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Four tribes in California receive federal funds to boost access to electricity

In this aerial image taken from a drone, the city of Klamath, Calif., home of the tribal headquarters for the Yurok Tribe, dots the side of U.S. Highway 101 at sunrise on Jan. 21, 2022. AP Photo/Nathan Howard
Nathan Howard

AP Photo
In this aerial image taken from a drone, the city of Klamath, Calif., home of the tribal headquarters for the Yurok Tribe, dots the side of U.S. Highway 101 at sunrise on Jan. 21, 2022.

For many living on the Yurok Tribe’s reservation, which lies in and around Humboldt County, access to electricity has been spotty for years — if that access has existed at all.

Although the Yurok Tribe has long worked to connect its members with access, progress is slow. Michael Gerace, the director of the Tribe’s planning and community development department, said over half of those living in the Tribe’s upper reservation — which amounts to over 100 homes — are off grid.

“They're spending hours in the car to go get gas to power their fossil fuel generators,” said Gerace. “It's very expensive.”

For those that do have access to electricity on the reservation, Gerace said energy shut-offs, spotty access and long response times from service providers when issues arise are common. During winter storms last year, he said some tribal members went without electricity for an entire month.

The Yurok Tribe is not alone in this situation. Many Indigenous communities in the United States have faced acutely poor access to reliable electricity for decades. For some, there has long been no access to electricity at all. A 2022 federal report stated that over 16,000 Tribal homes across the country are unelectrified.

“It seems crazy to think that in 2024, we're talking about American homes off the grid and needing to get them access to reliable power, but that's a real problem we face all across Indian country,” said Bryan Newland, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs.

As part of a plan to address energy inequities across the country, the federal government recently announced $72 million would be spent on connecting tribal communities with reliable, renewable energy. A little over $7 million of that funding is allocated to four tribes in California, including the Yurok Tribe.

Newland said the need among tribes is great.

“We had a higher demand for funding than funds available right now,” he said.

Gerace said the federal funding allows the Yurok Tribe to “take matters into their own hands” when it comes to ensuring reliable access for its members. The Tribe plans to use their portion of the funding to develop a small hydro-powered system that would generate 1.5 megawatts of power and connect unelectrified homes in the upper reservation with energy.

“That is really sufficient to power the reservation in most instances,” he said.

The Tribe also plans to create solar power infrastructure that would supplement the energy provided by the hydropower system, as well as back-up energy storage.

He described it as a big step toward energy sovereignty.

“If you have a local entity … that's governed by the tribe, that's owned by the tribe and that is staffed by tribal members, for instance, there's a culture of care around the maintenance of the infrastructure that's totally different,” he said.

But this is only the first step. Gerace said this round of federal funding allows the Tribe to launch their project, but more will be needed to complete it. He said investments from the Biden administration have been crucial to tribes like the Yurok.

“It’s all a very promising beginning and we have a lot of work to do,” he said.

Newland said this round of federal funding will go toward electrifying about 1,000 tribal homes that have no access to electricity across the country. It will also connect over 9,000 homes to more reliable energy sources. Another round of funding will be distributed to tribes later this year.

Manola Secaira is CapRadio’s environment and climate change reporter. Before that, she worked for Crosscut in Seattle as an Indigenous Affairs reporter.
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