North Dakota's First Solar Farm Opens on Standing Rock Tribal Land

The CannonBall Community Solar Farm sits three miles from the Dakota Access Pipeline and on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Indian Reservation.
The CannonBall Community Solar Farm sits three miles from the Dakota Access Pipeline and on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Indian Reservation.
Photo: Courtesy of GivePower

In 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe launched a battle against an oil pipeline running across their ancestral lands. Despite their efforts gaining international attention, the 1,172 mile-long Dakota Access Pipeline was built anyway. The tribe lost that battle—but its members didn’t let that defeat stop them from tackling the greater issue at hand: climate change.

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Tribal members, alongside celebrities who joined the protests in 2016 like Mark Ruffalo (The Avengers) and Shailene Woodley (Big Little Lies) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), are celebrating North Dakota’s first solar farm Friday, which is also located on the tribal reservation. The CannonBall Community Solar Farm adds 300 kilowatts into the grid, which might not sound a lot, but it is for this community. Plus, it brings the tribe one step closer to ending its dependence on fossil fuels, which are driving the climate crisis.

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The solar farm will save the community $7,000 to $10,000 annually in energy costs. This money will go back into the community with the hopes of creating a scholarship program to help protect their native Lakota language, said Hayes Baynard, the CEO of GivePower, one of the nonprofits that is partnering on the project and invested $370,000 in it. The farm’s total cost was $470,000.

While nonprofits like GivePower, Empowered by Light, and Jinko Solar helped fund this project, the idea belongs to Cody Two Bears, the executive director of Indigenized Energy and former Standing Rock tribal council member. He reached out to a few of these groups during the height of the Standing Rock mobilization because he saw solar energy as the best way to combat this pipeline and the greater fossil fuel industry.

“I never thought that pipelines would come in my backyard. I never thought that fossil fuels would affect my community or affect our people, our sacred sites, our water, our lands—and devastate them,” Two Bears told Earther. “It’s one thing to protest about it, to talk about it, but now we got to be about it.”

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The solar farm connected to the grid back in February, but it won’t go live until August. When it does, it’ll power the Cannonball Youth Activity Center where community events are held—and where the public came to take showers and eat during the Standing Rock protests—and it’ll power the Veterans Memorial Building where thousands of veterans who came out to support the pipeline opponents stayed in 2016.

The new project truly has roots where these efforts first began.

“So what better way to actually help offset the very first phase one? Those two buildings because they played a key role in the movement, as well, to helping a lot of people and housing people and feeding people,” Two Bears said.

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Interest in renewable energy has been growing across Native American communities in the U.S. The Navajo Nation, which is dealing with the closure of a coal plant that fueled much of its income, has set its eyes on solar instead. The Navajo Nation is gearing up to build its third solar farm. The Moapa Band of Paiutes in Nevada, another community previously dependent on the coal industry, signed an agreement last month for a new solar farm and storage system. The tribe was the first to build a utility-scale solar project on tribal lands.

“It’s pretty amazing that we see indigenous communities adopting renewable energy from coast to coast,” said Melina Laboucan-Massimo, who studies climate change, renewables, and indigenous knowledge as a fellow for the David Suzuki Foundation, to Earther. “For me, as an indigenous person, it’s also a lot more in alignment with our indigenous worldview and philosophy about reciprocity and connection to the Earth and ensuring we protect the Earth, we protect the water, the land.”

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Cody Two Bears is leading this project.
Cody Two Bears is leading this project.
Photo: Courtesy of GivePower

Two Bears has plans to expand solar on the reservation beyond what the farm currently offers. Eventually, Indigenized Energy will be running the farm all on its own without the help of its partners. Two Bears now has the training and knowledge to install panels throughout the tribal nation and the state.

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He wants to see solar panels on homes, too. That’s the ultimate goal, but that might be a while as current regulations don’t allow panels on government-issued homes, which most are on the reservation, Two Bears said. In the meantime, he hopes to add solar panels to schools and public service buildings. He expects the second phase to begin in the fall.

What’s happening in Standing Rock is a dramatic departure from North Dakota’s current energy scene. The state is the second highest producer of crude oil. While wind energy is expanding, the state hasn’t yet tapped into its solar potential, according to the Energy Information Administration. 

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Standing Rock won’t wait for other leaders to take charge. It’s changing the game.

The words “Standing Rock” were smudged onto one of the farm’s solar panels.
The words “Standing Rock” were smudged onto one of the farm’s solar panels.
Photo: Courtesy of GivePower
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Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.

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DISCUSSION

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Standing Rock Sioux are sitting almost smack dab in the middle of the US wind power mother load (or sweet spot). A proposed project called the Oceti Sakowin Power Project a 2,000 MW max capacity project that is kind of dangling in pre planning. This was a joint between the Clinton Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, etc. and the Standing Rock Sioux. The tribe should have teamed with big wind. Big wind knows renewables in the Great Plains.

The point: help push big wind, if Standing Rock Sioux want it. Wind is the money renewable in the northern Great Plains. Solar is fine, but probably very limited in feasibility in North Dakota - should expansion be wanted.

Now if we’re talking sweet spots - there’s probably no better sweet spot than where the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara) of Fort Berthold Reservation is. It’s located up river and up pipeline from Standing Rock:

The MHA reservation has collected over $1 billion since 2008 from bakken wells. Much of that oil this wealth is generated from flows through the Dakota Access Pipeline

http://www.ncsl.org/Portals/1/Documents/energy/Tribal_Energy/Fox_31737.pdf

In terms of energy production:

Oil from MHA Reservation:

1 barrel of oil in terms of energy is roughly: 1,700 kwh (kilowatt hours)

MHA Tribe wells produce about 75 million barrels per year

That’s 127 billion kwh/year.

Solar presently from Standing Rock reservation:

A 300 kw solar array generation: 300 kw x 365 x 24 x (capacity factor of 20%) = 523 thousand kwh/year

In summary:

127 billion kwh/yr from oil >>>>> 523 thousand kwh/yr from solar

On the other hand, a 2 GW wind farm mentioned above would generate: 2,000,000 kw x 365 x 24 x (capacity at 40%) = 7 billion kwh/year. That’s close to oil money, with very limited environmental damage.