Standing Rock Reservation, North Dakota – More than four years ago, the roads and rolling plains north of the Cannon Ball settlement on Standing Rock Reservation were strewn with tear gas, private security squadrons and thousands of environmentalists protesting a new oil pipeline. While life has settled down since then, change is very much afoot again.
Driving along state route 1806 towards Cannon Ball, the sun irradiates off a large, shiny surface in the distance – a farm of 1,100 solar panels. In a landscape dominated by grassland and crops, it’s a jarring sight, though one that represents an important and revolutionary milestone for the reservation.
Thirty-five-year-old Cody Two Bears from Cannon Ball is the driving force behind the 300-kilowatt solar farm – North Dakota’s first, which formally opened last year – and he dreams of bringing solar-powered energy infrastructure and “energy sovereignty” to Native American reservations around the United States.
“It’s pretty amazing for high-poverty communities like Cannon Ball and Standing Rock. This is a big deal,” said Two Bears, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “warrior”. Before the reservation declared a shelter-in-place order due to the coronavirus, the electricity the solar farm produced powered a local gym, a youth activity centre and Cannon Ball’s veterans building, where dozens of meals were served to the elderly.
“This is over 50 percent of all the solar infrastructure [in the state],” Two Bears added. “We still have a lot of coal-powered plants. So, our co-ops and electricity companies don’t necessarily like things like this coming on to their grid because it takes away a little from coal jobs. Something like this is very special. But this is only the beginning.”
With backing from non-profits GivePower and Empowered By Light and several private investors, the solar farm is expected to wipe around $10,000 off Cannon Ball’s municipal utility bill in its first year.
A former local council leader, Two Bears has put to good use the energy and community forged from the Dakota Access oil pipeline protest movement of 2016-2017. Hollywood stars Mark Ruffalo and Shailene Woodley as well as Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg have voice support or visited the reservation over the last year.
The majority of Standing Rock residents live in government-owned, decades-old trailers unsuitable for North Dakota’s brutal winters, which results in huge fuel bills for an already impoverished community. “How does renewable energy bring people out of poverty? How does it create jobs? That’s what we’re at,” Two Bears said.
As executive director of the non-profit Indigenized Energy, a co-partner in the solar farm, Two Bears hopes he can help Native American communities such as his own become energy independent. Last year, he helped coordinate North Dakota’s first-ever solar training event while in September Indigenized Energy was part of a group that provided electricity to the first-ever solar-powered powwow celebration in Bismarck, North Dakota.
“[Two Bears’ solar farm] is showing both the Indian and non-Indian communities that we have a sustainable future with green energy,” said Avis Little Eagle, editor of the Teton Times newspaper and councilwoman-at-large for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. “This solar farm gives us hope that our future generations will survive and thrive and remain resilient despite the growing threat of climate change.”
But the challenges to solar and renewable energy on the Great Plains – political, infrastructural and policy-wise – are not insignificant. After Texas, North Dakota is the US’s largest oil producer – and while ranking last in solar energy output. According to the US Energy Information Administration, 60 percent of the state’s energy production comes from crude oil, 33 percent from gas and coal and the remainder – just seven percent – is from renewables, mainly wind.
“They [the state government] don’t want to lose their fossil fuels because they believe in it and because they get a huge tax [payment] off of oil production,” said Two Bears, who had to go as far as California to find a company that would insure the solar farm. “When you put up something like this, it takes away from that.”
Other difficulties include getting access to the existing infrastructure because local transmission lines are owned by a utility. Two Bears said that were the tribe to own the transmission lines and substations serving the reservation, the solar-produced electricity could be delivered straight into peoples’ homes. But because homes in Standing Rock and on reservations across the US are, for the most part, government-owned, the project has so far been blocked from mounting solar panels on residential homes.
The fact that solar is land-intensive represents another barrier. “[That’s] one of the greatest challenges the industry faces in North Dakota,” said North Dakota Democratic Representative Corey Mock. “Specifically, North Dakota has a state rule designed to preserve prime farmland for production agriculture.”
Two Bears’s efforts have also been slowed down due to the coronavirus pandemic. He had plans to construct solar on reservation schools and community centres this year, but, he says, the virus has slowed those efforts.
Despite the barriers to solar in North Dakota, renewable energy is slowly turning mainstream across the US’s heartland. The North Dakota Public Service Commission has approved a commercial solar farm near Fargo that would be the first of its kind. Two Bears said he hopes to eventually train young people here and on reservations elsewhere in solar energy production and upkeep.
Solar is a model he believes that all high-poverty communities – not just Indigenous ones – need to look at. “In poor communities, it means a lot of empowerment,” he said.
“We’re the original environmentalists of this land. It makes sense for us to utilise this technology with our cultural values.”