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Northern California Tribe Harnesses Sun and Wind for Renewable Energy System

The 577-member Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria has installed a renewable microgrid system on their tribal lands in Loleta, California.

It’s sunny and windy on the northern coast of California. So why not put these elements to good use to help power a reservation, expand energy independence and reduce the carbon footprint? That’s the thinking behind the decision by the 577-member Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria to install a renewable microgrid system on their tribal lands in Loleta.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first renewable hybrid microgrid installed by a California tribe,” Edwin Smith, director of Environment and Natural Resources, told ICTMN.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a microgrid is an independent power system that can stand on its own, without being attached to the larger power grid. It is this energy independence that is especially attractive to the Bear River tribe. ���From a sovereignty perspective, there is something to be said for trying to get off the grid and not be reliant on outside energy sources,” said Matthew Mattson, executive director of tribal government operations. “By converting to this technology, there will be no interruptions to tribal operations in any way. Employees will still be able to come to work and turn on their computers, lights will turn on in the community center. Nothing will be different, except the tribe will be providing its own power.”

Mattson said it also makes good financial sense to switch to this renewable energy system. “The cost for solar and wind technology has come down, and battery technology is also improving. When the tribe analyzed the cost of the system versus the power savings over a 10-year period, the project penciled out financially.”

What makes the microgrid system so unique, without getting too technical, is the size of the wind turbines. They have only 28-inch blades and will be mounted 3 feet off the ground -- unlike giant wind turbines on wind farms -- so there is far less noise.

JLM Energy, a California-based firm, has been selected as the project contractor, and will begin installing the microgrid system next week. Initially, the project will focus on powering up the Tishnon Community Center, a 6,500-square foot facility that serves as a central hub for many tribal operations, including government services, tribal court, a library, a daycare center for 30 children, and a community hall sometimes rented out to the public for weddings, proms, fundraisers and the like.

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According to Mattson, another positive outcome from this project could be employment opportunities for Bear River Natives. “JLM has agreed to work with and train interested tribal members in installing solar panels,” he said. However, a spokesperson for JLM could not confirm this arrangement. “We have a very loose agreement and that has not been resolved. But of course, we want the tribe to be as involved as it can be. We have worked cooperatively in developing this project and will do so in the installation process,” Pamela Biery told ICTMN.

If all goes well and the tribe is able to generate the power it needs after a year, Mattson said they would likely expand microgrid power to other facilities on the 170-acre reservation.

As for the Bear River Band leading the way within Indian country as pioneers in renewable energy, Mattson said that was never the point. “We aren’t doing it to be innovators or for the sake of saying, ‘Hey, look at us.’ But if it works and it prompts other tribes to look at a similar solution, than that’s a great side benefit.”

Lynn Armitage is a contributing business writer and enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.