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A 26-acre solar farm is in the works for the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, which has been awarded $2 million in federal construction funding.

The project, to be located near Busby, should generate 2.6 megawatts of power, enough electricity to power about 470 homes.

The details for delivery are still being worked out, but Kyle Atwood, project director, said Monday the solar farm has 18 months to be completed.

“Clean energy really aligns with our cultural values and could create jobs for the community. This should be an opportunity to employ some people and give them incentive on higher education,” said Atwood, who studied electrical  engineering at Montana State University and recently graduated. 

The Northern Cheyenne launched a renewable energy initiative in 2016. The White River Community Solar Project is a big step in that goal, Atwood said. The energy is needed.

Located in a southeast portion of Montana where there isn’t natural gas service, residents of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation either rely on electricity to heat their homes, or use propane delivered by truck. Both services can be expensive.

“We pay so much for electricity. We just got done with a survey of the community and we found the electric bills range from $250 to $450 a month,” Atwood said. "That’s very expensive.”

The tribe is still determining how the power will be delivered. There’s been some discussion with Tongue River Electric Cooperative about selling the power to the co-op. TRECO, as the cooperative is known, is the main source of electricity for the Rosebud County portion of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Big Horn Electric Cooperative serves portions of the reservation in Big Horn County.

The energy business is not new to the Northern Cheyenne, but the tribe sees a need to be more engaged, Atwood said, both for energy reasons and economic ones.

Less than a half-hour up the road, Colstrip Power Plant and Rosebud Coal Mine have been reliable employers for the Northern Cheyenne since the 1970s. But the power plant’s future appears uncertain. The two oldest of the Colstrip’s four units are scheduled to close at year’s end. Power plant operator and co-owner Talen Energy said this spring the units were uneconomical at current coal prices. Westmoreland Mining LLC is seeking a price increase for its Rosebud coal. The LLC is comprised of creditors of the former Westmoreland Coal Co., which went bankrupt over winter.

For the White River Solar Project, the U.S. Department of Energy, awarded $2 million with the expectation that the Northern Cheyenne match the funding equally. In addition to the solar farm, the Northern Cheyenne plans to use solar panels for more of the electricity used by its government buildings.

Federal funding was also announced for the a 50,039-square-foot wellness center at the Fort Peck Reservation. There, energy efficiency measures and a rooftop solar system should reduce energy bills by 29%, saving the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes $31,561 per year.

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