Righting an Environmental Injustice
For more than 50 years, the Tribe has born the burden of living next to an operational nuclear power plant and hazardous nuclear waste—a facility which was approved despite Tribal opposition and which provides “clean” energy for thousands of Minnesotans, even as the Tribe receives no energy generation benefits from the facility.
Prairie Island is transforming this narrative, making energy a force for good in our community. The Tribe has set a goal to become one of the first communities in the U.S. – and the first Tribal Nation – to achieve net zero carbon emissions. We are exercising energy sovereignty by honoring nature, harvesting its potential, and creating balance with Mother Earth.
With our Net Zero Energy Project, we aim to eliminate or offset carbon emissions produced across the community. For Prairie Island that means an annual reduction of more than 20 million pounds of carbon—equivalent to eliminating emissions from 75 oil tanker cars that pass through Prairie Island tribal land each day.
The Tribe will achieve this reduction through a combination of efforts, including energy efficiency, renewable energy generation and electrification. Through these initiatives we will reduce our carbon impact, eliminate waste and the need for purchased fuels, and create a safer and healthy environment for the community.
Changing the Narrative
Toxic nuclear waste is stored on Prairie Island with no movement toward a national nuclear waste repository solution. While the Tribe is challenged with living next to this hazard, Prairie Island is also importantly becoming a leader in decarbonization through its Net Zero Project.
Funds for the Tribe’s Project come from the State’s Renewable Development Account (RDA), which was established in 1999 as a condition of allowing Xcel Energy to temporarily store nuclear waste at its nuclear power plant on Prairie Island.
The Tribe won the right to access RDA funds to support its clean energy vision—funds which Prairie Island was previously prohibited from accessing, because we are not a customer of Xcel Energy who owns the nuclear power plant.
During the 2020 Legislative Session, the Minnesota Legislature approved a $46.2 million appropriation to support the Prairie Island Net Zero Project. These funds are an important step in Prairie Island’s pursuit of energy and environmental justice.
Developing and Implementing a Net Zero Plan
Once the legislation was signed into law, Prairie Island developed a strategic roadmap and plan in 2021 that defined the best path for the community to achieve Net Zero. Our Tribe worked with community members to establish Project focus areas and three priorities emerged. The first, energy efficiency, maximizes financial benefits to the Tribe by reducing demand, eliminating waste and saving money.
The second focus area, renewable energy generation, prioritizes energy creation through processes that respect and harness the power of Mother Earth.
And the third focus area, Energy Resiliency and Sovereignty, recognizes the need to create a reliable, stable energy system that empowers our Tribe to take more control over its energy future.
Carbon Reduction in Action
Prairie Island has prioritizes several initial commercial energy projects from our plan as an important first action towards Net Zero. The most visible project will be a 5.4MW ground-mounted solar PV system located near Treasure Island Resort & Casino, delivering renewable energy to the local electric grid that serves the Tribe and surrounding community.
The largest carbon reduction through the Project will come from electrification—or switching from natural gas to clean electricity—across many Tribal commercial facilities. As part of this work, Prairie Island is designing and installing an innovative geothermal plant and well field that will use energy from the earth to provide clean electricity to heat and cool our buildings.
We are also swapping gas-powered vehicles for electric shuttles and busses used by the Tribal government and Treasure Island. Finally, we are working with our community members to help them identify simple, low- and no-cost ways to save energy and money in their homes.
Project construction begins in 2023. Prairie Island looks forward to exploring and implementing many other projects from our Net Zero plan when additional funds are secured.
Renewable Energy Generation
The most visible aspect of the Net Zero project will be a ground-mounted solar field that will be capable of generating 5.4 MW of carbon-free energy annually. The solar field will be located near Treasure Island Resort & Casino and will provide electricity to the casino and other Tribal buildings on the reservation.
At the Tribe’s Mount Frontenac Golf Course, which is located off-reservation, we intend to replace the current fossil-fuel generated electricity with solar power from a roof-top mounted solar system.
Roof-top solar solutions are also being considered for residential homes on the reservation.
More than three-quarters of the proposed 20-million-pounds CO2 reduction will come from electrification projects impacting commercial and residential buildings on the reservation. Electrification is the process of switching gas-powered utilities, equipment, and vehicles to those powered by electricity.
The biggest carbon reduction will be achieved through developing a Heat Recovery Ground Source Heat Plant (HRGSHP) and geothermal well field. The geothermal plant will use energy from the earth, rather than gas, to heat and cool our buildings. Other projects include converting our commercial laundry system at Treasure Island from gas-powered washers and dryers to electric. Installing a transpired solar thermal wall on the exterior of the hotel that will use the power of the sun to warm air that is then used to heat and ventilate the hotel.
Residential electrification projects include, installing high-efficiency air-source heat-pumps, heat-pump water heaters, electric stovetop and oven units, and electric heat-pump tumble dryers.
We’re also swapping gas-powered fleet vehicles used by the Tribal government and Treasure Island with electric vehicles.
Reducing our energy demand is the first step toward achieving net zero on Prairie Island. By making smarter choices and applying new technologies, we can eliminate energy waste and reduce our overall demand for and cost of energy. That leads to a direct reduction in carbon emissions.
Energy efficient projects will include replacing current lighting used in Tribal-owned buildings with highly efficient LED lighting. Currently, only 20 percent of our lighting is LED. We’re also installing new equipment that allows us to monitor and control always-on or heavily used systems such as kitchen ventilation or lighting in the casino, and new energy recovery units to reduce demand on HVAC systems. We’re also exploring measures for reducing water consumption and using treated water for irrigation purposes; and
Our energy efficiency efforts are not limited to our commercial operations. We are working with Tribal members to improve their understanding of energy use and decarbonization efforts. Members’ homes will be eligible for a variety of energy efficiency retrofits, including include LED lighting, water conservation measures, and other weatherization improvements.