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Colusa Indian Energy working to advance energy sovereignty on tribal lands




The Colusa Indian Community Tribal Utility Authority is the sole tribal member of CMUA.


Colusa Indian Energy LLC, a newly formed tribal corporation that’s wholly owned by the Colusa Indian Community Council (CICC), is on a mission to help other tribes throughout the United States form their own Tribal Utility Authorities and provide them with the expertise to build and operate microgrid projects.



It’s an idea nearly two decades in the making. In 2005, CICC, which is located in the Sacramento Valley, developed its own CoGen microgrid (small power generation and distribution systems that also use the waste heat produced to heat and cool the loads being served) after the Colusa Casino Resort experienced an average of more than fifty power interruptions a year under PG&E. At the time, the casino was slated for expansion, including a new hotel that would place an additional load on its power infrastructure. Rather than upgrade existing equipment, CICC invested in its own energy infrastructure, including a new underground distribution system around the entire reservation, which includes 290 acres of trust land (the Department of the Interior holds the title to the land and holds it for the tribe’s benefit) and 16,000 acres of fee land (the tribe holds the title to the land).



Initially, the new power plant serviced only the Colusa Casino Resort. But over the years, the CoGen plant evolved into a hybrid microgrid, and service was expanded to all tribal members’ homes, the government’s administration campus, water treatment plants, the medical clinic, thousands of acres of agricultural loads, and various tribal businesses. As a result, the tribe has sustained zero power interruptions since 2012.



The tribe’s hybrid microgrid includes natural gas engine combined heat and power (CHPs) in combination with solar PV and battery storage. Colusa Indian Energy also manages a portfolio of renewable resources. “Solar PV serves about a third of our load and we have diesel backup engines and a world-class battery UPS [uninterruptible power supply] system,” said Colusa Indian Energy Director Ken Ahmann. “That battery UPS backs up the entire reservation.”



Colusa Indian Energy currently serves 52 large customers, with electric sales of 15,000 MWh, which is equivalent to about five Walmart supercenter buildings.



In 2021, CICC decided to take its endeavor to the next step and formed the Colusa Indian Community Tribal Utility Authority and Colusa Indian Energy, making it the only tribally microgrid EPC developer in the4 country. The organization now operates as a turnkey engineering, procurement and construction provider that also offers grant administration and acts as a long-term operations and maintenance partner.



Colusa Indian Energy’s broader mission is to offer energy infrastructure assistance to all tribes across the United States. “Tribes have traditionally been underserved by IOUs, and many of them have large electrical loads,” said Ahmann. “Tribes didn’t get a pick of which land they were going to end up on, and often that land is remote, so they’re often at the last leg of a weak circuit. Many tribes therefore have power quality issues, which is not ideal for things like casino operations, cannabis operations, or even day-to-day life for tribal members.”



For example, 13,500 families in the Navajo Nation — the United States’ largest sovereign tribe by land area, residing in portions of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah — have never had electricity. “We want to export our decades of microgrid expertise to other tribes,” said Ahmann. “We are one of the few entities that’s been operating, maintaining and managing our own microgrid for nearly 20 years. We're truly the subject matter experts in this type of operation. We aim to help tribes extend their own sovereignty into their energy infrastructure space.”



Toward that end, Colusa Indian Energy has strategically partnered with gas and diesel engine manufacturers, green and blue hydrogen producers, natural gas developers, solar developers, emission control system manufacturers, chiller manufacturers, and battery storage suppliers to offer tribes turnkey microgrid projects (including engineering, construction, operation, and maintenance), gas and hydrogen CoGen power plants, solar PV installations, battery UPS and battery energy storage systems. The partnerships will also allow Colusa Indian Energy to access factory trainings which they will pass on to their tribal partners to help them develop their own qualified workforce.



Colusa Indian Energy will also help tribes identify federal and state grant funding opportunities, technical assistance, and administration. “There’s currently an unprecedented amount of federal grant money available that can be used to help communities build microgrids,” said Ahmann. “Even tribes with limited resources can benefit from tens of millions of dollars’ worth of project costs. We can help tribes secure grants, build infrastructure, then stick around to help them train tribal members and provide long-term economic development opportunities.”



Colusa Indian Energy already has millions of dollars of development projects in the pipeline across California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Michigan and Minnesota. “The demand has been pretty overwhelming,” said Ahmann. “There are 574 federally recognized tribes, so there is a vast need and vast opportunity.”



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Justine Brown is a freelance writer based in Northern California.

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