PRAIRIE ISLAND — A project to get the Prairie Island Indian Community to a net-zero emissions energy system took the next step as the tribe announced it will partner with Indian Energy and Chief Strategy Group to make the project happen.

Tribal Council President Shelley Buck said $46 million allotted by the Minnesota Legislature in 2020 will go not only to developing a plan to achieve net-zero emissions, but also work toward implementation of that plan.

What that plan will look like, she said, is still unknown, though the clock is ticking. The plan must be filed with the state of Minnesota by July 1.

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The tribe had hired a consultant to look into a rough outline, she said, that would include steps such as solar gardens or solar canopies for parking areas, geothermal energy, and other zero-emissions technologies. However, the first step, she said, would be becoming more efficient with the power it uses at Treasure Island Resort & Casino.

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"A lot of conservation," Buck said. "What we can do with what we already have to make it more energy efficient. Things like our HVAC systems, or trade out our cars and golf carts from gas to electric."

While $46 million is a start, Buck said the tribe would likely need additional funds to achieve a net-zero system in the future. Indian Energy, a company owned and operated by Native people, has worked on similar projects and understands how to find grant funding through the federal government, she said.

Shelley Buck
Shelley Buck

Buck said the initial $46 million comes from the state's renewable development account, which was established as a condition of allowing Xcel Energy to temporarily store nuclear waste in dry casks outside its nuclear power plant that is adjacent to the Tribe’s reservation.

That account previously was available only to Xcel customers, which the Prairie Island community was not one of. However the law changed a couple of years ago to include the tribe that has long lived in the shadow of two nuclear plants and 47 casks of nuclear waste.

Buck said while the nuts and bolts of how the tribe will reach its zero-emissions goals are still to be worked out, the project is something important to her people.

"Native people in general, we’re supposed to take care of the environment, use it wisely," Buck said. "We’ve been trying to do things with baby steps. We do recycling, both on the business and tribal sides, composting in our housing developments and at the casino. We need to look bigger."

While nuclear power is technically a zero-emissions power source when it comes to carbon emissions, Buck said the waste from nuclear power makes it unpalatable for her tribe.

"No other human beings live so close to a nuclear site," she said.

Buck said having partners – both Indian Energy and Chief Strategy Group – that are Native-owned and Native-operated is important to reaching the tribe's goals of conservation, on-site renewable energy generation and sustainability initiatives.

"Sometimes when you’re doing interviews, you feel a connection," Buck said. "You feel like you’re on the same page."

Indian Energy is a microgrid development and systems integration firm that focuses primarily on developing energy solutions for tribes, as well as the U.S. Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Chief Strategy Group assists tribes in establishing long-term financial and operational strategies in government and business..

“This net-zero energy project will set a high benchmark for Indian Country and we are humbled to assist the Tribe with the project,” said CSG President and Founder Michell Hicks.

While the net-zero plan focuses on energy generation and usage where the tribe is located now, as the tribe brings new lands into trust – particularly, about 120 acres in Washington County and another nearly 1,200 acres near Pine Island – those areas will be developed with net-zero in mind as well.

"We agree to not only retrofit and redo things already there, but anything we build from here out will be built to a higher standard," Buck said.

That higher standard begins now, with a project that reflects Dakota culture and values, Buck said. "We need to do our part as Dakota people, and this is the first part."