Covenant Tribal Solar Initiative
One-line solution summary:
Diminishing poverty and fostering a return to self-reliance for Native Americans with robust tribal-led solar economic development programs.
Pitch your solution.
Covenant aims to diminish the rampant energy poverty that exists in Native American communities, restoring self-determination and hope to Native people. Covenant is led by a team of Native change agents in tribal communities, and solar industry technical, finance and workforce experts. Our our native-led solar economic/workforce development programs on the Northern Cheyenne and Standing Rock Sioux reservations are well underway, and we are expanding to meet demand from numerous tribes.
Our model is highly responsive to the social, economic, and environmental conditions of Indigenous communities. Empowering tribes and their members with the knowledge, skills, and tools required to eliminate the extractive energy systems in their portfolios...themselves...replacing them with clean, regenerative solar, we are leveraging and demonstrating the potential of solar energy as a mechanism which can completely transform entire economic, ecological, and social systems in the most marginalized and disadvantaged communities in the world.
What specific problem are you solving?
There are 573 federally-recognized American Indian/Alaska Native Tribes in the US. The current Native population is 6.79 million, with 30% living on reservations. The Energy Information Administration estimates 14% of Native American households don't have access to electricity. For those that do, it comes at great cost. Discriminatory pricing practices result in rates that are roughly twice the amount paid by non-Natives. Because 1-in-3 Native Americans in the U.S. lives in poverty, these high energy costs often force families to choose between food and electric heating of their homes. People resort to burning things to keep warm. When they run out of things to burn, some die of exposure to cold.
Existing and previous efforts to deploy solar energy in Indian Country have largely focused on one-off, externally managed projects that have value, but don’t address the core issue of poverty and joblessness in Native communities. The Covenant model is quite different. The effects of this program will help to eliminate the crippling effects of energy poverty among Native people, restore sovereignty to Indian tribes, while leading the way for communities across the globe to embrace more regenerative approaches to energy, health, and the stewardship of the Earth.
What is your solution?
This first-of-its-kind approach to tribal solar development empowers American Indian tribes to establish tribal utilities and create Native-owned solar businesses, enabling tribes and their members to reap 100% of the benefits of solar, rather than sending every dollar spent on energy outside of the community.
In partnership with tribal governments and colleges, Covenant deploys customized programs to train Native Americans in solar entrepreneurship, installation, maintenance, and financing. These programs prepare tribal members to develop, construct, and maintain solar energy systems in a way that is responsive to their unique economic, ecological, cultural, and social conditions, and that maximizes the inclusion and engagement of local labor and businesses.
Over several years, we have developed innovative, regenerative financial mechanisms which will support sustainable, solar-driven economies in tribal communities, built and led by Native people. Our systems-based engagement method is underpinned by a sophisticated and elegant approach to solar development - which weaves expertise in policy, economic development, workforce development, solar technology, and systems operations - to plan, design, build, and maintain solar energy systems in a manner that builds capacity for tribes to both eliminate energy poverty in their community, and reclaim their energy sovereignty.
Strong preference will be given to Native-led solutions that directly benefit and are located within the Indigenous communities. Which community(s) does your solution benefit?
Over two million people reside on Indian reservations in our country. Unemployment rates exceed 80%. 90% of tribal members live in poverty. Our work is focused on dramatically improving the lives of these Native Americans.
To understand... We convene wisdom and expertise from broad disciplines, to help build the capacity of Native American communities to deploy solar in a way that is responsive to their highly unique cultural, economic, and energy systems.
To engage... We partner Native leaders with solar experts to establish robust and financially regenerative education and technical ecosystems, creating jobs for Native people, serving their own communities.
To address their most critical needs... Our efforts have been designed to have rapid, positive impact on economic development, job creation, and the eradication of energy poverty in Native communities. Ultimately, tribal self-sufficiency is strengthened, sovereignty is preserved, and sacred covenants to preserve and protect Mother Earth are fulfilled.
Which dimension of the Fellowship does your solution most closely address?Increase access to jobs, financial capital, and skill development opportunities
Explain how the problem you are addressing, the solution you have designed, and the population you are serving align with the Challenge.
Rampant poverty in Native communities is exacerbated by discriminatory electricity prices. This solution directly addresses this crisis, fostering a return to sovereignty.
Our key strategies are unique: they are focused on creating jobs and re-localizing energy economies so 100% of the money spent on energy remains within a tribal community, and the tribe actually earns a return on it.
Our engagement method is carefully aligned with the ways tribes have naturally evolved for centuries. We build relationships with tribal governments, elders and youth, to establish trust and acceptance, and design interventions tailored to each indigenous community’s unique conditions.
In what city, town, or region is your solution team headquartered?Lame Deer, Montana, USA
What is your solution’s stage of development?Growth: An organization with an established product, service, or business model rolled out in one or, ideally, several communities, which is poised for further growth.
Explain why you selected this stage of development for your solution.
We are currently providing technical support and organizational capacity to two Tribes: the Standing Rock Sioux of North Dakota, and the Northern Cheyenne of Montana - with whom members of our team have had a pilot running for over a decade. We have completed solar projects and integrated training programs that educate and employ tribal members in all facets of solar. 2021 projects include development of residential, commercial and utility scale demonstration projects totaling over 3 megawatts, and expansion to two additional tribes.
Next steps are the establishment of a revolving fund, dedicated to financing solar projects on these and additional Indian reservations, and the development of the capacity, organizational readiness, and skilled workforce needed for Native American tribes to pursue solar energy development, and enable tribes to form their own cooperative electric utilities -- ultimately achieving energy independence, while honoring sacred covenants to protect the Earth.
Who is the Team Lead for your solution?
Otto Braided Hair
Please indicate the tribal affiliation of your primary delegate.
Is your primary delegate a member of the community in which your project is based?Yes
Which of the following categories best describes your solution?A new business model or process that relies on technology to be successful
Describe what makes your solution innovative?
There are numerous challenges to developing solar at scale in tribal communities. Traditionally, funding for solar development on reservations has been provided by the Federal government. Typically, these grants don’t provide enough money to cover the entire cost of a project, leaving tribes to find millions in matching funds. Poor management also hampers these solar projects in the majority of cases.
As such, Native American communities have been slow to make the oil- or coal-to-clean transition, despite the U.S. Department of Energy issuing an average of $7.8M in funding, annually. Financing these large projects is complicated. Typically, 50-50 partnerships are formed between a tribe and a project developer. Unfortunately, there are countless examples of how this model has failed over the years, leaving tribes with unfinished projects littering the land, and indebtedness to the Federal government and well-intentioned (and not so well-intentioned) developers.
Specific expertise is necessary to overcome some of these limitations. A deep understanding of tribal culture and governance, and significant technical and development savvy -- especially if we want to avoid falling into the same exploitative and discriminatory energy practices that have plagued Native American communities for over one hundred and sixty years.
Our innovative approach directly addresses these barriers. Success in this endeavor by American Indians will serve as inspiration and catalyst for indigenous communities all over the world to pursue clean, regenerative energy as a means to transform their energy systems in a way that promotes long-term economic development, health, wellbeing, and stewardship of Earth.
Describe the core technology that powers your solution.
Our model takes a culturally sensitive, inclusive, and systems based approach to addressing climate and energy challenges with solar energy. It supports ancient belief systems, while relying on modern solar technologies to solve some of indigenous Americans’ longest standing problems.
Three factors are converging making this the ideal time to deploy this new approach to solar development in tribal communities:
First, many American Indian tribes are on a trajectory towards extinction and are desperately in need of life-changing interventions in economic systems, as opposed to band-aid remedies.
Second, as coal and other fossil fuel technologies continue to become less economically viable, displaced workers from these industries, including many members of American Indian tribes, are well positioned to become the workforce needed to deploy new energy technologies in their communities.
Third, solar energy is now the lowest cost form of energy, and is a well-established reliable investment. Covenant Solar Initiative is taking advantage of the convergence of these powerful dynamics, working to secure its place in the global effort to advance solar and other cutting-edge renewable energy technologies in the communities that can most benefit from their effects.
Provide evidence that this technology works. Please cite your sources.
Solar photovoltaic technology (PV) provides a clean, safe, inexpensive and well-proven renewable power source. Any point where the sun hits the Earth is a potential location for generating solar power, so it is used all over the world. Because solar energy comes from the sun, it is an infinite source of power.
The concept of generating energy from the sun goes back to at least the 7th century B.C., when people used it to light fires with magnifying glasses. By the late 18th century, ships used solar ovens for long journeys. The first silicon-based photovoltaic cells were developed in 1954 at Bell Labs. The first use of solar panels were on satellites in the 1950s. [Source: Energy Information Administration]
Solar energy has several significant benefits, including eliminating or reducing electric bills and avoiding utility exploitation. Solar also protects the environment, creates jobs, and helps communities -- and whole countries -- become energy-independent.
In 2000, the International Energy Agency made a prediction that by 2020, the world would have a grand total of 18 gigawatts of photovoltaic solar capacity. Seven years later, the forecast would be proven spectacularly wrong when roughly 18 gigawatts of solar capacity were installed...in 2007 alone. [Source: International Energy Agency]
At the end of 2020, global grid-connected solar capacity reached over 600 Gigawatts, along with over 4 Gigawatts of off-grid PV, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. With solar now being the least expensive and most reliable source of energy in the world (in most places), it is replacing fossil-fueled energy at blinding speed, and improving lives, economies and the environment in the process. [Sources: US Dept. of Energy, International Renewable Energy Agency]
Please select the technologies currently used in your solution:
Does this technology introduce any risks? How are you addressing or mitigating these risks in your solution?
While the risks associated with well-planned solar installations are few, there are considerations. Large utility-scale solar farms take up a lot of space, which can result in environmental degradation and habitat loss. Covenant works closely with tribal and federal government to ensure that the arrays we install are located in areas where there will be minimal environmental impact, and zero impact to sacred sites.
Another risk of solar development is that the manufacturing of solar panels is a water-intensive process, even though the solar cells themselves don’t use water to generate electricity, and chemicals are used in the production of the panels. As with any innovation, a risk-benefit analysis is required before decisions are made to implement a new technology.
Relying on widely-available data, our team of tribal leaders and technical experts have determined that the benefits of solar development far outweigh the risks. These risk discussions are held with each tribe we engage with, prior to commencement of work.
What is your theory of change?
The primary problems we aim to solve are energy poverty and loss of self-reliance:
“For eons, my people were self-reliant. The earth provided for all of our needs. The devastating effects of colonization, westward expansion, manifest destiny, and the deliberate extermination of the buffalo by colonists stripped us of our ability to provide for ourselves, causing us to be dependent on outsiders for our survival,” - Otto BraidedHair (N.Cheyenne), Executive Director, Covenant Tribal Solar Initiative.
We engage in partnerships with tribal governments, traditional and spiritual leaders, and tribal members.
To bring about the change we envision, we take a culturally-sensitive, holistic approach to deploying solar technology, economic development, education, and job creation.
The incremental effects we see include dramatic improvements in the lives of Native families stricken by poverty:
"Solar has been life changing for our family. The solar panels save us hundreds of dollars every month which we use for food, clothing and medicine. Covenant introduced solar to our Tribe and they are teaching us how to implement it on our own so we can break away from the exploitation of the utility and create our own solar based economy. They are training our people for good solar jobs here on the reservation." - Anna WeaselBear OldCrane, Daughter of late Tribal Elder, Elsie WeaselBear, recipient of the first Covenant solar system at Northern Cheyenne
The long-term effects of our work will result in systems-level changes in the way dozens of tribes develop and use their energy resources, so 100% of the money spent on energy stays within the tribal community. Ultimately, poverty is diminished, self-sufficiency is restored, sovereignty is preserved, and sacred covenants to preserve and protect Mother Earth are fulfilled.
Our strategy is to intervene in the existing discriminatory, outsider-led, extractive energy systems foisted on Native American tribes.
So that the capacity of tribes and their leaders, organizations, and individuals to plan, develop, and maintain renewable energy resources is developed.
In a way that promotes long-term economic development and restores self-determination.
So that as many Native American tribes as possible can achieve energy independence.
Select the key characteristics of your target population.
Which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does your solution address?
How many people does your solution currently serve? How many will it serve in one year? In five years?
The Initiative currently has programs and projects underway which are directly serving 6,000 people on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, and, over 1,000 people in the community of Cannonball, on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
We are in the planning stages with additional tribes, including:
Chippewa Cree of Montana
Fort Peck Assinboine and Sioux Tribes of Montana
Oglala Sioux of South Dakota
Rosebud Sioux of South Dakota
Northern Arapaho of Wyoming
Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma
Potawatomi Tribe of Michigan
Within one year, we will be on the ground serving these Tribes on their Reservations, which translates to 3,000-5,000 Native people being directly served by, and benefitting from, the solar programs and projects which will be deployed by Covenant and partner tribes.
The exponential growth that is possible as we scale the program to service dozens and dozens of tribes over the course of the next five years means that tens of thousands of Native individuals will be served. A conservative estimate is 25,000 people by 2026.
What are your impact goals for the next year and the next five years, and -- importantly -- how will you achieve them?
The 5-year goal of Covenant is to positively impact 25,000 or more individuals' lives with the regenerative power of solar energy by engaged with at least 12 Native American tribes. As the Covenant model is both scaleable, replicable and can be deployed in virtually any tribal community, and given the tremendous positive response we have received from numerous tribes, we are very confident we will achieve and even surpass this goal.
We will achieve these goals in three primary ways:
1. Energy Master Planning: Assessment of a tribe's existing social, economic, and ecological systems; Mapping of existing energy infrastructure; Assessment of utility policies and programs; Development of long-term energy master plans; Design of strategic projects leading to the incremental pursuit and realization of energy master plans - all with a culturally-appropriate approach.
2. Capacity Building: Cultivating Native leaders who are empowered to guide energy transformation in their communities; Design of responsive and culturally sensitive training programs to engage tribal members in all facets of the energy industry; Empowerment of schools and tribal colleges to teach energy literacy and conduct job training that is responsive to planned renewable energy projects.
3. Renewable Energy Project Development: Supporting tribes in the planning, design, financing, construction, and operation of renewable energy projects in a way that builds capacity of the tribes and that contributes to the continuous evolution of energy systems in their communities.
Our penultimate goal is the achievement of energy independence by all American Indian tribes.
How are you measuring your progress toward your impact goals?
Impact Goal: Affordable Clean Energy
One of the most significant impacts Covenant can have is influencing a tribe - leading by example - to commit to eschewing fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy. The way tribal councils commit to significant changes on behalf of their tribal members is by making a formal "resolution".
Resolutions aren't created haphazardly. Rather, they are carefully contemplated, sometimes for many years, and often disputed - as was the case for our founding partner Tribe, the Northern Cheyenne, who struggled with whether to mine the coal that could eradicate the rampant poverty their people endure.
Therefore, when a resolution of this magnitude is enacted, it is simply profound. Our goal is to encourage 3 tribes/year to enact resolutions committing to renewables.
Impact Goal: No Poverty
Less money given to the utility companies - who charge Native people two or three times as much as non-Natives - means more money in the pockets of needy families. We aim to have a minimum of 50 homes/families/year benefitting from solar power.
Impact Goal: Decent Work & Economic Growth
We are teaching tribes how to make investments in renewable energy infrastructure in a way that drives the evolution of tribal communities by creating jobs, promoting long-term economic development, mitigating climate change, and caring for future generations on Earth. Our goal is to have the Covenant program induce a minimum of 10 jobs in each tribal community that we work in within the first year, and 50 within 5 years.
What barriers currently exist for you to accomplish your goals in the next year and in the next five years?
Covenant has emerged from a 20-year series of demonstration projects and partnerships on the Northern Cheyenne reservation that have helped define and refine its core processes: Energy planning, capacity building, and project support. Covenant is now working to adapt and deploy engagement practices with additional tribes. The limiting factor on the depth of these engagements and the scale of Covenant’s impact is the resource to support its core operations.
The current focus of Covenant is to build internal organizational capabilities to respond to tribes seeking support in their pursuit of non-fossil fuel energy strategies. Our efforts are also acutely focused on helping tribes to secure Federal funding that is currently available and will likely continue under the Biden administration and beyond.
The primary barrier which would hinder Covenant from achieving its goals in the short and long term is operational funding. Before we started actively seeking funding at the end of 2020, worked very carefully to craft our model so that it would be effective for the tribes we serve and appealing for donors. That strategy was successful, and we have secured over $1M since December 2020.
We were also careful to create a model that will allow us to scale our efforts up or down, depending on how much funding we might receive in a given year. We can(and do) operate on far less than our 2021 budget of $1.7M, annually. That being said, a barrier would be a reduction in mission interest and financial support over the years.
How do you plan to overcome these barriers?
Given the tremendous positive response we've had from the philanthropic community in our first year of funded work, we are confident the financial barriers are surmountable.
Once we have finished the bulk of work within a tribal community, the tribe will need ongoing support to maintain the solar infrastructures we have created together. Covenant provides this in the form of fee-for-service contracts. As the number of tribes we are working with increases on an annual basis, this fee-for-service revenue will also increase.
While there is reason to believe that pursuing this type of revenue could ultimately lead to self-sufficiency for Covenant, our leadership team feels that the importance of gaining trust in tribal communities through pro-bono work is essential to the success of Covenant, and our mission. Therefore, we expect that we will always be funded by philanthropy.
What type of organization is your solution team?
Other, including part of a larger organization (please explain below)
If you selected Other, please explain here.
As Covenant does not yet have its own 501(c)3, we operate under the auspices of a fiscal sponsor, Earth Island Institute, which has been operating since 1983. We are governed by Earth Island's Board of Directors, protected/advised by their legal team, and all of our administrative functions (banking, payroll, insurance, audit, etc.) are managed by EII. For these valuable services, we are charged a fee, which is small percentage of the funds we receive in the form of donations or contract revenue.
Our 501(c)3 application is in process, and should be completed by the end of the calendar year, 2021.
How many people work on your solution team?
Currently, we have six staff on payroll (3 full-time, 3 part-time) and a team of about 15 volunteers doing all manner of jobs. In June, we will receive a significant grant from a major foundation. Once in hand, we will have about ten full time and five part time staff.
How long have you been working on your solution?
Nearly 20 years, total. 5 years as Covenant.
Why are you and your team well-positioned to deliver this solution?
The Covenant Tribal Solar Initiative Team and Advisory Board is comprised of Native American spiritual, educational, and governmental leaders, as well as some of the nation's foremost experts in solar technology, education, energy policy, finance, and community economic development. Each member of the Covenant core team is either Native, themselves, or has had direct and successful experience working on reservations, with tribal leaders, elders, and tribal members, deploying solar energy systems.
Prior to commencing work in a tribal community, we spend significant amounts of time learning from, and forging relationships with the tribe -- their governmental, traditional, and spiritual leaders, advocacy organizations, and individuals such as elders and youth groups, in order to understand their unique history, circumstances, perspective, and abilities. Only then are we able to empower these first nations with the knowledge, skills and resources to forego fossil fueled energy, and establish regenerative solar economies in their communities.
Our Native and non-Native team members possess the high level of experience, technical understanding, and cultural sensitivity necessary for success where other efforts have failed. This team is uniquely qualified to break down the barriers to, and effectively and efficiently build capacity for, deployment of solar at scale in Indian Country.
While our aim is to achieve results quickly, our engagement method is carefully aligned with the ways tribes have naturally evolved for centuries. We build relationships with tribal elders to establish trust and acceptance, and design interventions tailored to each indigenous community’s unique conditions, with considerations for future generations.
What is your approach to building a diverse, equitable, and inclusive leadership team?
We are -- to borrow the words of Margaret Meade -- a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens who are committed to changing the world. We are building a diverse group of staff, interns, volunteers (including industry executives), and advisors to work together towards our shared vision of vibrant and vital Native American communities.
Weaving our experiences and skills together to strengthen the organization, we continually adjust to support one another and our constituents. While our team members come from many backgrounds, we unite around our shared values of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, which inform everything we do.
That’s why we seek a “cultural knit” rather than a “cultural fit” in our hiring process. "Fit” suggests a search for a predefined candidate, a set puzzle piece that fits into an organizational jigsaw puzzle. We, instead, strive for a cultural knit, which invites our new team members to weave their unique experiences and skills into our intricate fabric.
By weaving this cultural knit, our team gains the strength and resilience to address the root causes of energy poverty and climate injustice in tribal communities with our first-of-its-kind solution. We continually strive to build capacity in each other, as well as the communities we serve, so we are strong enough to achieve our ambitious mission and vision. We adamantly believe solutions must be for the people, by the people, and with the people.
Do you primarily provide products or services directly to individuals, to other organizations, or to the government?Government (B2G)
Why are you applying to Solve?
Solve’s Indigenous Communities Fellowship seeks solutions by Native innovators across the US that consider both technology and traditional knowledge to support and scale positive impact.
Covenant was founded with the belief that solar energy has the potential to transform environmental, social and economic systems towards vibrant and vital indigenous American communities. The central shift we pursue is the return of tribes towards self-determination, above and beyond the divisive and reductive systems which have been detrimental to First Nation communities in the United States for generations.
Our model takes a culturally sensitive, inclusive, and systems based approach to addressing climate and energy challenges. Our approach supports ancient belief systems and applies indigenous wisdom, while using modern technology to solve some of indigenous Americans’ longest standing problems.
Elevating issues and their projects by building awareness and driving action to solve the most difficult problems of our world.
In which of the following areas do you most need partners or support?
Please explain in more detail here.
As a first-of-its-kind effort, there is no template for us to follow as we do the work of transforming Native communities with the regenerative power of solar. Our team of experts know a lot -- but they don't know everything. This is the primary reason that this Fellowship opportunity with MIT Solve is of such value to us.
Our indigenous team members and partners have helped us create the business model they feel has the greatest chance of acceptance in tribal communities.
Our existing financial expert partners have created innovative and highly-complex financial models which have proven our assumptions to be true.
Despite this, the opportunity to connect with communities and experts in the MIT Solve network who may have walked a similar path towards their mission would be invaluable. There are no 'best-practices' or 'lessons learned' in Indian Country with regard to the work of Covenant. The connections we would make as part of the MIT Solve community would provide the closest thing to these types of resources, and would increase the speed and effectiveness of our efforts, allowing us to achieve maximum impact in the shortest amount of time.
What organizations would you like to partner with, and how would you like to partner with them?
MIT faculty, Solve Members, the MIT alumni community, previous Fellows... We are eager for connection with the constellations of individuals and organizations that make up the MIT universe.
Do you qualify for and would you like to be considered for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Prize? If you select Yes, explain how you are qualified for the prize in the additional question that appears.
Yes, I wish to apply for this prize
Explain how you are qualified for this prize. How will your team use Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Prize to advance your solution?
If we asked you to imagine a place where 40% of people live without electricity, more than 90% live below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate exceeds 80%, you might picture an isolated village in a developing country. But in fact, these statistics apply to many Native American communities within the United States -- where more than one million people reside on Indian reservations, which are often referred to as the “third world” of America.
Most tribes are among the poorest, most socially disadvantaged people in North America. Broken treaties, forced assimilation, and lack of any tangible economy since the deliberate extermination of the buffalo by colonists have all taken their toll on tribes, leaving them impoverished and dependent on inadequate handouts.
Life expectancy on the reservations in the Northern Plains is 55 years — 23 years below that of the average American. The Covenant program addresses one of the root causes of these staggering circumstances -- Energy Poverty.
The discriminatory cost of electricity is highly problematic in tribal communities, with implications for public health. Many families cannot afford to pay their bills so their power is turned off by utilities. During harsh plains winters, people often resort to burning things to keep warm. Wood is scarce and expensive, so people burn anything they can find — furniture, trash, tires. Many contract lung cancer as a result. And, when they run out of things to burn, people die of exposure to cold.
The Covenant program reverses this dire situation.
Do you qualify for and would you like to be considered for The ASA Prize for Equitable Education? If you select Yes, explain how you are qualified for the prize in the additional question that appears.
No, I do not wish to be considered for this prize, even if the prize funder is specifically interested in my solution
Do you qualify for and would you like to be considered for the Innovation for Women Prize? If you select Yes, explain how you are qualified for the prize in the additional question that appears.
No, I do not wish to be considered for this prize, even if the prize funder is specifically interested in my solution
Do you qualify for and would you like to be considered for The AI For Humanity Prize? If you select Yes, explain how you are qualified for the prize in the additional question that appears.
No, I do not wish to be considered for this prize, even if the prize funder is specifically interested in my solution
Ms. Chéri Smith Founder, Covenant Solar Initiative