Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs

Tribal Housing Authorities: Advancing Energy Projects Through Informed Collaboration

May 10, 2016

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Six PV arrays generate 32 kW of energy to power 20 units at the AHA Sunrise Acres housing complex on the Saint Regis Mohawk Reservation. Photo by Rachel Sullivan, National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Tribal housing authorities often play a major role in facilitating energy development projects for the communities they serve. In fact, of the 16 projects selected to receive funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Indian Energy in March 2016, two are headed up by housing authorities.

We asked Retha Herne, Executive Director of the Akwesasne Housing Authority (AHA) in Hogansburg, New York, and Darien Cabral, Director of Development for the Northern Pueblos Housing Authority (NPHA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to share some of the insights and lessons they culled from their experience leading solar projects for the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe and the Picuris Pueblo. And while both conversations underscored the importance of collaborating with federal, state, and local stakeholders, they also revealed some other commonalities that contributed to the success of their projects, including:

Getting the Community on Board

First, the housing authorities obtained community buy-in. “Both tribal leadership and community members are very important stakeholders and . . . the countless historical, cultural, and environmental philosophies that [we incorporated] through involving the people and utilizing governmental policies were integral to our progress,” said Herne. Securing the support of tribal leadership was key for NPHA as well, and they maintained it through continuous communication. “We briefed the Governor and Tribal Council every step of the way, and having them there made a tremendous difference,” Cabral noted.

Establishing a Community Energy Plan

Herne and Cabral also emphasized the importance of a strategic plan in getting the community on board. AHA and the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe participated in strategic energy planning workshops facilitated by the Office of Indian Energy through on-request technical assistance. “These goals had to be shared and cultivated,” Herne said, “and we needed a community-wide plan to research, assess, adopt, and harness the many renewable resources available to us.”

Picuris Pueblo participated in a similar DOE-led strategic energy planning workshop. One of the goals the Tribe established through that effort was to serve as a model for other Native American communities looking to implement renewable energy projects. According to Cabral, the plan clearly outlined the objectives, phases, and steps for all stakeholders, and it communicated that they were invested in a cause. “Having complete cooperation from the Tribe made a tremendous difference,” he said. “The original community energy plan helped to lay that groundwork.”

Building Strategic Partnerships

Early on, AHA and NPHA recognized that, in addition to getting buy-in from tribal stakeholders, they needed to amass support from external strategic partners. Herne looked for organizations that had philosophies and goals in common with the Tribe, and paid attention to how each could play a part in advancing tribal energy projects that supported those common goals. In addition to the Office of Indian Energy, AHA sought assistance from AMERIND Risk, the National American Indian Housing Corporation, New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Native American Programs. NPHA also worked with the Office of Indian Energy and leveraged the support of a variety of other external stakeholders, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an energy finance company, local utility Kit Carson Electric, and DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Completed in October 2015, Picuris Pueblo's solar-powered fire station is New Mexico’s first net zero energy building. Photo from Picuris Pueblo.

Thinking Outside the Box

Both housing directors also led with a keen understanding of the needs and challenges of their communities. That—along with their desire to help—inspired out-of-the-box thinking and new approaches to making electricity more affordable for low-income families who were feeling the pinch.

Herne pointed to the community’s needs as the “driving force” in AHA’s work. “We knew that utility costs were becoming a challenge for families to maintain,” she said, explaining that this drove them to learn to trust outside agencies with the expertise to identify funding sources and/or consult on the feasibility of various projects.

The energy and economic challenges and goals of Picuris Pueblo also factored into NPHA’s innovative approach to structuring and funding their project. “A major community goal was to become 100% solar powered, but no one really knew if this was possible,” said Cabral. “So we sat down with the Kit Carson CEO, who was willing to sign a power purchase agreement at $0.09 per kilowatt-hour and … facilitate the interconnection.”

After doing preliminary analysis on the site, NPHA applied for and was awarded technical assistance through the Office of Indian Energy’s Strategic Technical Assistance Response Team (START) Program in July 2015, which Cabral said helped NPHA obtain insolation and power generation estimates at a site initially identified by the utility as ideal for a 1-megawatt (MW) solar array. The NPHA also applied for and obtained a small grant from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to cover preconstruction planning and sought funding for the installation through the Office of Indian Energy’s 2015 Deployment of Clean Energy and Energy Efficiency on Indian Lands funding opportunity.

Meanwhile, opportunities for less conventional means of funding presented themselves. Cabral recalled how he stumbled upon a private letter ruling issued by the IRS in 2013. “It basically stated that a private tax equity investor could take the 30% Investment Tax Credit for a renewable project on Indian land based on the market value of the project, regardless of what was actually invested. I had to pinch myself a few times on that one.”

At first, Cabral explained, NPHA ran up against some obstacles seeking investors for their solar project. “Most firms we spoke to were large, were not interested in a 1-MW project, did not ‘work with Indians’, and did not do projects partially funded by a grant,” he said. They persevered, however, and things began to line up. “Kit Carson had a request for proposals out to purchase power. A small energy firm applied to sell energy to Kit Carson [and] …. besides selling and trading power, they were looking for small energy investments in places where the ‘big guys’ didn’t play.”

That turned out to be the break NPHA was looking for.

Making the Business Case

“We have been working closely with their attorney and our legal people to set up an acceptable structure where we could use the tax equity as investment return … making the project very lucrative for the Tribe,” said Cabral. “We crunched numbers … and developed a financial and organizational structure.”

Winning the support of a broad set of internal and external stakeholders required both housing authorities to build a strong case for the energy and money that could be saved in defense of the bottom line. Herne said demonstrating costs would continue to rise with a business-as-usual approach—as well as examining the risks posed by climate change versus the benefits of increasing climate preparedness and resiliency—made the need for energy efficiency and renewable energy measures more palpable. “This was the catalyst to AHA’s newfound philosophy to adopt alternative and green methods as much as possible,” she said. And Cabral had a similar story: the preliminary analysis, the funding and technical assistance available to NHPA through DOE, and the identification of a good site for solar arrays all brought the potential return on investment into focus.

Maintaining Momentum

“We have been working closely with their attorney and our legal people to set up an acceptable structure where we could use the tax equity as investment return … making the project very lucrative for the Tribe,” said Cabral. “We crunched numbers … and developed a financial and organizational structure.”

Winning the support of a broad set of internal and external stakeholders required both housing authorities to build a strong case for the energy and money that could be saved in defense of the bottom line. Herne said demonstrating costs would continue to rise with a business-as-usual approach—as well as examining the risks posed by climate change versus the benefits of increasing climate preparedness and resiliency—made the need for energy efficiency and renewable energy measures more palpable. “This was the catalyst to AHA’s newfound philosophy to adopt alternative and green methods as much as possible,” she said. And Cabral had a similar story: the preliminary analysis, the funding and technical assistance available to NHPA through DOE, and the identification of a good site for solar arrays all brought the potential return on investment into focus.

DOE Co-funds Tribal Solar Projects

Faced with the highest energy costs in the state of New York, the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe and Akwesasne Housing Authority are paving the way for the Tribe to go green. Having already implemented several energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, the Tribe plans to leverage funding from DOE’s Office of Indian Energy to install 615 kilowatts of solar photovoltaics (PV)—providing clean energy to numerous low-income tribal members' residences and other buildings on the Reservation, creating 11 jobs, and saving nearly $0.5 million over 30 years.
Although it is the smallest, most isolated, and poorest of the New Mexico’s 19 Pueblo tribes, Picuris Pueblo, in partnership with Northern Pueblos Housing Authority, is making progress toward its renewable energy vision. The Tribe has completed several solar projects including a solar-powered fire station—New Mexico’s first net zero energy building. The Tribe plans to leverage funding from DOE’s Office of Indian Energy to construct a 1-MW solar array to offset 100% of the energy currently being consumed by the 50 homes and 12 tribal buildings on Pueblo trust land. The Pueblo currently has a power purchase agreement with the local electrical cooperative and expects to net nearly $6.5 million over the 25-year project period.