Electric vehicle charging network to link Minnesota, North Dakota reservations seeking freedom from oil
Clean energy groups on the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota and Red Lake reservation in Minnesota were awarded $6.7 million in federal funding to build out electric vehicle infrastructure in the tribal communities.
BISMARCK — A recently funded partnership between clean energy groups on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota and the Red Lake Indian Reservation in Minnesota is aiming to expand access to electric vehicles for Midwest tribes.
Backers of the project say it’s one more step toward independence from fossil fuels on two reservations that have fought major oil pipelines in recent years.
The $6.7 million awarded as a joint grant to the Standing Rock Renewable Energy Authority (SAGE) and Minneapolis-based Native Sun Community Power Development will go toward the installation of more than 120 new electric vehicle charging stations to help link the tribal communities, which are separated by about 475 miles.
The project will also provide at least 19 electric vehicles (EVs) to schools, casinos, utilities and the Standing Rock and Red Lake tribal governments, and host dozens of educational events over its three-year funding period.
SAGE General Manager Joe McNeil, a Standing Rock Sioux member, told The Forum that, for his tribe, the project is about more than just hooking up the infrastructure for EVs. It’s about introducing clean energy resources to reservations that have limited access, and eventually allowing those communities to end their reliance on fossil fuels altogether.
“We see renewable energy as that at Standing Rock,” McNeil said. “It's a way to control your own destiny.”
Both the Standing Rock and Red Lake tribes have been at the forefront of anti-pipeline protests in recent years. Thousands of people travelled to Standing Rock in 2016 and 2017 to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline just off the reservation, and Red Lake members helped lead opposition to Enbridge's recently completed Line 3 project in Minnesota.
Bob Blake, executive director of Native Sun and a member of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe Indians, said he sees the Inter-Tribal EV Charging Network as “another form of resistance” to corporations and fossil fuel industries.
But Blake also said much of his initial excitement for the idea was in the opportunity to spread awareness about electric cars, and to create a link for tribal communities across Minnesota and the Dakotas that people might experience as something like a next-generation Route 66.
Ownership of electric vehicles can be challenging in North Dakota, which ranks near the bottom of the country in the uptake of EVs , since the region's cold climate and sparsely populated rural highways can limit travel in the plug-in cars. The new tribal charging network will install 59 fast charging hubs and 63 of the slower Level 2 stations largely on reservation lands in the region.
McNeil and Blake noted that, for now, the cars can be prohibitively expensive for low-income residents on reservations. Both said the hope is to inform people on emissions-free transportation so they can make the leap to EVs as prices come down.
Right now, McNeil said he isn’t aware of any fully electric vehicles on Standing Rock, though a handful of residents drive plug-in hybrids. Talking to community members about how they could go electric on reservations and in rural North Dakota “makes it a real thing,” he said. “It doesn’t make it 'Star Trek' anymore.”
Jon Hunter, a St. Paul-based senior director of clean air at the American Lung Association, said the Standing Rock-Red Lake project is intended to preempt widespread availability of electric vehicles on reservations so that the infrastructure is in place once the cars are more accessible. Among the clean energy incentives in Congress' reconciliation bill are tax credits that would make electric cars more affordable, Hunter noted.
The project is meant as a demonstration of what electric vehicles can contribute in cold, rural climates, said Hunter, who worked on the grant proposal, noting that “if EVs can work on Standing Rock then they can work in a lot of places in North Dakota.”
Though the project will fund EV charging stations predominately on the Red Lake and Standing Rock reservations, Hunter said it also includes some money to help close a fast-charging gap between Bismarck and Fargo, as well as allocations for charging stations on the Native American Scenic Byway, which connects four reservations from Standing Rock to the Crow Creek Reservation along the Missouri River in the Dakotas. Some charging stations could be installed on other Native American reservations in the three states.
In addition to Native Sun and SAGE, the program is partnering with more than two dozen other organizations in the Upper Midwest and elsewhere, according to a news release, including the American Lung Association, the fast-charger manufacturer ZEF Energy and major regional utility providers like Xcel Energy and Ottertail Power.
On Standing Rock, McNeil said the goal is to have charging stations installed by late next summer, with SAGE acting as their owner and operator for the tribe.
SAGE is also developing a 235-megawatt commercial wind farm on Standing Rock and has plans to build out solar power on the reservation as well. McNeil said his hope is to eventually power the EV charging stations with those renewable sources.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com .