Growing up on the Prairie Island Indian Community reservation, Calais Lone Elk had a plan—a set of steps burned in her mind and logged with her school to help her find her family in the event of an explosion at the nearby nuclear power plant.
“If you went to school and something happened out here, where do you meet your parents? Where do you reconnect with your family? Because you can’t come back here,” she said. “Those are things that I don’t think are normal.”
Lone Elk is 37 now, and still constantly reviewing her escape plan for an emergency at the nearby power plant.
It sits just 700 yards away from her community of 100 homes, its powerlines lining backyards and main thoroughfares.
For Lone Elk and others living in Prairie Island, concerns about the nuclear power plant’s safety are a source of low-grade daily stress. Despite official assurances, many people believe it’s bad for their health to be living so close.
“We all have a plan, whether we voice it or not. We all have an idea of what we have to do or what we need to do. And we all know that we have to go up-wind of that nuclear plant,” Lone Elk said.
But it’s also a physical reminder of the environmental injustices endured by Native people for generations, said tribal council vice president Shelley Buck.
“Since this plant was created, our energy history here has been focused on the power plant and the nuclear waste that is stored right next door to us,” she said.
Today, the Prairie Island Community is seeking to disentangle itself from a power plant it never wanted. It’s created a $46 million plan to produce net zero carbon emissions within the next decade.
Buck said it’s an ambitious step toward being a sovereign nation that’s energy sovereign, too.
“To do a big project like net zero really helps us change that narrative into something positive showing how energy can be used as a positive force,” she said. “By offsetting or eliminating the carbon that we produce, it’s a positive for everybody.”
‘Why not go big?’
Prairie Island members are descendants of the Mdewakanton Band of Eastern Dakota. They made their home in southern Minnesota, but lost that land in 1851 in the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux.
It wasn’t until 1934 that the land on the banks of the Mississippi just north of Red Wing became a federally recognized reservation.
The Prairie Island power plant was issued its first operating license in 1974, and it was renewed in 2011. Initially, tribal members say the plant was described to them as a steam power plant. It’s one of two nuclear power plants, the second in Monticello, that Xcel says are critical to its plans of producing carbon-free electricity by 2050, and is considered safe by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
In the early 1990s, Xcel Energy asked the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency permission to store nuclear waste there—at least temporarily until a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain opened, a plan that has since stalled due to local opposition.
As a child, Mikhail Childs remembers his father protesting the prospect of storing nuclear waste so close to the reservation.
“Some of the earliest memories I have are of protestors standing in the road, blocking semi-trucks hauling nuclear waste,” he said. “The way [my dad] explained it to me was that all this land we reside on is sacred … We believe that in our creation story, the creation took place just miles down the river.”
But here’s the twist, and it’s an important one: Through all these years of living with a nuclear power plant next door, Prairie Island hasn’t been powered by the energy generated there, said Buck. The community just recently started getting natural gas from Xcel.
It’s a logistical detail that she said prevented the tribal community from being eligible for the Renewable Development Fund, a pot of state money financed by Xcel customers for renewable energy projects for Xcel service areas, she said.
Then in 2020, a legislative change allowed Prairie Island to tap $46 million from the fund for the project.
While the tribe had toyed with doing wind power and other renewable projects in the past, a large amount of funding created the opportunity to do more.
“Why not go big?” said Buck.
One goal, different solutions
And by big, Buck is referring to a plan that aims to eliminate 20 million pounds of carbon annually through a raft of renewable energy and efficiency upgrades. Prairie Island’s Treasure Island Resort and Casino is the largest energy user on the reservation.
The plan involves multiple ways of achieving that goal, said Andrea Thompson, who has been hired by the tribe as the project’s energy program manager.
“Any community that sets a net zero goal gets to decide the pathway to get there. And for many different reasons, some communities choose to purchase carbon credits or find a financial path to achieve net zero while the actual carbon reduction isn’t necessarily happening on site,” said Thompson.
“What Prairie Island is doing is different,” she said.
Their plan involves constructing a 10-to-15 acre solar array that aims to reduce carbon emissions by more than 550,000 pounds annually, phasing out natural gas in favor of geothermal energy and electrification, and promoting zero-emission and energy efficiency residential upgrades.
“One of the reasons why this project is so exciting is because [the tribal council] is not just saying, ‘Let’s go gangbusters on solar, and we’re gonna call it a day,’” said Shoshana Pena, director of program services for NV5, an technical engineering company hired to work on the project.
It’s unlike other municipal or tribal projects she’s seeing in the industry because “They’re not trying to just do whatever is just meeting the minimum requirements. They’re looking at all of these different solutions,” she said.
Net zero in a few years
The project is also on a fast-track, said Thompson.
“A lot of communities, when they set net zero goals, they often give themselves 10, 20, 30 years to achieve net zero. And Prairie Island is under a totally different timeline, we’re trying to do net zero in a few years, a handful of years,” she said.
That ambitious timeline has been setback by COVID-related supply-chain and labor issues, Thompson said. Last year, the tribe asked the Legislature for an extension on phase two of the project, which involves finding the right contractors to build out the plan—a phase that’s expected to wrap up early 2023.
Details of the plan continue to be in flux—for instance, where the solar array will be located, and the design of the geothermal wells.
Meanwhile, tribal leaders continue to make their case for the plan to residents. By and large, it’s been met with support from members, but some are skeptical of how it will be implemented.
That includes Selena Childs. She’s concerned that the plan focuses too much on technologies that won’t stand the test of time. She has questions, for instance, about how long the solar array will last before it needs to be replaced.
“Instead we could start building houses that are green, that are economically effective,” said Childs. “We can build our house out of local resources that are still going to be more efficient than these trailer houses that we see put up here…And yet, they want to fill up our fields with solar panels.”
And, Childs points out, the plan doesn’t change the fact that the community is next door to a nuclear power plant and the nuclear waste stored there.
“We don’t get our power from the nuclear panel down here. We get it from somewhere else,” she said.
Tribal member Nicky Buck said that may be true. But to her, it’s about reclaiming the narrative of her community and of their land.
“We want to turn it into a more positive, resilient story, that we, the people, are in control of our lives,” she said.