing the self-sufficiency and sustainability of their nation. They have been designated a ‘Canadian Solar City’ and are passionate about sharing their experiences with other First Nations to enable them to find their own renewable energy solutions.
  3. Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (USA) The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes implemented a small hydropower project in the 1980s at Boulder Creek on their land, the Flathead Reservation, in Lake County, western Montana. In 2007 after more than two decades of operation, it was in need of refurbishment and operating at a loss. The Tribes not only found a way to turn this difficult economic situation around, but went on to become the first Native American Tribes to own and operate a large-scale hydroelectric dam.
  4. Chaninik Wind Group (USA) The Chaninik Wind Group is a collection of remote tribal villages in south-west Alaska who have banded together to cut their dependence on costly diesel-powered electricity and heating. The villages have installed wind turbines along with smart-grid technology and thermal stoves that allow excess energy during the coldest, windiest months to be captured and stored as heating capacity. The group has also been able to train local people through the projects, building their community’s capacity, self-sufficiency and sustainability.

1. Hopi Solar Initiatives (USA)

Hopi tribal members created their own not for profit solar installation company in the 1980s to bring electricity to homes in their remote communities, many of which are off-grid. But the adoption of solar, as with electricity in general, was not uncontroversial in the nation, and it took a long engagement process to gain the trust and acceptance of local communities.

Project overview

When this project was first conceived in the mid 1980s, four of the twelve traditional Hopi villages, and one additional community, were not connected to the electricity grid.  The idea of this project was to install small-scale stand-alone solar power including battery storage on individual residences across the Hopi Reservation (and eventually also the neighbouring Navajo Nation), as well as a larger demonstration of solar and other sustainable technologies at the office building of the Hopi Solar Foundation, the not-for-profit enterprise formed to implement the project.

Not only did this project bring solar electricity to hundreds of homes, it also had a particular focus on the engagement, education and empowerment of the local people.  The roll-out of solar photovoltaic (PV) in the Hopi Reservation included a concerted effort to explain the technology to the families receiving solar systems, which included PV modules (commonly referred to as solar panels), an inverter, a charge controller, deep-cycle batteries and other hardware. Not only did this engender a sense of ownership over the technology, but also equipped households with the skills to operate and maintain their systems efficiently rather than being dependent on technicians. 

The project organisers also came up with a range of innovative ways to introduce the unfamiliar concept of solar into their communities. Prospective participants had the opportunity, for example, to borrow a mobile system for a week to see how the systems worked for themselves.  The systems installed were small-scale by today’s standards – generally 35 watts to 1.8 kilowatts. Some small wind turbines were also installed (300-500 watts).

Project cost and funding

The Hopi Foundation was able to access seed funding from a variety of sources to establish the Hopi Solar Electricity Enterprise. It gained grants from both private sources such as the Arizona Community Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, as well as government sources. A grant of $150,000 from the Arizona Energy Office of the Department of Commerce was specifically dedicated to start-up activities including the building of a demonstration facility, training local people to become solar technicians, and project management for the first year of the operation of the enterprise. Initial funds also went towards writing a detailed business plan, creating the financial models, and marketing.1

The project depended on local households to fund their own solar PV installations. Because few Hopi members could afford to buy systems up-front, the Enterprise devised a revolving loan fund with a $7,000 loan limit and a maximum repayment period of 48 months at 8% interest. Most customers took out a loan of $5,000-$6,000. Even with the loan fund in place, many local people needed time to save up enough money for their initial payment, so uptake was slow at first.

The program did eventually become self-sustaining however, transitioning from the not-for-profit Hopi Solar Electricity Enterprise, which had started in 1985, to a private company called NativeSUN, LLC in 2000.2


Approximately 12,000 members of the Hopi Nation live on the remote Hopi Reservation in the desert of northeastern Arizona. Hopi communities have existed here continuously for more than 1500 years. Many of the homes on Hopi land are remote and are not connected to the electricity grid. At the outset of the project, the number of off-grid homes was estimated to be 2500.

Tewa and Brooks (2006)1 identified a range of factors that made the deployment of stand-alone PV a good fit for the Hopi Nation, and which may apply to other Native American communities:

  • There was a genuine benefit for community members in installing solar PV. Electric light would allow them, for example, to replace propane lanterns, which provide sub-optimal light and can create a fire hazard. For those homes that did have grid access, outages were frequent, so solar PV gave them a reliable back-up system.
  • Infrastructural factors were conducive to the introduction of solar PV with abundant sunshine and a lack of access to reliable electricity.
  • Early stage finance was available both for the start-up of the whole operation and for individual households.
  • Expectations were managed from the outset. The systems being installed were, particularly by today’s standards, very small. The NativeSUN staff took great care to explain the limitations of the systems on offer, and to encourage households to manage the power they produced as a precious and scarce resource. As living without electricity was a common experience in these communities, the constraints of the systems were comparatively easily understood and accepted.
  • Customer education and a sense of ownership was a core focus and strong success factor.
  • NativeSUN also used local champions, word of mouth and demonstration to great effect. Their staff were the first to adopt the technology and acted as ambassadors.
  • The Hopi formed beneficial partnerships to aid the implementation of their project, including with universities and technology providers to assist with the monitoring, evaluation and improvement of the project’s technical elements.
  • Patience and allowing time for the engagement process has been emphasised by project organisers as essential to the success of this project.


Grid connection is a challenge for many Native American reservations. It is expensive and time-consuming, especially for remote communities, and there is also a range of policy and bureaucratic barriers including right-of-way issues, (archaeological) cultural heritage requirements and environmental restrictions.

Not only is the Hopi Reservation geographically remote, with limited access to electricity, but there were also a number of cultural considerations to navigate when it came to electrification. The leaders of some tribal villages decided not to connect to the grid when the opportunity arose, because they were concerned about visual and cultural impacts, the potential impacts of future price rises in electricity, and also because they did not want to become dependent on an external source of power.

When the possibility of off-grid solar power became known to the Hopi, there were concerns from some members that the panels would be ‘taking away from the sun’ (Tewa & Brooks, 2006: 6)1. These perspectives were met in a respectful and culturally sensitive way by HSEE who saw solar PV as an environmentally sound means of bringing a greater quality of life to their remote communities.

Through extensive discussion and education, the concept of using solar PV, and its advantages over other, more costly, environmentally damaging and dangerous methods (such as propane which was frequently used both for fuel and light) became accepted.

A further challenge in the uptake of solar PV was the need for individual households to fund it themselves. Unemployment on the Hopi Reservation is high and incomes are low, so people usually can’t afford large up-front costs. For this reason NativeSUN had to find a way to help local people pay off their systems over time (a common arrangement for other expensive items such as cars).

Given the relatively remote nature of communities and households, maintenance of the systems would have been a significant challenge under a centralised approach to providing electricity. NativeSUN, however, took a decentralised approach and empowered individual householders to operate and maintain their own systems through providing thorough training, resources and support in the Hopi language, using non-technical terms and analogies to communicate the concepts. They likened the battery and panel systems, for example, to a water tank (water being a scarce resource for the Hopi) to communicate the need for careful conservation of energy.


After more than two decades of successful installations and years of community education on solar energy, off-grid solar is now common in Hopi country. The Hopi’s project was one of several projects featured in a book called The Solar Way (2001). This and other publicity led to the Hopi being commonly used as a case study for other tribal communities to learn and gain inspiration for their own community-owned renewable energy projects across the United States.

Deb Tewa, who was involved in the original project, has since formed her own solar company, and continues to install off-grid systems and to train local people in electrical and PV technology. She hopes to open an electrical trade school on the Hopi Reservation. She identifies finding funding, securing a suitable location, and building critical mass for the school as the next challenges on the way to realising this vision.3


1. Tewa, Debbie and Brooks, Connie (2006) ‘NativeSUN: A Model for Sustainable Solar Electric Systems on Indian Lands’ – available online at Tewa and Brooks (2006) describe this project in detail. Quotes and figures in this article come from this source unless otherwise noted.
2. O’Callahan, Ted (2006) ‘One of their own gives the gift of electricity to her Native American tribe’ in SEED Magazine:
3. Personal communication from Deb Tewa.

Further reading:

  • ‘Native SUN Hopi Solar Electric Enterprise’ online at
  • ‘Native Sun News: Hopi woman brings solar power to the people’ (2014) –
  • Necefer, Wong-Parodi, Jaramillo & Small (2015) ‘Energy development and Native Americans: Values and beliefs about energy from the Navajo Nation’ available online at Elsevier
  • ‘Empower Your Customers to Perform Their Own PV Maintenance’ (2006) EC & M Magazine
  • Burroughs, Chris (2005) ‘Light-bringer Debby Tewa Provides Expert Advice about Photovoltaic Units to People on Indian Reservations’ in Sandia Lab News
  • ‘Solar Power Lights Homes on Indian Reservation’ (2005) in New Mexico Business Journal
  • LaDuke, Winona (2004) ‘Solar Self-Reliance’ in Mother Earth News Magazine, 2004
  • Cox, Craig (2002) ‘Powering Native American Lands’ in Solar Today Magazine, American Solar Energy Society
  • The Solar Way: Photovoltaics on Indian Lands, Sandia National Laboratories, 2001
  • Talahongva, Patty (2000) ‘Solar Energy on Hopi’ in Native Peoples Magazine
  • LaDuke, Winona (1999) All My Relations, South End Press
  • Stone, Laurie (1998) ‘Amazon Women’ in Home Power Magazine
  • ‘Honey, We Bought the Company: Livelihood on a Hopi Reservation in Arizona’ (1998) aired on PBS, September 1998
  • Cole, Nancy and Skerrett, P. J. (1995) Renewables Are Ready: People Creating Renewable Energy Solutions, Chelsea Green Publishing
  • Rohmer, Harriet (2009) Heroes of the Environment, Chronicle Books

2. T’Sou-ke Solar Community (Canada)

What stands out most about the T’Sou-ke First Nation’s community-owned clean energy initiatives is the holistic nature of their approach. Their solar program is part of a culturally-embedded suite of initiatives aimed at increasing the self-sufficiency and sustainability of their nation. This aim has brought the whole community together and is a source of pride and prosperity. They have been designated a ‘Canadian Solar City’ and are passionate about sharing their experiences with other First Nations to enable them to find their own renewable energy solutions. They see a role for themselves in demonstrating how First Nations can lead the way for the broader community, by going back to and living out their traditional values of stewardship and sustainability.

Project overview

The T’Sou-ke First Nation of Vancouver Island in British Columbia was Canada’s first Original Nations community to be named a ‘Canadian Solar City’ (in 2013). According to Andrew Moore, the nation’s Special Projects Manager, “If you count the solar hot water and the photovoltaics, T’Sou-ke Nation is the most solar intensive community in Canada… not just First Nations, but any community in Canada.”1

According to the Canadian Solar Cities Project, a Canadian not-for-profit organization dedicated to recognizing Canadian communities for leadership in sustainability: “The T’Sou-ke solar initiative is an example of innovative leadership in long-term energy cost reduction through the application of renewable energy technologies, stimulating local economic development and encouraging local community development.” Driving this leadership has been Chief Gordon Planes, a passionate advocate for renewable energy, and a supportive Council.

The solar program is made up of several different elements, well-documented on the T’Sou-ke Nation website.2 There are three distinct community-scale solar demonstration projects, totalling 75KW and 440 PV panels, which highlight the benefits of different models for different kinds of communities:

  • ‘Off Grid’ First Nations: A stand-alone 6-kilowatt solar PV system (with battery storage) on the nation’s Fisheries and Special Projects office building is an example of what could be useful for off-grid communities. In such communities, a back-up power source would be needed.
  • ‘Net Zero’ Energy Community: On the community’s hall is a 7-kilowatt grid-connected solar PV system, which is used as a back-up system if the supply from the hydro system fails. It can also sell excess power back to the grid, and shows some of the opportunities for grid-connected localities where power outages are common.
  • ‘Feed In’ to Utility: The largest array, a 62-kilowatt grid-connected, net-metered solar PV system on the community’s canoe shed, works to power the nation’s administration buildings. The surplus energy created in summer is sold back to the grid, and bought back in winter, effectively using the grid like a battery. The intention is to show that alongside a strong set of efficiency and conservation measures, such a system could power a whole community.

As well as the demonstration projects, the T’Sou-ke have also installed solar hot water on 42 of the 86 private residences in the community, instigated a comprehensive energy conservation program for all houses and installed two solar-powered electric car charging points at the Council’s administration building.5, 6, 7, 8

Contributing to the goal of economic independence, the project had a strong emphasis on training and employment within the community to complete the implementation. T’Sou-ke community members were able to get special industry training through CanSIA Canadian Solar Installers Association and on the job training. The T’Sou-ke set out to make the training culturally relevant and appropriate to the local audience, using humour, and emphasising story-telling and other verbal training methods. They also worked with a local artist, who created a traditional design and etched it into a prominent panel.

“We learned by doing,” said one of the nine trainees, Angie Bristol, 28. “Having everything right there in front of you made it a lot easier.”3 The training program has also had the advantage of equipping the community to handle repairs and ongoing maintenance in-house.

The T’Sou-ke also learned through the project that saving energy through efficiency and conservation measures cost only 10% as much as installing new technology to create the same amount of energy. They undertook an energy-efficiency retrofitting program to reduce energy needs further, installing insulation, replacing old appliances and light bulbs, and weather-proofing homes. They also decided to form the T’Sou-ke Nation Smart Energy Group (T’SEG) to get people (especially young people) involved with energy saving efforts. 

“We’re creating all this energy with our panels, but if people just started using it all up… what’s the point?” commented a member of the group. “[Solar panels] are quite expensive to install, so once we install them, we realize just how precious the energy created really is.”3

The solar program is just one part of the nation’s plan to sustain their community, which includes other innovative initiatives such as a wasabi-growing enterprise, electric cars, eco-tourism ventures and moves towards food sovereignty including an 80-hectare oyster farm and expanding their organic community garden. There are also plans underway to expand the community’s energy generation to wave and wind energy in coming years.

Project cost and funding

The total project cost was approximately C$1.5M and project manager Andrew Moore managed to cobble together funding from 15 different governmental and non-profit sources to fund it. These included the provincial Innovative Clean Energy Fund, which provided an initial injection of C$400,000, the then Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (now Indigenous and Northern Affairs) and Solar British Columbia.2

The demonstration solar arrays cost C$700,000; the solar hot water systems cost $300,000; the energy conservation program cost C$400,000; and training, community engagement and energy planning cost another $100,000.5, 6, 7,8


The T’Sou-ke is a nation of the Coast Salish people. There are approximately 250 members and they hold 67 hectares of land in the area of the Sooke Basin and the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the far south of Vancouver Island. These lands are held across two reserves under the terms of their ‘Douglas treaty’ (one of several treaties signed between Indigenous groups on Vancouver Island in the 1800s with James Douglas, then Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island). Amongst other First Nations, they are also negotiating contemporary treaties with the Province of British Columbia. Like many other Canadian First Nations, the T’Sou-ke are governed by an elected chief and Council.2

Community ownership and integration with T’Sou-ke culture have been crucial to the success of the project. The project started in 2009 with a community-wide visioning process, led by a project manager appointed by the Council. The vision created was one of a leading, self-sufficient and sustainable community. There were four pillars to this vision, all bolstering the sovereignty of the T’Sou-ke nation. The first three goals were around self-reliance – to become independent in terms of energy, food and economy. The fourth goal underpins and informs the rest: to return to the “traditional ways and values” of the First Nation. These ancestral values have informed the entire process. The tradition of considering the impact of today’s actions on the next seven generations guided the visioning and planning. The central driver for the T’Sou-ke was to honour and apply the lessons of the sustainable way of life of their ancestors and to protect the Earth.2c

T’Sou-ke Chief, Gordon Planes, put it this way:  “First Nations have lived for thousands of years on this continent without fossil fuels. It is appropriate that First Nations lead the way out of dependency and addiction to fossil fuels and to rely on the power of the elements, the sun, the wind and the sea once again.” 

They have also recognised resilience and independence for First Nations as a key strategy in dealing with climate change. As the solar project manager explains: “There’s going to be major change, in terms of competition for resources, oil and climate change. And everyone knows that the most vulnerable communities are the ones that get hit hardest… I think the mandate is to build resilience in these communities. The way that you do that is to make them more autonomous and more self-sufficient.”

See the T’Sou-ke Community Solar video for these and other stories from the project team.2c


One of the biggest challenges for the T’Sou-ke was to find sources of funding. On top of that, because of the patchwork of funding the team tapped into to fund their project, they had to deal with the different and sometimes conflicting requirements of their different funders. While the T’Sou-ke have access to the electricity grid, many remote First Nations communities are off-grid. They see the dependence on diesel in these communities as a major challenge, as it is not only costly and environmentally damaging, but also in precarious supply due to unreliable access.


The recognition of the T’Sou-ke First Nation by The Canadian Solar Cities Project in 2013 is a testament to the extensive, integrated and holistic approach to sustainability the community has taken.4 Solar Cities have to meet ten criteria, including having a climate change plan, a community energy plan and a range of other plans, targets and policies in place.  The T’Sou-ke’s solar program has allowed them to save 100% of their overall administration energy costs.5 Most houses are saving between 20% to 50% on energy costs.8

Chief Planes reports:

“We’re only using about one-eighth of what we’re creating, so we sell the surplus to BC Hydro and buy it back in the winter when we need it. We’re using BC Hydro [the local energy utility] as a battery, but we’re doing that so our bills are zero.” 

Project Manager Moore claims that even more important than the installation of new technologies, “The major shift that’s happened is … a real change in awareness and behaviour of the community members.”7  The underlying theme here is of genuine ownership of the project by the whole community. The long process undertaken at the outset of the project to gain the whole community’s input, and the Council’s willingness to take on the broad and ambitious vision thus created, generated a deep level of trust, engagement and involvement across the community. The T’Sou-ke’s insistence on local training and jobs as an outcome of the project has also contributed to this sense of ownership, and has resulted in nine community members becoming certified solar hot water installers.

For the T’Sou-ke, taking control of their energy has been an important expression of their sovereignty. Since both political and electrical power tend to go hand-in-hand, the move towards decentralized power was an important one for the First Nation, and one they are keen to demonstrate to other First Nations communities. The T’Sou-ke see sharing their success and helping other communities learn from their story as an important leadership role for their nation. In 2013 alone, they hosted tours and workshops for 32 schools, 54 municipalities and many international tourists. Since 2012, they have been working to support a neighbouring city, Colwood, on a project to upgrade hundreds of homes with both energy efficiency and generation measures. They also support remote communities to learn about alternative energy options. 2a

An unanticipated economic benefit has been created by the multitude of visitors (around 2,000 a year) now coming to the reserve specifically to learn about the solar project. Local members now take the opportunity to offer local, sustainable feasts of salmon and other traditional foods and sell local art to the eco-tourists.5

In line with their economic development aims, the community has also been using the proceeds of their successful ventures to fund new ones. Their new wasabi enterprise, for example is expected to fund the expansion of the community garden as well as the initiation of a new sustainable aquaculture enterprises including oysters and seaweed.5,8  Since their successful solar project, the nation has gone on to form a partnership with Timberwest Forest Corp. and EDP Renewables Canada Ltd. to create $750 million of investment into wind power projects on the Island. Planning has also commenced on a project to harness wave energy.5 There are also plans underway for a T’Sou-ke Centre for Sustainability, a demonstrations site where people can learn how to move quickly towards renewable energy, food security, and sustainable economic development, all based on Indigenous knowledge and values.8


1. ‘T’Sou-ke First Nation: A Leader in the Innovative Use of Renewable Energy in Canada’ available online at the Department of Indigenous and North Affairs Canad:
2. T’Sou-ke Nation: including
2. (a) Sun keeps shining on T’Sou-ke:
2. (b) First Nation Takes Lead on Solar Power:
2. (c) T’Sou-ke community solar video [
3. Kimmett, Colleen (2009) ‘First Nation Takes Lead on Solar Power’ in The Tyee:
4. ‘T’Sou-ke Nation awarded official solar city designation’:
5. ‘T’Sou-ke First Nation turns to wasabi in renewable energy push’:
6. Tammemagi, Hans (2013) ‘Old Ways, New Path: How the T’Sou-ke Nation is powering its cultural revitalization’ in Alternatives Journal, November 2013:
7. Dodge, David (2013) ‘The Sunny T’Sou-ke First Nation Loves Solar Power’ in Huffington Post 29 April 2013:
8. Personal communication with project manager Andrew Moore

4. Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, USA

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) implemented a small hydropower project in the 1980s at Boulder Creek on their land, the Flathead Reservation, in Lake County, western Montana. In 2007 after more than two decades of operation, it was in need of refurbishment and operating at a loss. CSKT not only found a way to turn this difficult economic situation around, but went on to be the first Native American Tribes to own and operate a large-scale hydroelectric dam.

Project overview

In 2007 the CSKT were faced with the decision of whether to invest more money into the ageing infrastructure of the Boulder Creek Hydro project or shut it down. At the time it was only generating enough income to pay the interest on the original loan. The private company that managed the project (S & K Holding) investigated the Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) market and found that it could make the refurbishment economically viable. The CSKT entered into a partnership with S&K Holding and NativeEnergy, a commercial carbon offsetting company, to gain certification from the Low Impact Hydro Institute. The institute assesses the impacts of hydropower projects across the United States and certifies environmentally-friendly operations, allowing them to sell RECs, sold on to companies as ‘green tags’.1

The Tribes went on to conduct feasibility studies into a range of options for new renewable energy projects, and in 2015, bought an existing large-scale hydro dam, Kerr Dam, on Flathead River near Polson, Montana. The CSKT decided to operate the dam themselves, forming a tribally-owned Corporation recognised in 2012 under the Indian Reorganisation Act called EnergyKeepersInc. The Corporation is wholly owned by CSKT and its mission includes principles of providing benefit to the community, honouring the sacred nature of the resources of the land and protecting them for future current and future generations.

The Corporation is held accountable to this mission by way of stipulated consultation with the Council and a requirement for a minimum of three of the five directors to be members of the CSKT.3 The Tribes also have policy of integrated resource management which prioritises above all else the protection of cultural resources, air, water, and wildlife in any new development activities. New activities are guided by a land suitability map designating which areas are ecologically and culturally sensitive, and which areas may be developed.10a

Project cost and funding

The refurbishment of Boulder Creek Hydro was funded by the sale of the RECs generated. Several Department of Energy grants funded feasibility studies on potential new energy projects and other preparatory work, including a 2011 grant of $US200,000 to assist in the setting up of EnergyKeepersInc and the securing of financing. When CSKT exercised its exclusive right to buy the dam in 2015, they were able to maintain the formula for determining the price negotiated in 1985 and through an extensive arbitration process paid a price of US $18.3 million (instead of the the original asking price of over US$50 million).4


The Kerr Dam was built in the 1930s on Salish and Kootenai ancestral lands, despite strong protests that the site was a place of spiritual and cultural significance to their people. 3 Through a long and convoluted history of negotiation and advocacy, the Tribes secured co-licensee status in 1985 when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licence was renewed. As part of this negotiated settlement CSKT also gained the exclusive right to purchase the facility in return for reduced payments for the use of their land. Brian Lipscomb, CEO of EnergyKeepers Inc credits the ‘remarkable…vision’ of the Tribal Council at this time for laying the foundations for the Tribes’ current advances towards energy sovereignty.3, 9


The Tribes had to fight and negotiate for the better part of a century to assert sovereignty over their own lands and resources and to gain control of the largest economic resource in the area, originally installed against their wishes. The history of the dam is part of a larger history of dispossession and economic and resource exploitation of the Tribes and their lands.3 The Tribes had mixed feelings when they purchased the Dam, with Chairman Vernon Finley explaining, “There’s great happiness and there’s also great sorrow. This is a spiritual place for us”.9 He went on to explain: “We are regaining what we lost…we have a great responsibility.”5


The 208 megawatt (MW) Kerr Dam, now called the Selis Ksanka Qlispe Dam,10 generates an average of 1.1 million megawatt hours of energy annually (enough to power over 100,000 homes). The Boulder Creek project by contrast is only 350 kilowatts (kW).2 Both projects show how the Tribes have grasped the opportunities of renewable energy within the financial resources and capacity available at the time.3

Having formed their own energy corporation, Energy Keepers Inc, the CSKT are not only the first tribes to own a hydro project on this scale but also to operate it. At a time when some other large-scale hydro projects in the US are now closing, in part due to environmental and other concerns of traditional land-owners,6,7 the CSKT have opted to take control of the operations themselves and to enshrine sustainability and community benefit in the corporation’s vision and incorporation documents.2 To this end they have also built in highly-skilled jobs for tribal members and have used Department of Energy grants to build their organizational and human capacity for managing large-scale energy projects.8

1. ‘Boulder Creek Hydro Project’ online at Native Energy: creek-hydro-project.html
2. Energy Keepers Inc:
3. ‘The twists and turns of acquiring Kerr Dam’ (2013) in Charkoosta News:
4. Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Department of Energy Final Report (2014):
5. ‘Historic: Salish/Kootenai Tribes Acquire Flathead Lake Dam, Only Tribe As Sole Operator Of A Dam’ (2015) in the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife News Bulletin, September 11, 2015:
6. Nijhuis, Michelle (2014) ‘World’s Largest Dam Removal Unleashes U.S. River After Century of Electric Production’ in National Geographic August 27, 2014: science-olympic/
7. ‘Dams’ (2015) podcast on Native America Calling, 4 December, 2015:
8. Salish and Kootenai hydro project on Department of Energy website:
9. McNeel, Jack (2015) ‘Salish-Kootenai Dam: First Tribally Owned Hydro-Electric Dam in U.S.’ in Indian Country Today: dam-first-tribally-owned-hydro-electric-dam-us-161681
10. Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation: including
10a Sustainable, Comprehensive Economic Development Plan/Strategy December 2015: strategy

4. Chaninik Wind Group (USA)

The Chaninik Wind Group is a collection of remote tribal villages in south-west Alaska who have banded together to cut their dependence on costly diesel-powered electricity and heating. The villages have installed wind turbines along with smart-grid technology and thermal stoves that allow excess energy during the coldest, windiest months to be captured and stored as heating capacity. One of the goals of the group has also been to train local people through the projects, building their community’s capacity, self-sufficiency and sustainability.

Project overview

Three of the four villages making up the Chaninik Wind Group each installed wind systems chosen specifically to create excess power in peak conditions. They are fully integrated with the local micro-grids, which were previously powered solely by a central diesel-powered generator in each village. They have integrated systems known as ‘Wind Heat Smart Grids’. The first of these became operational in late 2012 in Kongiganak, with the second and third complete by mid-2013.1 The concept was informed by a community consultation process to identify the needs and drivers of the village residents. This consultation showed that the majority of diesel fuel in the villages was being used for electricity generation and heating, and so the Wind Heat Smart Grids were designed to provide a solution for both of these needs.2

When wind speeds are low (under 20 miles per hour), the wind-powered electricity simply reduces the demand for diesel. At moderate to high wind speeds, the excess electricity generated is fed through the grid directly into heating units in individual houses.1 What makes this so innovative is that it takes maximum advantage of the strong and highly variable winds, allowing the diesel generators to stop operating all together when the wind is at its strongest. In Kwigillingok in 2015, for example, the diesel generator was off 30% of the time.3

The wall units, which look similar to a standard electric heater, contain high-density ceramic bricks that are heated by electric elements, and can store significant quantities of heat for long periods of time. Temperature sensors monitoring the outdoor and indoor temperatures regulate the storage and release of heat automatically and can completely displace the need for diesel fuel during cold, windy periods. This wind powered heating is metered and the costs are charged to individual households – but at half the cost of diesel-powered heating.1

The goal was to displace 200,000 gallons (757,000 litres) of diesel; 70,000 gallons (26,500 litres) in direct electricity supply, and 130,000 gallons (492,000 litres) in heating fuel reduction.1
Three of the four villages installed five 95 kilowatt (kW) turbines for a total of 495kW capacity per village system, with the fourth village due to complete its installation in mid 2016.1

Project cost and funding

Prior to the formation of the Chaninik Wind Group project, the four villages already owned their own local power utilities. In initiating the project, they selected a partner, Intelligent Energy Systems to help them secure funding for, and implement, the complex, multi-faceted system. In 2010 they received funding from the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Tribal Energy Program for the ‘Wind Heat Smart Grid’ element of the project.1 To date they have received approximately US$13 million in grants from sources such as the Alaska Legislature, Alaska Energy Authority’s Renewable Energy Fund and Emerging Energy Technology Fund, the Denali Commission as well as the DOE.3

The Yu’pik villages of Kongiganak, Kwigillingok, Tuntutuliak, and Kipnuk, are located in the delta of the Kuskokwim river delta in southwestern Alaska, 450 miles west of Anchorage. They are small communities, with a combined population of approximately 2000 residents living in the four villages.

The Councils of these villages came together in 2005 to form the Chaninik Wind Group, recognising their common need to reduce their dependence on diesel fuel, and the benefits of working together rather than each trying independently to initiate and manage potentially complex renewable energy projects.1

The cost of heating in the harsh Alaskan climate for remote off-grid communities can be a huge burden, where incomes are low and unemployment is high. Households in Kongiginak, for example, could spend up to 60% of their income on diesel to heat their homes. Local wind power champion William Igkurak put it this way: “You cannot control the price of fuel. We were always at the mercy of the fuel supplier.”3 Bringing down the cost of living was a significant driver for this project, as was the desire to keep the revenue, jobs and human capacity associated with energy generation within the local economy.1


There were several technical challenges for the project. Wind speeds in the area are highly variable, and can change very quickly, presenting challenges for maintaining steady supply and necessitating the use of a complex system for generating, monitoring, storing and distributing the energy. The smart grid, an electric boiler and the thermal stoves address this challenge, and make the most of the resource available. The weakness of the local grids also meant delays while the renewable energy systems were adapted to integrate with them.1

Being remote communities that experience extreme conditions, the villages were also acutely aware of the pitfalls of depending on distant experts for operating and maintaining high-tech systems. They worked closely with providers to choose wind turbines suitable for the remote location and extreme conditions and sought models that local technicians could be trained to maintain.1 This was also another advantage of working as a consortium: the villages can draw on their collective expertise and even spare parts rather than waiting for help from far away. It also fits with an existing ethos of, and necessity for, self-sufficiency. Roderick Phillip, vice-president of Chaninik Wind Group commented:

“We fix everything…We have to keep everything going in our homes, our snowmachines, our four wheelers, our outboards. We have to fix our own boilers and computers, install our own satellite dishes… I think that’s one of the reasons why our people have been successful in operating and maintaining our systems.”4

They have also successfully translated the technology into the local context, for example creating Yup’ik terms for many of the components.4


In each village, a number of households received thermal stoves or Electric Thermal Storage units (e.g. 21 homes in Kongiganak). The participating households have reported high levels of satisfaction with the systems, and reductions in diesel heating of up to a third. The Chaninik Wind Group hope to extend these units to all villagers eventually. The communities are also eager to upgrade their mini-grids in future to be able to absorb more wind energy and therefore provide renewable electricity more efficiently. 1,5

The project partners have identified that one of the most significant legacies of this project is that it has demonstrated an effective, efficient and viable methodology for small communities with isolated mini-grids to make use of highly variable wind resources and to reduce their dependence on expensive and polluting diesel-powered electricity.

Key to this legacy was the effectiveness of partnership both between the neighbouring villages and with the external consultancy in bringing together the skills and the community ownership needed to successfully complete a technically challenging and remote project. 1 The building of local capacity to operate and maintain has also been important for the isolated communities’ ongoing success.4


1. Chaninik Wind Group Multi-Village Wind Heat Smart Grids Final Report:
2. Meiners, Dennis (2012) Chaninik Wind Group, YouTube presentation submitted by University of Alaska Fairbanks:
3. Waldholz, Rachel (2016) ‘At the mouth of the Kuskokwim, a pioneering wind system’ in KTOO Public Media, February 28, 2016:
4. Waldholz, Rachel (2016) ‘In rural Alaska, building wind power means building people power’ in Alaska Public Media, February 26, 2016:
5. Kongiganak Village Facebook:

Further reading

  • Chaninik Wind Group:
  • ‘Wind power fuels Alaska’s push for rural renewable energy sources’ (2012) in Alaska Dispatch News:
  • Goldfuss, Christy (2012) ‘Energy lessons from the edge of the earth’ in Center for American Progress, September 26, 2012:

Sally MacAdams, volunteer, Community Power Agency
[email protected]

“First Nations have lived for thousands of years on this continent without fossil fuels. It is appropriate that First Nations lead the way out of dependency and addiction to fossil fuels and to rely on the power of the elements, the sun, the wind and the sea once again.”- Gordon Planes


Further information


The Division assists tribes with the environmentally responsible exploration, development and management of their energy and mineral resources to create sustainable economies for reservations, generate new jobs and economic self-sufficiency.

Division of Energy and Mineral Development
13922 Denver West Parkway, Ste. 200
Lakewood, CO   80401-3142

TEL: (303) 969-5270
FAX: (303) 969-5273

Division Chief: Stephen Manydeeds
[email protected]
(720) 407-0600

Many Indian reservations are well positioned to provide access to a stable source of competitively priced energy.  For example, of the 326 American Indian reservations, more than 150 have the resource capacity needed to sustain a 1 to 25 megawatt renewable and/or natural gas power generation facility.

Federally Recognized Tribal Entities should contact DEMD to:

  • Evaluate and confirm your energy resources
  • Conduct feasibility studies
  • Identify business development opportunities

DEMD staff also work closely with tribes on marketing, identifying potential partners, negotiating, accessing capital and more.  We have an experienced staff of engineers, geologists, geophysicists and business development specialists poised to help tribes along the path to sustainable economic development.

DEMD has an annual funding program, the Energy and Mineral Development Program (EMDP) that tribes can apply to for energy and mineral pre-development studies.  To see more information on the EMDP, click here.   To view the DEMD informational brochure on our renewable energy development process,please click here.

Geothermal – Direct Use

The utilization of the Earth’s natural heat resources for commercial applications.

  • Requires subsurface temperatures between 30°C and 150°C (85 -300°F)
  • Applications may include: aquaculture, greenhouses, food processing, and heating.
  • Levelized Cost: $0.05 – $0.10 / kWh

These resources are ideal candidates to supply base load energy to industry.

Geothermal – Electric The conversion of the Earth’s natural heat into electricity.

  • Requires subsurface temperatures > 150°C (300°F)
  • 2-3 jobs/MW
  • Levelized Cost: $0.05 – $0.12 / kWh

Biomass – Waste The conversion of unusable household wastes into usable heat and/or electricity.

  • 20,000 people ≈ 1 MW generation capacity
  • Low emission technology
  • 90% diversion from landfi lls
  • 25-30 full time jobs for 5-20 MW power plant
  • Levelized Cost: $0.04 – $0.08 / kWh

Strengthen your economy by pursuing renewable energy development on reservation lands. Not only will this allow you to exercise tribal sovereignty, you can also create jobs, entice industry, and ultimately achieve energy independence. Most importantly, you can keep your dollars on the reservation, where it counts. Development of manufacturing facilities in conjunction with renewable energy development can lead to new frontiers of employment.

Job opportunities can range from:

  • Manufacturing
  • Engineering
  • Sales and Marketing
  • Transportation
  • Business Management and Administration

By leveraging your base load renewable energy resource, innovative industry can also access business advantages that can only be found on reservations. Some of these advantages include:

  • HUBZone Status: a Small Business Administration program known as Historically Underutilized Business Zones, or HUBZones, provides contracting assistance to small businesses located in economically distressed communities.
  • 8A Business Development Program: this program was created to help small and disadvantaged businesses compete in the marketplace. It also helps these companies gain access to federal and private procurement markets.
  • Small Disadvantaged Business Status: this status, given by the Small Business Administration, makes a company eligible for bidding and contracting benefit programs involved with federal procurement.