Shinnecock tribe launches solar-energy program at Southampton reservation

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The Shinnecock Indian Nation marked five years of federal recognition Thursday with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to kick off a sustainable solar-energy program on the Southampton reservation.

The Obama administration official was on Long Island to help launch a program called the Tribal Solarthon, a $2 million initiative by nonprofit Grid Alternatives to expand renewable energy and job opportunities on Native American lands.

At Shinnecock, the program begins with the installation of rooftop solar at two homes, including that of James H. and Marion Phillips, whose $170 monthly energy bill is expected to be cut more than half by the system. The project also will see a battery backup system installed at the tribe's community center to provide as much as a week of energy if power goes out, as it did after superstorm Sandy in October 2012. The Shinnecock program is expected to expand to as many as 50 of the tribe's 250 reservation homes, and to enlist the help of tribal volunteers who will ultimately bring those skills into the larger green-energy job market.

"Tribal communities around the nation are really on the front lines of climate change," said Jewell, noting the devastation caused by flooding at Shinnecock after Sandy. Self-sustaining power systems fit the need for "more resilience" on tribal lands, she said.

"We need to move to a clean-energy future," Jewell told tribe members. "You are pioneers here at Shinnecock."

Jewell also took note of the "great offshore wind potential" in the waters around Long Island, but noted delays in development and permitting, and the need to address the concerns of tribes, fishing communities and others. "It's not something you do overnight."

Bryan Polite, chairman of the Shinnecock trustees, said the tribe has been working for years to bring renewable energy to the reservation.

"It's not only a potential revenue source but a job creator," he said. The tribe has had discussions with partners to propose projects for a PSEG Long Island bidding request for power on the South Fork, but hasn't yet submitted a bid, he said.

"PSEG rates are outrageous and it's really affecting our lives," said Lance Gumbs, who was a trustee when the tribe won federal recognition on Oct. 1, 2010. "Anytime alternative energy can be brought to the nation for homes and government, it's a welcome addition."

Funding to continue the effort to 48 other homes at Shinnecock still needs to raised, and Grid Alternatives is seeking donations.

The federal government has programs for larger-scale renewable power system for tribes, said Kevin K. Washburn, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, but the programs are not for solar panels on homes. Grid Alternatives has been working with private donors to continue the work.

It will require around $1 million for the Shinnecock project, officials said.Homeowner Marion Phillips said the tribe held a lottery to determine who would be first to receive a free solar-power system, and she didn't expect to win. "We never win anything," she said. She had previously looked into a solar-power system to help reduce her $170 monthly electric bill, but the installer never followed through.

As she watched Jewel work with volunteers to cut rails and ready them for installation on her roof, Phillips said she was thrilled with the notion of a lower energy bill -- a reduction of least $85 a month.

"I can do something with that," she said. "Nothing is free, but sometimes it is."

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