Mashpee's Wampanoags are Saving Sustainably
By: Peter C. Roby
At the Mashpee Wampanoag headquarters this week, tribal elders considered ways to go solar while saving money and combating climate change. Tuesday’s lunch-and-learn meal disseminated information about saving on electric bills with the JOE-4-SUN community solar offering by Citizens Energy, as well as rooftop solar options through Boundless Energy.
Shakira Askew, the coordinator of federal fuel assistance efforts for the Wampanoag, said many tribal members have already subscribed to JOE-4-SUN, which also visited in March. She brought Citizens Energy back to give seniors another opportunity to learn about the community solar program alongside rooftop solar options.
“The JOE-4-SUN program has been excellent and all I’ve heard is great things,” said Askew, “So many tribal members have saved money.”
Renewable energy offerings were one example of the curated resources that the sovereign tribe shares with its citizens at these twice-weekly gatherings. Seated around folding tables, elders leaned into their discussions when school-aged youth played irreverently in the other half of the gymnasium.
“It’s really wide-ranging, pretty much all of the things that elders would need,” explained Askew after listing off the range of basic assistance, public health and cost-saving services offered at Tuesday-Thursday lunch-and-learn meals.
Emerging from the kitchen, where she helped prepare 92 meals for elders to eat on-site and at home, Sonya Avant said she signed up for JOE-4-SUN months ago to rein in rising energy costs.
“I was on a budget, but I would miss,” said Avant, a Wampanoag member. “My electric bill—I couldn’t afford to pay it.” She continued, “I got a lot of help from JOE-4-SUN.”
As a low-income community solar initiative, JOE-4-SUN generates electricity from utility-scale, ground-mounted solar arrays around the state and sends the power to the electric grid. Generally, JOE-4-SUN subscribers receive discounts on their electric bill, saving an average of $300 a year. But members of the federally recognized Aquinnah and Mashpee bands of the Wampanoag Tribe receive additional discounts thanks to Citizens Energy’s partnership with Vineyard Wind. The offshore wind developer is now building the largest sea-based wind farm in the United States off the coast of Massachusetts.
“For the Wampanoag, JOE-4-SUN is a straightforward savings program with no strings attached—no fees, no new utility, no change in rates, no installations,” said Citizens Energy’s Tess McKenna. Citing strong interest at the lunch in Mashpee, she said 15 people signed up. “If you aren’t sure if you qualify, call us up and our customer service team will help you find out. It only takes ten minutes to apply and you’ll save at least $600.”
Another attendee, Pauline Peters has been subscribed to JOE-4-SUN for months. She attends both weekly lunch-and-learn events before joining Wôpanâak language classes in the afternoon.
“I was telling everybody that I signed up when they were here before,” she said. As a proponent of renewable energy, Peters, a retired pediatric nurse, also has solar panels on her roof. When “you get to be older,” she said, “you need all the help you can get.”
Sherry Peters, no relation, finished applying to the community solar program by submitting a copy of her utility bill. She also quizzed the Boundless Energy team on the specifics of their offering and left satisfied that both options could tame rising electric costs. “There’s just so much that you get from Social Security,” she said, “There’s just so much you get from pensions.”
At 26, Dyani Barbosa shared Peters’ apprehension for rising costs of living in and around Mashpee. But, she praised cost-savers like JOE-4-SUN with counteracting those trends. With “just prices of everything and inflation,” she said, “it’s just helped a lot with our finances.”
“I love my home and I don’t plan on leaving,” Barbosa continued. But “trying to find places to rent around the Cape—it’s ridiculous,” she said.
Barbosa sympathized with tribal households raising children, saying community solar credits from JOE-4-SUN meant “less costs to worry about, less stress off your back too, especially if you have a big family and a lot going on in your household.”
Alongside the community solar offering, tribal citizens were presented with rooftop solar options. Browning Medina, the Massachusetts Energy Specialist for Boundless Energy, said his company was helping homeowners to assess and finance rooftop solar panels. He recounted conversations with tribal members about how to “cut down on the emissions that we are causing to this land” by harnessing “more energy that The Creator has provided for the Wampanoag tribe.”
Medina was confident in his ability to provide residents savings with no upfront cost. “I, normally, can save homeowners 25 to 50 percent on their energy bill,” he said. Attending their first lunch-and-learn, his company collected tribal members’ contact information to follow up in the future.
Like those before, this lunch-and-learn offered seniors an invaluable sense of connection to community.
“We are all related,” said Wampanoag member Nancy Rose, likening the tribe’s regular meals to a family dinner. “It’s a lot of laughter, a lot of fun.” Rose credited the tribe’s skillful cooks for the meal-series’ turnout.
Citizens Energy is a Boston-based nonprofit founded in 1979 by former Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II to make life’s basic needs more affordable. It’s distributed over $600 million in charitable benefits over the last four decades. Citizens Energy uses profits from successful energy ventures to benefit the poor.