New project to help Native nations transition to electric, alternative fuels in transportation

The Washington State University Energy Program is working with Native nations across four states to convert their transportation to electric and alternative fuels, helping those communities make use of future opportunities.

A white vehicle with the words SECURITY Angel of the Winds on the side. It's driving in a parking lot, with several parking spaces painted with EV charging station access.
Security professionals drive electric vehicles at the Angel of the Winds Casino, operated by the Stillaguamish people.

“This transition to electric transportation isn’t a choice — it’s going to happen,” said Jim Jensen, a bioenergy and alternative fuels specialist with the WSU Energy Program. “We’re talking with Native nations to understand their challenges and learn how we can help them ensure the impacts are beneficial to their communities.”

The work is possible thanks to a new three-year, $1.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The team, led by Jensen and the WSU Energy Program, will work with Native nations in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana.

The WSU Energy Program is using some of the funding to help Native nations partner with rural utilities on transportation electrification projects, Jensen said. Most reservations are located in rural areas with small utility providers.

One of the first orders of business is learning about different nations’ goals by establishing an advisory committee of Native peoples who have experience and interest in the transition to electric transportation.

 “I want the people we work with to tell us what they want and for us to help them accomplish those goals,” Jensen said. “That would be success to me.”

That spirit of collaboration is important to people already involved in the early stages of this work.

“This is the first time tribes have had a seat at the table, an opportunity to advocate for what we need and want when it comes to clean energy,” said Donald Williams, owner of energy firm From the Light Consulting and an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. “Tribes are being asked what they need. This program is an opportunity for them to provide insight into what they feel is their direction for development.”

Side by side portraits of Donald Williams and Jim Jensen
Donald Williams, left, and Jim Jensen

Williams was one of the first allies Jensen reached out to when applying for the grant. Williams is excited to work with groups from around all four states, where different nations are at different stages of energy transition.

“Some are already implementing energy strategy plans to align with the clean energy transition, and some are just starting to think about what they want to do,” Williams said. “This program will help people avoid missing opportunities, like not hearing about grants or funding mechanisms for clean energy projects.”

One opportunity for Native organizations is to improve infrastructure to speed up the electrification transition. That could mean installing electric vehicle charging stations at existing fueling stations or casinos, but it goes beyond that.

“Electric vehicle car share programs could be useful for some groups,” Jensen said. “Some nations may be interested in building out hydrogen facilities or maybe switching fleets like school busses or shuttles to electrical power.

“We won’t dictate what each nation should do,” he added. “We want to work with them to find out what will be the biggest benefit. It’s a true partnership.”