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Supporting Tribal Energy Sovereignty in the Clean Energy Future

Updated: Jun 8, 2023

By MPCO Staff

When the California Energy Commission (CEC) says, it’s leading the state to a 100 percent clean energy future for all, that “all” means energy equity in planning, funding, and realizing.

It was never truer than this March when Commissioners from the CEC and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) met on California’s North Coast with Native American tribal leaders. They discussed difficulties with sufficient energy infrastructure and the transition to clean energy that Native American peoples face across the state—and set goals to do something about it.

The three-day gathering occurred in Humboldt County. That week's snow and dangerous travel conditions underscored the roadblocks and slow-downs California tribes navigate in daily life and utilities.

Day 1: Getting the Lay of the Land

On March 1, the Karuk Tribe and the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe, in coordination with the Cal Poly Humboldt Schatz Energy Center, hosted the SAFE Symposium at the Blue Lake Rancheria Casino and Hotel, which has its own renewable-energy microgrid to ensure reliable energy for its campus and an American Red Cross evacuation center.

SAFE stands for Smoke, Air, Fire, and Energy, all considered sacred to generations of tribal communities. During roundtable sessions, tribal representatives explained that if smoke, air, fire, and energy are applied in good ways, and if people are good stewards of the land, they can return to a more balanced life. The participants discussed air quality (especially regarding wildfires), broadband access, energy reliability, and offshore wind development.

A warm welcome for the day’s events at the Blue Lake Rancheria Casino and Hotel.

DAY 2: The En Banc in Arcata

The CEC and CPUC hosted the next day’s en banc — a meeting with all commissioners present— coordinating with tribes and the Schatz Energy Center at Cal Poly Humbolt in Arcata. It was the first CEC and CPUC en banc to focus on tribal affairs. It included tribal leaders, California Natural Resources Agency representatives, and the Office of Indian Energy Policy and Affairs in the United States Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This sharing of perspectives and priorities on advancing clean energy was an opportunity for all parties to be at the table, working in good faith to create a path toward more equitable use and development of resources after generations of power imbalance.

The en banc took place in the Native American Forum, a room designed to mimic a traditional space where a fire would illuminate the center of the room. On that day, a giant skylight provided illumination — a clean-energy take on tradition. As Katrina Leni-Konig, CEC deputy public advisor and tribal liaison put it, “We were all gathered around this ‘fire,’ and I think it really set the tone for the event.”

Jana Ganion of the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe speaks during the en banc.

CEC Chair David Hochschild led the CEC’s speakers, saying, “On behalf of all of us, I want to thank the tribal leaders for what I think is incredibly inspiring work that's happening in the North Coast. The largest dam removal project in the world is underway, and the first of those four dams will get removed this summer.” He noted the remote nature of many tribal communities, emphasizing the importance of building microgrids such as the successful CEC-funded Blue Lake Rancheria microgrid, which has “kept the lights on over the last five years since it was installed . . . just an incredible example of partnership.”

Throughout the day, speakers contributed various perspectives on problems and solutions. Chairman Joseph L. James of the Yurok Tribe gave an overview of the years of work that went into securing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s approval of removing four old dams on the Klamath River that were no longer needed for energy generation. He explained the importance of re-opening the river couldn’t be overstated — to the river's health, the salmon and animals that live in or around it, and especially the people — including the Yurok and Karuk, who depend on it.

Linnea Jackson from the Hoopa Valley Tribe described how many tribal communities are in areas with California’s least reliable electricity service. The March en banc explored opportunities for resilient, renewable microgrids that better serve community needs and model clean energy solutions related to decarbonization, resilience, and equity for the rest of the state. Putting words into action, the CEC gave an overview of its tribal-focused application to the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnerships (GRIP) program to create a portfolio of tribal energy resilience projects with the CPUC, tribes, utilities, and project developers.

The moment that seemed to have the most profound effect on all participants came when CEC Commissioner Noemí Gallardo read the CEC’s three-page resolution committing to support California tribal energy sovereignty. The vote to pass the resolution received a standing ovation.

This resolution establishes goals such as increasing access to funding and enhancing consultation and economic diversification. It also details actions such as developing capacity and technical assistance resources, dedicating tribal set-asides, and enhancing land use considerations around protecting tribal cultural resources in planning clean energy projects. The CEC also committed to the development of a Tribal energy sovereignty policy.

Chairman Joseph L. James of the Yurok Tribe said, “This is a historic moment. The California Energy Commission’s support for tribal energy sovereignty and independence is good for us, and it sets a strong precedent for all of Indian Country. I look forward to working with the CEC on developing the tribal energy policy. The policy will empower and strengthen tribes across the state.”

Visitors aboard the Coral Sea research vessel learn about offshore wind development’s impact on Humboldt Bay.

DAY 3: The River Wild

On the last day, the group shipped out aboard Cal Poly Humboldt’s research vessel, the Coral Sea. Guides from several tribes, the Humboldt Bay Harbor District and Cal Poly Humboldt, showed where the harbor would be developed for offshore wind. They explained some of what’s needed to drive development while protecting the livelihoods already dependent on the harbor and sea.

The trip ended in a celebration of sovereignty with the Yurok Tribe, commemorating the Klamath Dam removal as well as the adoption of the tribal energy sovereignty resolution. The Tribe led participants on a redwood canoe tour, showcasing some of the eco-tourism that bolsters the Yurok economy. That same day, the CEC received notice that the California Tribal Energy Resiliency Alliance project concept for the GRIP funding opportunity was approved by the DOE to move forward to the next phase of application, impeccably timed to provide a very hopeful end to the North Coast gatherings.

Members of the CEC and CPUC paddle a traditional Yurok redwood canoe across the Klamath River.

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