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In Search of Funding, Tribal Communities Are Turning to Corporate Investment to Embrace Solar Power

7 minute read

The very first utility-scale solar plant on tribal land in the continental U.S. began operating just five years ago. Built on some 2,000 acres on the Moapa River Indian Reservation in Clark County, Nevada, the 250 megawatt project provides enough electricity for over 100,000 homes each year; all power generated is sold some 300 miles away to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. In the next two years, two more major Moapa-led utility-scale projects will come online—at a combined 500 megawatts, the additions will be among the biggest yet on tribal lands.

While the first project benefitted from a $2.38 million grant from the Department of Agriculture, these solar farms likely would not have been possible without a slew of partnerships with energy companies. The outcome is millions of dollars in tribal revenue along with steady clean-energy jobs. Increasingly, tribes across the country have started to think big about solar. In a rush to accelerate clean-energy development, private companies and individual entrepreneurs are finally investing in Indigenous-led solar projects. While such projects are and will remain under Indigenous community control, private capital is essential to allowing tribes to tap into their renewable resources in a serious way.

Tribal lands comprise approximately 2% of the U.S., but hold 5% of all the country’s renewable energy resources, according to a 2013 study commissioned by the Office of Indian Energy at the Department of Energy (DOE). This includes an estimated 14 billion megawatts of potential electricity generation from utility-scale rural solar resources—5.1% of the total U.S. potential.

Today, while dozens of tribal communities across the U.S. are equipped with rooftop or community-scale solar (with over a dozen more projects on the way), tribes increasingly want to expand to utility-scale and enter the energy market. But while government grants often help kick-start tribal renewable projects, it isn’t enough to keep them growing.

The difference in funding for utility-scale solar projects compared to individual local projects is profound. Rooftop and community solar is expensive enough, costing a few million dollars. Utility-scale behemoths can run into the hundreds of millions. To get there on government funding alone would require a seismic shift of congressional appropriation to cover the cost of everything from transmission line access to workforce training. “I think Congress needs to appropriate a threefold amount of investment in Indian Country just to meet those goals and to get to where we need to be for climate change,” says Tim Willink, director of the tribal solar program at GRID Alternatives, an environmental justice nonprofit that offers solar energy systems training and installation to underserved communities. Instead, many tribes are turning to philanthropy and corporate investors.

Renewable energy is appealing to tribal communities for a number of reasons: it offers self-sufficiency, lower energy costs, economic development, and the chance to adapt to climate change. Since 2010, the DOE has doled out 214 grants for green-energy projects, totaling over $85 million to 147 tribal nations, Alaskan Native villages and corporations, tribal utilities, tribal enterprises, and tribal nonprofits. No matter the size of the project, though, competing for and securing funding has long been a challenge. When it comes to rooftop solar, for example, unlike most other communities in the U.S., tribes aren’t eligible for the federal tax credits to reduce the upfront cost of these projects. This means, since 2013, tribes have lost out on directly benefiting from $4 billion in state distributed rebates and $15 billion in federal tax credits, according to a 2022 DOE study. Instead, the study notes, tribes and nonprofits must partner with third-party investors who can receive those tax credits such as nonprofits and private investors.

GRID Alternatives has worked with around 50 tribal nations to provide technical support, and the organization knows all too well the strain of searching for outside funding, says Willink. “It is time consuming, but it is doable.” This is where private funding can help make a difference. One major boost came in 2018, when GRID Alternatives’ tribal solar program got $5 million from Wells Fargo to launch a new Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund, which supports technical assistance and job training. Then, at the end of last year, another $12 million was donated by the Bezos Earth Fund. On average, just one of these corporate donations is roughly equal to all of the grants allocated by the DOE’s Office of Indian Energy this year—$9 million worth—most of which went to solar projects.

“As we’ve been able to carry out a number of projects, we’ve seen an increase in tribes approaching us, to enlist us as partners,” says Willink, who is indifferent to where the money comes from to support these projects; he’s for “diversified funding,” as he puts it. Often, the tribes GRID Alternatives works with are tackling their first renewable energy projects. And the potential is huge: a one megawatt solar project can help offset over 10% of a tribe’s emissions and save nearly $175,000 a year in electricity expenses. The nonprofit also plays a big role in building up a skilled workforce, filling training gaps to install, operate, and maintain such projects, a function that has expanded because of recent philanthropic dollars.

Once the groundwork is laid with local level installations and trained workers, communities are able to start thinking about scaling up further where the payoff could be even greater. “In the context of solar, the main difference is that the large utility-scale projects are selling power,” says Jake Glavin, founder of Woven Energy and executive director of Midwest Tribal Energy Resources Association (MTERA), “whereas with these community-scale and smaller-scale projects, they’re actually offsetting [electricity] purchases.”

With some tribes eyeing private funding, Glavin says, utility-scale projects could be a burgeoning space for them—and so far the Southwest is leading the way. But even there, where, according to a 2019 report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a “paradigm shift is at work….development of these resources has moved at an almost-glacial pace.” Last year, potentially signaling an uptick of interest, DOE hosted a webinar on how to develop utility-scale solar on tribal land.

One tribe looking to enter this space is the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, which has land in sunny southeastern Colorado, northern New Mexico, and southeastern Utah. After years of falling oil and gas revenue, a decade ago the tribe started looking for ways to boost their economy—and turned toward solar energy. Bernadette Cuthair, tribal citizen and director of planning and development for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, has been leading the charge. Thanks in part to her work, over the years the tribe has received a series of DOE grants to construct two small solar projects. “We’re done considering how to adapt,” says Scott Clow, environmental director for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. “We’re all about action.”

The tribe now wants to scale up. They are searching for investors to break ground on a utility-scale solar project that would not only serve their citizens, but deliver their solar energy to market. It’s a massive jump—going from community-level projects costing around $2 million to utility-scale energy generation requiring hundreds of millions of dollars—but the ambition is there. The goal, if they can secure the support, is to develop a 200 to 300-megawatt solar project, says Cuthair. “That is our appetite.”

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