The Northern Cheyenne Nation received a $2 million dollar federal grant this summer to build a new solar farm. It’s part of the Tribe’s decision to invest in renewable energy over mining their rich coal deposits.
The first thing Kyle Alderman got when he started his job was a tower of grant paperwork. Then he learned they were awarded a matching grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to start the White River Community Solar Project.
“Speechless. It’s not the biggest solar farm in America, but it’s the biggest solar farm on the res,” Alderman says.
A month earlier Alderman had been learning about renewable energy as a student at MSU-Bozeman. Now he’s the Tribe’s first renewable energy manager and the only member of the department.
But soon he’ll be bringing 25 to 30 construction workers onboard, who he hopes to pay at least $15 an hour. But he says the impact will go beyond job creation.
That’s because the solar farm is also intended to lower electricity bills on the reservation, which Alderman says can skyrocket in winter because that’s how most families get their heat, including his.
“Over the winter, one bill was $600, and that’s hard on families. That money is not easy to come by,” Alderman says.
But some people are paying more than three times what he is. That’s according to a community survey he conducted.
Respondents said they pay anywhere from $200 to $2,000 in the summer and from $375 to more than $3,000 in the winter.
The White River Project is expected to save the Tribe $5 million a year.
It’ll generate 2.6 megawatts of power, enough to power over 400 homes and three tribal buildings.
It’s still dwarfed by the Colstrip Power Plant, which is a coal-powered plant about 45 minutes north.
“This solar farm is roughly 1/1,oooth of the energy generated by Colstrip,” Alderman says.
But he says that makes sense because Colstrip provides power to people up and down the West Coast, whereas the Northern Cheyenne solar farm will be for homes and buildings in Busby and structures throughout the reservation.
It’ll be built in Busby, where today it’s sunny and 92 degrees. As a cloudless, bright day, it’s the perfect conditions for solar energy.
"Don't play with matches," Republican State Senator Jason Small jokes to his kids, who aren’t anywhere near matches. They’re in water shoes and bathing suits, ready for an afternoon at a Northern Cheyenne swimming hole. But first they stop to get some cold drinks at a Busby convenience store.
George Hodges, the convenience store owner, tells Small he’ll have to pay with exact change because the power is out.
“Yeah, we have a lot of outages. There was one just last week,” Hodges says.
Some people on the reservation say their electricity is too unreliable and expensive. But State Senator Small doesn’t know if the solar farm will solve that.
“The ability for it to actually help somebody here really is banking on the fact that hopefully the Tribe makes a good deal,” Small says.
He’s talking about the deal that the Northern Cheyenne will have to strike with the utility to put the solar farm’s power onto the grid. That’s because utilities like the Tongue River Electric Cooperative and the Big Horn County Electric Cooperative own the lines.
He says the Tribe could make money if they negotiate a net metering deal with the utilities. That means that the utilities would pay the Tribe for any extra energy that they put on the grid but don’t use.
A few years ago, Small was all in on coal. Listen to this line in a 2015 op-ed he wrote: “Developing the Tribe's natural resources to full potential may become paramount to succeeding as a sovereign nation.” But now he’s not so sure.
“I’m about as pro-coal as you can get, but I’m also wise enough to understand that there’s a lull right now, and we’re just not going to make the progress that I personally would hope to make,” Small says.
You don’t have to go far to see that the coal industry is struggling. Colstrip Power Plant is scheduled to shut down two of its four units this year. Westmoreland Coal Company and Blackjewel, LLC, two of the leading coal mining companies in the country, filed for bankruptcy this year. At one point, about 600 people in Wyoming lost their jobs.
Senator Small hopes that coal will rebound, but to other Northern Cheyenne tribal members, what the market does is irrelevant.
Some say it goes against the Tribe’s cultural and spiritual values to mine coal, no matter how tempting the payoff may be.
Phillip Whiteman Junior and his wife Lynnette Two Bulls run a non-profit, Yellowbird, that helps inspire Northern Cheyenne children to reconnect with the land and their cultural roots.
Whiteman runs and grabs a binder full of photocopies and photos of traditional texts. He pulls out a paper with a teaching from Sweet Medicine, a Cheyenne prophet who lived with the Tribe for four generations, and begins reading.
It says strangers called Earth Men will appear among the Tribe and try and introduce an industrial culture.
“Follow nothing that these Earth Men do, but keep your own ways that I have taught you as long as you can,” Whiteman says.
Whiteman says Sweet Medicine warned the Cheyenne to not follow the Earth Men because his industrial culture pollutes the land.
“Our culture is to revitalize. We’re a giving culture. You cannot give what you don’t have,” he says.
Next door, the Crow Nation is giving out per capita payments this month. Enrolled members are entitled a $230 payment, which comes from coal mined on Crow land.
Whiteman’s wife, Two Bulls, says she knows the Northern Cheyenne could have a slice of that pie if they wanted.
“I know there’s a lot of other people’s that chose the money over the land, the natural resources. Really, that’s up to them, but I think because of the close connection I think you see that continued fight against coal and looking for other alternatives,” Two Bulls says.
Two Bulls says she hopes this is just the beginning. She wants to see more renewable energy on Northern Cheyenne land.
First, Alderman, the Tribe’s renewable energy manager, will have to negotiate with the utility companies.
He says the next step is developing a feasibility study to see how the grid will handle the power of the solar farm.
Olivia Reingold is Yellowstone Public Radio’s Report for America corps member.