RIT professor to work with Native American communities pursuing energy sovereignty

Assistant Professor Nathan Williams and doctoral student Sherralyn Sneezer from Rochester Institute of Technology’s Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS), will lead a research project working with Native American communities to identify pathways towards achieving energy sovereignty.

Energy sovereignty, the inherent right of communities to make decisions about how they generate and use energy, has been identified as a crucial component to furthering tribal self-sufficiency and an opportunity for Native Nations to lead innovation on the energy transition. However, tribal attitudes toward and understanding of the concept of energy sovereignty are not well documented. These views are inevitably varied and complex given diversity of tribes and circumstances that they face.

This study will connect with Native tribes to gather their views and aspirations for energy sovereignty, as well as challenges to achieving these objectives. Williams and Sneezer will document the results and use the findings to identify sustainable energy transition pathways for Indigenous communities that support tribal goals and values.

“Native American Tribes have a special status as sovereign nations within the United States. And while this sovereign status may be well established in law, in practice it is often challenged by relationships with state and federal governments, as well as private interests seeking to exploit tribal resources,” Williams said.

“This exploitation is particularly prevalent in the energy sector and has frequently led to environmental degradation, social harm, and insufficient economic gain on the part of tribes,” he added. “On the foundation of the project, we intend to build a program to aid in energy transitions in Native communities.”

Sneezer (Navajo/Diné), who is pursuing a Ph.D. in sustainability, will bring extensive experience working with tribes on energy challenges to this project.

"Energy development in Indigenous communities in the past, and now, often focuses on fossil fuel resources or uranium; however, this has led to environmental degradation and health consequences for Indigenous peoples,” says Sneezer. “At the same time, there are few well-paying jobs in these communities, so Indigenous peoples trade off these consequences with the ability to take care of their families. I hope to work with communities to find a way to use renewable energy development to address their needs and to move forward.”

The project is a collaboration between GIS and the Energy Sovereignty Institute (ESI) in New Mexico. The partnership will serve to build trust with Native Nations to ensure that research is culturally sensitive, addresses community needs, and results in concrete benefits to Native peoples.

The Energy Sovereignty Institute (ESI) is a social initiative of the Microgrid Systems Laboratory and the Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative, designed to promote the benefits of decentralized energy systems and technologies for Native American communities, and to advance their availability and use. ESI’s mission is to ensure that indigenous communities have access to the most current cultural, technological, policy and regulatory, and financing resources in support of their goals in sustainable energy generation, distribution, and consumption.

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