Story at a glance

  • The state of Minnesota granted the Prairie Island Indian Community $46 million for a net-zero emissions project.
  • The funding comes from an agreement that allows one of the state’s major utilities to store nuclear waste on the island.
  • The tribe joins several others in seeking to use their lands to become self-sufficient.

About an hour outside Minneapolis, on the Mississippi River, next to a nuclear generating plant, a Mdewakanton Sioux Indian reservation is creating a net-zero energy system.

“The net zero project is a transformation opportunity for our Tribe; we can reshape our energy future,” said Tribal Council President Shelley Buck in a release. “For too long, our Tribe has been burdened by the negative impact of energy production, specifically nuclear power and nuclear waste. This legislation gives us the power to change that narrative and use energy production as a force for good.”


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In May, the state legislature approved $46 million for the Prairie Island Net Zero project as part of a solar energy production incentive bill. The money comes from a renewable development account negotiated in return for allowing XCel Energy, a utility holding company in the area, to “temporarily store nuclear waste in dry casks outside its nuclear power plant that is adjacent to the Tribe’s reservation,” according to the tribe. 

The tribe is scheduled to choose a vendor from more than 20 applicants this month, the first step in developing a net-zero energy system on the reservation. The tribe has a relatively small footprint, Energy News Network reported, and the project is estimated to be completed within three years. 


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“Not only will we be one of the first tribal nations to achieve this critical [net-zero] goal, but we will also serve as a model for communities across the United States that aim to protect the earth by reducing their energy impact on the environment,” Buck told Energy News Network.

Tribal lands have great potential for generating renewable energy, according to a 2018 study, and the Red Lake and Leech Lake tribes are also pursuing similar energy initiatives. At the same time, Prairie Island will also suffer any consequences of the nuclear waste storage on the health of its residents and land. 

Last year, the Prairie Island Indian Community Land Claim Settlement Act granted new land to the reservation within the tribe's historic aboriginal territory after a dam constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1938 flooded much of their land. Still, the reservation’s lands are diminished and much of the reservation's business comes from the Treasure Island Resort & Casino, the county's largest employer. 

“It’s a different opportunity because it’s an exercise of our sovereignty, and it’s a part of us self-determining our future,” tribal attorney Jessie Seim told Energy News Network. “Prairie Island can do this embracing its culture, its values, its connection to nature. I think it is something that we’re all excited about — community members and the tribal council — because we can do it in a way honoring who we are as a tribe and as native people.”  


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Published on Nov 12, 2020