The 2016 Cayuse Mountain Fire was the second largest in Washington state that summer. Fire crews from the Colville Tribes and the Kalispel Tribe helped the Spokane Tribe fight the blaze, which jumped the Spokane River onto the reservation in three separate locations. Water ran low. Pumps stopped working when the electricity was cut off and homeowners couldn’t defend their property. Crews couldn’t get into active wildfire areas to replace burned power poles and downed lines. Without electricity, tribal firefighters couldn’t pump well water for fire suppression.
The fierce blaze consumed 14 homes and displaced nearly 50 people on the Spokane Indian Reservation. It burned more than 18,000 acres, destroyed 14 tribal homes, and cut power to main administrative buildings and water supply. But the community is trying to get back to normal life with a project that “is born of fire” — a solar initiative that is designed to foster resilience, autonomy, and sustainability.
The extended outage strengthened the Spokane Tribe’s resolve to work toward energy independence. In reaction, the Spokane Tribe of Indians has gone solar.
“The 2016 Cayuse Mountain Fire stimulated us to look at going solar because of the impact it had on the reservation,” said Tim Horan, Executive Director of the Spokane Tribal Housing Authority.
The Tribe embarked on an investment in 650 kilowatts of solar capacity, and, eventually, will bring in battery storage. The work is part of a multiyear effort to expand solar energy on the sunny, 159,000-acre reservation west of Spokane. When the project is complete, it will save more than $2.8 million over 35 years, strengthen community resilience, create new economic opportunity, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“The Spokane Tribe of Indians is bringing together tribal leaders and project partners to celebrate the Children of the Sun Solar Initiative (COSSI). The Children of the Sun Solar Initiative puts us on a path to energy independence, climate resiliency, and tribal power sovereignty — eventually, we could be self-sufficient,” Horan continued.
Installation of 650 kW of solar is underway for 23 homes and nine Tribal community buildings, including the Tribal Administrative Building, Spokane Tribe Senior Center and senior housing, and the Spokane Tribal Fish Hatchery. GRID Alternatives, which uses a people-first model to make clean, affordable solar power and solar jobs accessible to low-income communities and communities of color, is providing hands-on solar installation training for Tribal employees and community members throughout construction.
Winter heating on the reservation comes from electricity, propane, or wood. Electricity produced from the sun’s rays will flow into the grid, resulting in a credit on customers’ bills. After the tribe previously installed solar panels on 6 other housing units, one housing tenant saw her monthly electric bill drop from a high of $242 to about $8 per month with the credits, Horan said.
A number of project partners, including the US Department of Energy, GRID Alternatives, the Wells Fargo Foundation, SunVest, and the Housing of Urban Development NW Office of Native American Programs, are joining together for a solar celebration and tour of the solar facilities, followed by a policy discussion. COSSI was awarded funding from the US Department of Energy and, in 2018, was the first project selected for funding from the Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund (TSAF). This is a tribal-led initiative launched with seed funding from the Wells Fargo Foundation that seeks to catalyze the growth of solar energy and expand solar job opportunities in tribal communities.
GRID Alternatives: Co-Sponsor & Solar Initiative Advocacy
GRID Alternatives, one of the project’s co-sponsors, has been a longtime friend of CleanTechnica. In 2018 GRID Alternatives completed its 10,000th residential solar system installation with a total power of 42 megawatts. Those installations are saving families more than $300 million in lifetime energy costs and preventing 850,000 tons of carbon emissions.
With the selection of a new director for the Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund (TSAF), Tanksi Clairmont, who is an enrolled tribal member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate (Dakota) and a member of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate, GRID Alternatives now has both continuity and forward thinking. She’s now overseeing the $5 million fund, which aims to catalyze the growth of solar energy and expand solar job opportunities in tribal communities. (If you’d like to read our interview with Clairmont earlier this year, click here.)
“The Children of the Sun Solar Initiative was the first project selected for TSAF funds, and we’re excited to see it come to life,” said Tanksi Clairmont, Director of the Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund. “Through this new solar project, the Spokane Tribe of Indians is building energy security and resilience while providing solar education and workforce training.”
As the US works toward producing more renewable energy, recent solar industry data indicates that the impacts when women and other underrepresented groups are offered a “classroom in the field,” or hands-on solar career experiences, are profound. That’s what’s happening with the Children of the Sun Solar Initiative.
The rapid growth in solar energy presents a challenge for the industry — what are the best ways to teach the next generation of scientists, engineers, and technicians who will implement solar technologies on a greater scale and integrate these resources into energy systems? Making renewable energy technology like this Spokane tribe solar initiative and job training accessible to traditionally underserved communities is necessary for a successful transition to clean, renewable energy that includes everyone.
While the lands, waters, and other natural resources of Indigenous peoples hold sacred cultural significance, they also play a principal role in ensuring the viability of these communities’ economies and livelihoods, according to chapter 15 of The Fourth National Climate Assessment. Tribal trust lands provide habitat for more than 525 species listed under the Endangered Species Act, and more than 13,000 miles of rivers and 997,000 lakes are located on federally recognized tribal lands.
When we ask how a system of environmental impacts is embedded within common technologies, we need to look at interconnections. A renewable energy project like the Children of the Sun Solar Initiative is a link that helps to maintains cultural traditions while also moving forward for energy — and community — independence.