Friday, May 20, 2016

Tribes & Renewables Part II: Benefits of Renewable Development on Tribal Land

Nevada Senator Harry Reid and members of the Moapa Band
 of Paiute break ground on the Moapa Southern Paiute Solar project.

By Andrea Lang, Policy Analyst

In the United States, tribal land contains huge potential for developing renewable projects. According to the Department of Energy, American Indian land makes up 2% of all U.S. land, but contains a disproportional 5% of the nation’s renewable energy resources, including an estimated 14 billion megawatt-hours of solar resources and 1.1 billion megawatt-hours of wind resources. Part I of my blog series on tribes and renewable energy described the potentially devastating effects of climate change on tribes, and the high cost (financially and morally) of asking tribes to adapt to those effects. Developing renewable energy projects on tribal lands can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector and help increase tribal resilience to climate change. But renewable development can have other benefits for tribes, as well.  This week, Part II of the series explores the benefits of renewable development on tribal land. In particular, this post discusses how renewable projects on tribal land can provide (1) a source of revenue generation for tribes, (2) a relatively low-cost option for electrifying rural tribal communities, and (3) jobs and training to tribal community members.

Revenue Generation:

First, building renewable energy systems can provide tribes with a steady source of revenue to help tribal economies. Tribes can construct large utility-scale solar or wind projects and sell the power to utilities. For example, the Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory point out that state Renewable Portfolio Standards–which require utilities to obtain a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources–create a demand that tribes can take advantage of to enter into power purchase agreements with utilities that provide long-term, steady sources of revenue for the tribes.

Alternatively, tribes can use the renewable energy they generate to power their own reservation. Most tribes currently purchase electricity generated outside the borders of the reservation. By providing their communities with power generated within the reservation, tribes can keep the money otherwise spent on outside electricity purchases within their own communities in order to aid their economies. For example, the Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians in California built a 1,900 megawatt solar project, allowing them to reduce reliance on the tribe’s outside utility by about 25%.

Electrification for Rural Tribal Members

Second, building renewable energy projects on tribal land can provide tribes with much-needed electricity infrastructure. According to the Energy Information Administration, 14% of tribal households lack access to the electric grid, compared to the 1.4% national average. Many tribes lack reliable electricity because they are located in sparsely populated rural areas that are not connected to the interstate grid. For these communities, distributed renewable power can be a common-sense and relatively low-cost way to provide reliable power to tribal members. For example, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority has had a renewable energy program in place since 2000 that provides hybrid solar and wind energy systems to rural Navajo households. Compared to the tens of thousands of dollars it would cost to connect these communities to the grid, these distributed renewable generation options are a significant improvement over the unreliable and dirty diesel generators and kerosene lanterns these households had been using.

Jobs and Training

Finally, building new renewable projects on tribal land can create jobs for tribal communities. A National Wildlife Federation report on “The New Energy Future in Indian Country” details the jobs likely to be created by renewable development on tribal land, including construction, installation, operations, and maintenance of renewable energy systems. For example, the ongoing construction of the Moapa Southern Paiute Solar Project (pictured above) has created around 400 construction jobs and will provide seven ongoing operations jobs. Although many jobs will likely be temporary, lasting only until the project has been completely constructed, tribal members who received on-the-job training will be in a good position to obtain future green building jobs.

Next week’s post in this series will discuss some of the barriers to tribal development of renewable projects and explore some existing and suggested policy solutions to overcome these barriers.

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