Photo by Snohomish Public Utility District.
The Tulalip Tribes’ gathering hall is designed to look like a traditional longhouse. It regularly houses hundreds of visitors and is designed to host communal ceremonies, from celebratory dances to funerals.

Tulalip Tribes Plans Microgrid for Resiliency

June 5, 2024
Snohomish PUD provides design and engineering support as the Tulalip Tribes of Washington plan its own microgrid, looking to create a resiliency zone in the long term.

Located on Puget Sound in the northwest corner of the state of Washington, the Tulalip Tribes Reservation juts out into Port Susan and faces westward, toward Whidbey and Camano islands. With more than 15 miles (24 km) of coastline, it boasts 22,000 acres (8903 hectares) of rich natural resources, including tidelands, wetlands, forests and marine waters.

For generations, elders of the Salish Sea tribe built beautiful cedar canoes by hand to ply the waters from Canada to Oregon and fish for abundant salmon.

In today’s world, the forests of towering old growth combined with the open seas means something entirely different. Regularly during the winter months, brazen winds curl off the Pacific Ocean and smash into the tribal land and surrounding communities, causing trees and limbs to come crashing down. That often means extended power outages.

In November 2022, most of the residents and businesses on the reservation, including critical infrastructure, lost power for multiple days after a significant windstorm pounded the region. During the outage, the main circuit board for one of the tribes’ diesel generators blew, making it unusable and plunging multiple buildings that provide critical community support into cold and darkness.

“That was a real eye-opener for us,” said Angel Cortez, Tulalip Tribes’ emergency management preparedness manager.

Powering Emergencies

Designed to look like a traditional longhouse, the Tulalip Tribes’ gathering hall is a magnificent structure that stretches out nearly the length of a football field and stands as tall as a three-story building, with vaulted ceilings and a spacious interior. It regularly houses hundreds of visitors and is designed to host communal ceremonies, from celebratory dances to funerals.

The Tulalip Tribes prides itself on being innovative. Built in 2019, the gathering hall was built to not only host large events and bring tribal members together but also be a place where the community could shelter during an emergency. The hall includes a giant, commercial-grade kitchen, full bathroom facilities with showers, meeting rooms, underground storage and more, making it ideal for housing many people for an extended period.

“The gathering hall plays a critical role in our emergency response for our community,” said Cortez. “It is situated close to other critical facilities, like our health clinic and learning academy, so that it can be that centralized place where we point people to.”

Powering a building like the gathering hall through an outage becomes that much more important as the number of people sheltering there increases. For years, diesel generators have been the answer to keeping lights on for critical infrastructure. But recently, microgrids have started to supplant diesel power as a cleaner, more reliable option.

Tulalip Tribes leadership did not have to look far to learn more about a successful microgrid. Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD), which is the tribe’s electric provider, built its innovative Arlington microgrid in 2020. Made up of a 500-kW solar array, 1-MW/1.4-MWh Lithium-ion battery energy storage system and a pair of vehicle-to-grid electric vehicle chargers, the Arlington microgrid has given PUD engineers expertise on how microgrids work in the real world.

“I refer to our microgrid as a clean energy backup generator with a day job,” said Scott Gibson, Snohomish PUD manager of battery storage and emerging technologies. “Day-to-day, it will be connected to the grid and help integrate renewable energy. But in an emergency, the microgrid will be able to keep PUD buildings on-site powered and available for our workers.”

The idea of building a microgrid on the tribe’s land truly began to take shape when a group of electrical engineering students from Washington State University approached the Tulalip Tribes and PUD about conducting a feasibility study on how microgrids could help the tribe’s gathering hall and administration building.

The yearlong study used a solar-plus-battery design and found a microgrid would increase the tribe’s resiliency and energy security, while also providing opportunities for younger generations to learn about clean, renewable energy.

“A project like this could help not only the Tulalip Tribe and the PUD, but the entire region,” said Steve Hinton, a project manager and conservation scientist with the Tulalip Tribes.

Sharing Knowledge

Now is a great time for tribes across the U.S. to invest in clean energy projects. Through the Inflation Reduction Act, as much as US$14 billion in subsidies and incentives, some in the form of direct payments, are available for tribes to put toward building clean energy projects.

The Tulalip Tribes was recently awarded $2 million in funding from the Washington state Department of Commerce’s Clean Energy Fund 5 to build a microgrid that would help to keep the gathering hall and associated buildings powered during an emergency.

The Tulalip Tribes is also the lead applicant on a U.S. Department of Energy grant and was recently awarded $600,000 as part of the department’s Grid Resiliency and Innovation Partnerships program. Funds from the latter grant will go to the installation of smart reclosers and other communication equipment that enables a microgrid to connect and disconnect from the PUD’s main grid.

One of the stumbling blocks for tribes that receive clean energy funding is navigating how to interconnect these clean energy projects into the grid and secure agreements with local electric utilities like Snohomish PUD. That is where the PUD’s proactive help came in, including guidance and support in building projects and integrating tribal-owned distributed energy resources (DERs) onto the larger grid.

That was part of the motivation for the PUD when Tulalip Tribes first pitched the idea of building its own microgrid in 2018.

“We wanted to develop the expertise and know-how that could be passed on to future partners hoping to build their own systems,” Gibson said. “Tulalip has been a great partner throughout this process, and our ability to partner with them early will help everyone realize full benefits.”

The PUD provided design and engineering help as the Tulalip Tribes planned its own microgrid.

“The PUD has been fantastic in sharing their depth of experience and knowledge,” Hinton noted. “It truly feels like an equal partnership.”

With the help of the PUD, the Tulalip Tribes settled on a microgrid made up of a 100-kW rooftop solar array, 1-MW/2-MWh Lithium-ion battery energy storage system and an existing 1.5-MW diesel generator. The plan is for the microgrid to be disconnected from the PUD’s grid to power the gathering hall and create an energy oasis during an extended power outage.

A Resiliency Zone

But what if the microgrid was just the first phase? The PUD’s assistance has resulted in not only a microgrid for the gathering hall and administration building but also the larger idea of an entire resiliency zone to aid more of the Tulalip community.

“If similar microgrids could be constructed at more of the tribe’s facilities, it could create a network of resilient microgrids that would operate independently from the grid and provide increased resiliency for even more people,” said Alex Chorey, PUD energy storage and emerging technologies engineer.

Building these types of microgrids could be a learning opportunity for the PUD, as well. Helping to develop a microgrid not operated by the utility but connected to its system would help the PUD to better understand how to best integrate complex DERs onto its grid.

The idea of protecting natural resources and partnering with others to share information is not new to the Tulalip Tribes.

“In our culture it is important to be good neighbors and help those around us,” Cortez said. “We want to help not only our community members but all of our neighbors. We’re all in this together.”

About the Author

Aaron Swaney

Aaron Swaney is a public relations and media liaison with Snohomish County PUD. Swaney is a 2001 graduate of the University of Washington with a BA in Political Science. Before joining Snohomish PUD, he was a reporter and editor for The Daily Herald in Everett, Washington, for more than a decade.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of T&D World, create an account today!