By Megan Gleason
Growing up as an Iñupiaq woman with family roots in northwestern Alaska, Salina Derichsweiler feels at home in New México surrounded by other Native communities.
And leading the development of new community solar farms in New México, Derichsweiler sees an opportunity for Indigenous people to lead the way in a transition to renewable energy.
Derichsweiler, who lives in Colorado, is the director of development in New México for SunShare, a renewable energy company that was chosen to set up solar gardens for the state’s community solar program.
This program is a way for New Mexicans who aren’t homeowners or live in apartments to access clean energy and save money for doing so.
On Aug. 31, as part of community solar program obligations, SunShare donated $6 million to Navajo Technical University and $1.2 million to the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women.
These grants are part of a commitment to helping local communities SunShare promised in its pitch to join the community solar program as a developer.
Ensuring that developers would provide benefits like this to local communities was one of the scoring categories in the application companies submitted to the independent contractor state leaders chose to decide solar developers.
Navajo Technical University Provost Dr. Colleen Bowman told Source NM via email that the school’s president and his cabinet are currently figuring out how to best use the funding.
Navajo Tech spokesperson Dale Morgan said it will be used for renewable energy initiatives.
Bowman said the money could be used to create new or bolster existing programs. It could also meet infrastructure, resource or personnel needs.
“NTU is also committed to providing community education to create positive community engagement regarding the move to renewable energy and the creation of an informed workforce to sustain the efforts in this area,” she said.
Angel Charley is the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women. She (Ka’waika) said in a statement that SunShare’s goals align with her coalition by “igniting a brighter path towards ending violence and advancing the rights of Native women.”
Charley said this money will allow the organization to increase its reach and ability to provide critical services.
“The significance of this donation goes beyond the financial value; it signifies an alliance built on shared goals and determination,” she said.
‘Indigenous people can lead the way’
Officials from the university, the coalition and other Native Nations and Pueblos met in Crownpoint on Aug. 29 to celebrate the grant awards.
Derichsweiler said the event reminded her of her Native roots and how she grew up.
“It was the perfect kind of celebration, the perfect kind of launch that I think New México legislators really saw as the potential for community solar in New México — this idea of bringing together community and partnership and investment,” she said.
She said Native communities are well-suited to head a transition to renewable energy with an understanding and wisdom of how to live in balance in nature, something she said is essential right now as people live through a climate crisis.
“Indigenous people can lead the way,” Derichsweiler said.
Crownpoint is tucked into northwestern New Mexico, an area in the state that has a long history of drilling and fossil fuel extraction.
It’s not far from where conflict broke out over the summer at Chaco Canyon when U.S. Interior Sec. Deb Haaland (Laguna) wanted to celebrate a 20-year federal ban on new oil, gas and mining leases.
Navajo protesters who had set up a barricade argued for the royalties and jobs they get from the leases while others from Pueblos and the Navajo Nation worried about the negative environmental and health consequences from the fossil fuel industry.
It highlighted a complex internal divide between Native communities on the topic of drilling.
Derichsweiler said the oil and gas industry exploits Indigenous people whereas renewable energy gives an opportunity for “true sovereign energy.” She said community solar gives people an opportunity to choose how energy is developed on their land.
“Community solar gives us a chance to be thoughtful about how we really transition and puts the voice at a more local level when it comes to energy,” Derichsweiler said.
The economy needs to transition away from oil and gas, she said, and find a way to replace the funding New México so heavily relies on. Community solar can help change how the grid is powered, she said.
“Rather than it being a company who comes in and exploits and extracts and shares a tiny bit of the profits, it really is around: How can we partner to say this is the type of energy we want in our communities, this is how we want to power our homes?” she said.
Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren said in his Aug. 31 weekly address that Navajo Nation needs to generate its own revenue, which investments like SunShare’s will help with. He also attended the Aug. 29 event.
“We have been a fossil fuel community as we emphasize renewable energy, that as Indigenous people, we not only respect these elements but have a deep-rooted responsibility to utilize them sustainably, echoing the wisdom of our ancestors,” Nygren said.
His second order in office laid out a clear path for energy proposals, including from oil and gas companies he specified. Before the Chaco Canyon protest, he urged federal leaders not to celebrate the leasing ban and said it undermined Navajo Nation sovereignty.
Derichsweiler touched on the need for workers in the renewable energy field, an industry that’s rapidly growing. She echoed what Navajo Technical University President Elmer Guy said in his speech at the event, that workforce training needs to increase.
“We need as many people as we can get, and we want to train them,” she said. “And they’re well-paying jobs.”
SunShare can already start signing up people to be part of the community solar program, but Derichsweiler said the company is waiting until operations are closer to running. It likely won’t be until 2024 or 2025 that people start accessing renewable energy through the state program.
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