PIIC’s Net Zero community goals 

A field of solar equipment, called a "solar array," has been constructed near Treasure Island Resort and Casino as part of Prairie Island Indian Community's Net Zero projects. (Photo courtesy of PIIC.)

By Lee Egerstrom

The Prairie Island Indian Community (PIIC) is making great strides towards becoming a Net Zero climate change community. The tribe hosted state officials, broader southeastern Minnesota community members, friends and media at an open house in September to show progress it is making in achieving Net Zero carbon emissions goals. Tied in with this effort, the tribe also has projects seeking energy and food sovereignty that include restoration of a bison herd on reservation property.

Andrea Zimmerman, the scientist working as Energy Program Manager at Prairie Island, briefed The Circle on PIIC’s progress.

Two large projects are underway, she said, including development of a 5.4 megawatt solar field for supplying the community with electricity and a large geothermal commercial project “to move a large portion of commercial property off natural gas, massively reducing our carbon footprint.”

The latter can be sizeable. While PIIC has only 1,100 enrolled members mostly in its tight, original reservation surroundings, it does have several business entities that help make it the biggest employer in Goodhue County (1,500 employees).

These ventures include Treasure Island Resort and Casino, which with 788 guest rooms and suites is the second largest hotel in the state; Mount Frontenac Golf Course, Dakota Station and Tinta Wita Tipi. The latter is a senior assisted-living residence.

PIIC’s stated goal of eliminating or offsetting carbon emissions would mean an annual reduction of more than 20 million pounds of carbon. That is equivalent to eliminating emissions from 75 oil tanker rail cars that pass through Prairie Island every day.

Tied in with PIIC’s major projects, the tribe is also taking steps to cut carbon corners in other, smaller ways, she said.

One project involves cleaner water for landscaping on tribal property, switching from gas powered to electric vehicles for tribal use, and making tribal homes more electricity efficient to both lower energy bills and reduce carbon.

Solar panels at Prairie Island. (Photo from the PIIC website.)

“There are people who are very proud and delighted to take part in this work,” she said. “It can bring Dakota values to life in the community.”

Tribal members are participating in many of these projects, Zimmerman added, including five members working on the large solar project.

Tribal leaders have coped with energy issues and accompanying energy-related threats for decades. The small Mdewakanton Band of Eastern Dakota reservation on Prairie Island, down the Mississippi River from St. Paul, sits adjacent to an Xcel Energy nuclear power plant and storage area for nuclear waste materials. Federal authorities have failed to find a place anywhere for safer storage. All efforts to transfer and store the wastes run into NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) opposition everywhere, something that Prairie Islanders and nearby residents of Red Wing fully understand.

Prairie Island and Red Wing residents were given another reminder of their precarious location earlier this year. On May 27, one of the two nuclear reactors had an incident that temporarily shut down one of the reactors.

Shelley Buck, a veteran PIIC leader and current Tribal Council vice president, looked back at the neighboring relationship with the plant in a statement for The Circle:
“For the past 50-plus years, our Tribe’s energy story has been negatively linked to the nuclear power plant and nuclear waste storage that sit adjacent to our reservation. We wanted to change that narrative and make energy a positive force for our Tribe,” she said.
“Our Net Zero program will allow us to achieve energy sovereignty by honoring nature and harvesting its potential. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to bring this to our future generations and create balance for our community with Ui Maka (grandmother earth).”

Buck and Prairie Island Tribal Council president Johnny Johnson did not seek reelection to the council in a recent election. The newly elected council will select their successors in December. But coexistence with the power plant and its various safety and environmental issues have been constant elements of their tribal civic engagement for decades, and for their successors.

Partly as precautions that the tribe may sometime need to move, and partly for investment purposes, the tribe has purchased 300 acres of land near the east side of St. Paul and 1,000 acres to the west, near Rochester.

Combined, Prairie Islanders now possess 534 acres of original land and 2,774 acres of other trust lands.

Terms such as Net Zero, climate change, environmental degradation and other entries to modern language may often sound just like a never-ending trail of new buzzwords. It might be helpful to reassess how these have emerged.

These terms aren’t exactly new but haven’t been well known away from the various fields of science.

Net Zero emphasis took a giant step forward in in 2015 when 196 nations at the United Nation Climate Change Conference in Paris approved an international treaty on climate change. It committed nations to move towards Net Zero goals to halt climate change, and to do annual appraisals on what is and isn’t being achieved.

Bottom line goals for the international participants are still well short of Net Zero targets. The effort is to keep average global temperature increases to below 2 degrees Celsius, or 35.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above “pre-industrial levels” of temperature and pursue longer term efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 C, or 34.7 F. Simply put, the world and its nations aren’t keeping pace with these international goals.

Only a few communities around the globe have made as substantial a commitment as Prairie Island. Meanwhile, members of Congress from oil and gas states protect the fossil fuel industries and greatly resist U.S. government and science-led efforts to achieve those goals. Indigenous tribes are among communities around the globe that have established such goals.

Prairie Island set Net Zero goals in motion in 2018, Zimmerman said. It really “took off” in 2020 when the Minnesota Legislature approved a $46.2 million grant for Prairie Island to pursue its plan.

This makes Prairie Island among the first, and most likely the first tribal nation with such a broad based plan in place, she said.

Two other noteworthy aspects of this project might interest readers. Prairie Island has two outside, environmental consulting firms engaged in the plan. Both are 100 percent Native-owned and operated.

They include Indian Energy LLC, based in California; and Chief Strategy Group, based in North Carolina. Indian Energy develops advanced energy systems, including for the U.S. Defense Department; and has a joint venture company, Chippewa Sustainable Solutions Inc. It is a partnership with the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.