The Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana sits on land right next to Glacier National Park, drawing thousands of visitors per year for its beauty. The mountains are high, and the winds are fast.
So fast, in fact, that when Blackfeet Community College, a tribal college on the edge of the reservation, put up a windmill to try to harness some of that power, the project was short-lived.
“The wind destroyed them all,” said Curtis Henriksen, facilities director at the college. “You get gusts up so high, then it calms and it gusts again. That’s what does the windmills in.”
Renewable energy at tribal colleges is about more than cost savings and utility bills. Staff at some tribal colleges say that for them, energy projects connect them to their culture and build tribal sovereignty.
“Our culture is centered around the sun and the natural environment,” said Melissa Weatherwax, institutional development director at Blackfeet Community College. “We have a beautiful landscape that we have to take care of and maintain.”
That may be why President Biden, in his first budget request, called for $450 million for climate mitigation and resilience projects in Indian Country — with some amount going to help transition tribal colleges to renewable energy.
But transitioning to renewables isn’t like flipping a switch. It can take years for a campus to work out the kinks in its system. The learning curve for renewable energy equipment can be steep, and in some places, getting it to work correctly can depend on the initiative of just a few individuals.
At Turtle Mountain Community College, for example, it took the college about two years to start actually saving money using its wind turbine.
“Whenever you put sustainability down, if it’s not controlled, it’s like putting a locomotive down railroad tracks, just running full steam all the time,” said Wes Davis, director of facilities and sustainability at Turtle Mountain.
After one electrical consultant led the college astray in the project, Davis said, he took it upon himself to learn to manage the equipment in an efficient way. That meant learning when to switch between wind and geothermal energy in campus buildings. Eventually, the college saved $250,000 per year on energy costs.
Maintenance was also an obstacle, Davis said. The Turtle Mountain campus is over 150 miles away from any major city, and affording workers to fix the equipment was a challenge. The campus eventually figured out how to do those tasks in house.
At Sitting Bull College, founded by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, a company in Vermont monitors its 1-megawatt turbine and performs maintenance. Because of high winds and icy temperatures, the turbine has to be turned off regularly to protect the blades and bearings. While the project saves the campus money, that partnership also costs a little over $7,000 per year.
Officials at Turtle Mountain say they want to partner with other tribal colleges to help them avoid the growing pains that their campus had in its first few years of using renewable energy. For example, college staff had to learn about rural power co-ops and how to negotiate with utility companies. Currently, Turtle Mountain sells the energy it produces to the electricity supplier for 2 cents per kilowatt hour. They buy it back for 7 cents.
“We had to really go to the table and really negotiate the best effort we could, and we still were held back,” said Davis. “Now we understand it — we’re educated. We know how to control these energies, and we know how to go to the table and battle with [rural power co-ops].”
At Blackfeet Community College, the college gets energy credits from the electric company for the power it creates with its solar panels. But those credits can only be used on one building, said Weatherwax. And if the building doesn’t use up all the credits, they expire. The energy goes back to the utility company.
“What we don’t burn just goes back on the grid, and after so long the power company just takes that without paying us anything for it,” Henriksen said. The building in question is LEED-certified platinum, so it’s already quite efficient.
The cost of renewable energy infrastructure is high, even if a campus saves money in the long term. The largest turbine at Sitting Bull College cost about $1 million and was paid for by a grant. If the college had to pay for the turbine itself, it would have taken about 20 years to recoup the cost through energy savings, said Koreen Ressler, vice president of operations.
Even with grants, payment can be difficult. Blackfeet Community College paid for its solar panels using a grant from the Department of Energy. But the grant initially stipulated that the college had to match the money in private funding (that changed with the pandemic). The college operates mostly off federal funds and brings in very little private philanthropy.
“It’s really hard for us,” said Weatherwax. “You really have to know what your funding landscape is.”
Staff at all the colleges said they supported Biden’s proposed investment, even if it may take more than just money for renewable energy to be successful at tribal colleges. Davis, along with Turtle Mountain president Donna Brown, said they want to additionally focus on teaching students how to maintain and operate renewable energy equipment. That’s a goal at Blackfeet Community College, too. Many reservations have very high unemployment. On some, fossil fuel companies provide most of the jobs.
“If that dream ever comes true, where all of the facilities across the community — the stores, the tribal facilities — if they’re able to go all renewable energy,” said Weatherwax, “then we’re going to need a workforce to maintain those.”
Indigenous peoples always understood that the sun gives energy, Davis said.
“It grew things, it gave us light, it gave us heat,” he said. “This is our long-range plan. Sovereignty through sustainability.”