Jonathan Weiss/shutterstock

Jonathan Weiss/shutterstock

Along with benefiting the health of the planet and its inhabitants, solar power can increase housing affordability and be an economic equalizer and empowerment vehicle. A recent round of grants from Wells Fargo backs a Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund to bring clean energy and related economic boons to Native Americans. Wells Fargo also gives for housing, education, arts and other causes.

But while this financial giant gave $444 million to 11,000 nonprofits in 2018, philanthropy is not what first comes to many people’s minds when they think of Wells Fargo these days.

The country’s fourth-largest bank’s list of misdeeds includes predatory lending and other mortgage-abuses, fake customer accounts and auto-insurance fraud, among others, and it has already paid billions in related fines, fees, and legal settlements. Meanwhile, somewhat contradictorily, it has used its philanthropy to fuel multiple housing initiatives, including a June 2019 commitment to spend $1 billion to address housing affordability. Big banks choosing to back housing, employment or financial inclusion is nothing new. These strategies can address a financial company’s societal harms, expand its employee and customer base, and serve its bottom line. As JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon has argued, more prosperous and equitable cities can bring greater profits to the banking sector.

Boosting solar power for tribes is similar to these types of community investment initiatives. Renewable energy can lower utility costs, positively benefit public health, and increase tribal self-sufficiency and economic stability. The new grants also align with Wells Fargo’s specific philanthropic commitments to serve Native communities and support environmental groups. At the same time, Wells Fargo continues to experience criticism and divestment over backing fossil fuel projects, especially those like the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) that threaten Native lands. The contradictions within Wells Fargo’s business dealings and philanthropic pursuits raise interesting questions about how big, complex companies can have a positive social impact or make cultural and environmental amends.

Bringing Solar Power to Tribal Communities

Funders interested in climate change, environmental justice or humanitarian aid give to solar power programs locally, regionally, nationally and globally. The U.S. solar economy has been largely moored in projects for industry and higher-earning homeowners. Communities of color tend to use less solar energy than white communities, even when factors like household income and homeownership are accounted for, a 2019 study found. But more initiatives that seek to bring green energy and, in some cases, jobs to a broader swath of society are sprouting up.

GRID Alternatives (GRID) runs the tribal solar project Wells Fargo funds and is a major player in efforts to democratize solar energy; it aims to make solar power and jobs accessible to low-income communities and communities of color. Along with Wells Fargo, GRID receives support from the JPB Foundation, Bank of America, green energy companies like Enphase Energy, and an anonymous fund of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, among many others.

Since 2010, GRID’s national Tribal Program has helped Native American communities harness renewable energy and enter the solar workforce. In 2018, GRID also launched the Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund to speed up the creation of new solar projects in tribal communities across the country. Wells Fargo, which has backed GRID since 2012, supported the launch of the Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund with a commitment of $5 million over three years. The most recent fund grants, announced in July 2019, go to 14 tribes and tribal organizations, including the Big Pine Paiute Tribe, Chemehuevi Indian Tribe and Kashia Band of Pomo Indians.

Wells Fargo’s grants reflect a growing push to help indigenous communities embrace solar power. Other examples are the Wallace Global Fund and MIT supporting the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe with renewable energy funding and a renewable energy fellowship, respectively, in response to the 2016 anti-DAPL/ water protectors movement. And multiple other tribes have already embraced solar energy, including the Navajo Nation and the Sokaogon Chippewa, Hoopa Valley Chemehuevi and Southern Ute Tribes.

Tanksi Clairmont, member of the Lakota and Dakota tribes and director of the Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund, tells us “energy sovereignty and renewable energy [are] woven together.” She says, “In Indian Country,” there has always been a “sense of sovereignty, self-determination and environmental and cultural stewardship.”

Wells Fargo’s Giving to Environmental and Native American Causes

In 2012, Wells Fargo made a commitment to give $100 million to environmental issues by 2020. Ramsay Huntley, Wells Fargo vice president, and Clean Technology and Innovation Philanthropy program officer, tells us the bank exceeded this goal and provided more than $119 million to nonprofit organizations focused on environmental sustainability. The company has also met its corporate responsibility environmental sustainability goal to meet 100 percent of its global electricity needs with renewable energy, partially through the purchase of renewable energy certificates. Huntley says it also reduced greenhouse gas emissions and made significant progress on other in-house environmental goals.

Along with its support for GRID’s work, Huntley says the bank is particularly proud of its Innovation Incubator, a $30 million philanthropic partnership with the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which accelerates the path to market for clean tech-focused on energy efficiency and sustainable agriculture.

We asked whether Wells Fargo’s environmental giving is intended to counter or balance its fossil fuel investments. Huntley says it’s not. He says its philanthropy is instead designed to “complement and support” its corporate responsibility objectives, some of which center on environmental sustainability. He says the financial institution works throughout its value chain to speed up the shift “to a low-carbon economy.” When it comes to the business side of things, as one of the largest lenders to both conventional and renewable energy sectors, Huntley says Wells Fargo focuses on supporting “traditional energy customers as they transition to cleaner fuels and generation methods.”

Wells Fargo’s financing for DAPL, the Keystone XL Pipeline and other fossil fuel projects often put it at odds with indigenous tribes. When Seattle voted to divest from Wells Fargo in 2017, citing its role in DAPL and the fake accounts scandal, Wells Fargo commercial banking manager for Washington state, Mary Knell, said she was “disappointed” in the move, because the bank is bound by its pipeline contract. She also said the bank has "enhanced our due diligence on projects such as this to include more research into whether indigenous communities are affected and that they have been properly consulted."

Wells Fargo currently provides capital and financial services to more than 200 tribal entities in 27 states. In 2017, it announced it would commit $50 million over five years to address the economic, social and environmental needs of American Indian and Alaska Native communities. The move was led by its consultations and dialogues with various tribal leaders and members. As we’ve covered, Native Americans, a diverse cohort of about 5.4 million, make up almost 2 percent of the U.S. population, but philanthropic support for their communities and causes remains low—the focus of less than 0.5 percent of annual foundation grant dollars.

A Tough Choice for Grantees?

We asked if the GRID team felt conflicted about accepting Wells Fargo’s funds for solar projects. Adam Bad Wound of the Lakota tribe, GRID vice president of philanthropy and founder of the Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund, says, "Any service organization that relies on external funding has to grapple with tough questions like these.” He points out Wells Fargo is a longtime supporter of the organization, “and we’ve been able to do a lot of good work together.” He also says that through the fund, GRID believes it’s creating solar energy projects “that wouldn’t otherwise get built, saving tribes and families money and providing job training and other [economic] opportunities."

We also asked Edgar Villanueva, member of the Lumbee tribe, board chair of Native Americans in Philanthropy and vice president of Programs and Advocacy at the Schott Foundation, for his take on Wells Fargo backing the tribal solar program. He says, “Many foundations and financial institutions have harmed and exploited communities, especially communities of color, and have sought to right their wrongs with money, in a sense using money as medicine to repair relationships.” But the recency of Wells Fargo’s wrongdoing, its active harmful investments and its for-profit status “give me pause,” he says. But he points out there are also nonprofit foundations that “do good with one hand and harm with the other,” such as those who supported efforts at Standing Rock without divesting from the DAPL. Villanueva also mentions a central premise of his book, Decolonizing Wealth, that, in America, “the accumulation of wealth is steeped with trauma and closely connected with colonial dynamics.”

But he doesn’t “point fingers at anyone taking the money.” He says, unfortunately, “sometimes, Native American communities, who have suffered from [colonial] dynamics the longest in this country, are left with very few options for capital. We’ve been redlined by banks, marginalized by philanthropy, and we fight erasure every single day.”

Due to its many errors and crimes, Wells Fargo is currently under an asset cap, the first ever imposed on the entire assets of a financial institution by the Federal Reserve. Its assets cannot rise above about $1.9 trillion until it convinces regulators it has reformed. Lending and deposits continue to fall but, because it has shuttered branches and cut expenses, its profits increased in early 2019. Its stock has flat lined since the fake-accounts were exposed in 2016 and, to appease shareholders, it has since spent an average of $3.2 billion each quarter on stock buybacks, according to a CNN analysis.

These big numbers reveal the scale of Wells Fargo’s philanthropy. For example, the $50 million it committed to Native American communities over five years is about 0.003 percent of its assets. The $119 million it spent on environmental philanthropy over the last eight years is about 3.7 percent of the amount it is using for stock buybacks every three months.

Villanueva “hopes and prays” that the bank’s “recent investments in our communities are coming from a place of recognizing they have work to do to repair the harm they’ve caused… Throwing money at the wound will not cause it to be forgotten, and authentic partnership and healing will only come through a recognition of the wrongs that have occurred, and when apologies are extended. Reconciliation begins with truth.”

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