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Native American power: Native American tribes are tapping into alternative energy sources with great benefits to themselves and their neighbors.

Developing renewable energy just may be a booming industry for many tribes in Indian Country. More and more tribes are looking at clean alternative energy sources to power their homes and bring in jobs, all while respecting Mother Earth's resources. They are tapping power from solar and geothermal sources, and from wind, biomass, hydrogen and ocean waves.

"Renewable energy has the potential to be as big--or bigger--a revenue generator for tribes as casinos are for some of them today," says Lizana Pierce of the U.S. Department of Energy in Golden, Colo. "Currently, tribal land encompasses about 5 percent of the land in the lower 48 states and contains about 10 percent of all energy resources--conventional and renewable."

POTENTIAL ABOUNDS

Wind and solar energy especially have great potential on tribal lands. The wind energy capacity on tribal lands is approximately 14 percent of the annual U.S. electric generation. The solar energy potential is 4.5 times the annual U.S. electric generation. The two dozen reservations in the northern Great Plains have a combined wind power potential that exceeds 300 gigawatts--half of the current electrical generation in the United States.

New energy projects are popping up all around the country. The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Central Oregon are on their way to becoming a major energy supplier in the Pacific Northwest. The tribes' own interest in two large hydroelectric projects and a biomass project that operates on wood waste from the tribes' lumber mill. Another project in the works is a large biomass plant that will use forest waste to generate renewable electricity for more than 15,000 homes. With funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, Warm Springs also is working on a wind energy assessment, and is studying geothermal resources on the reservation.

There are more examples around the country. A wind turbine powers Four Bears Casino near Ft. Berthoud, N.D. The Mohegan Nation in Uncasville, Conn., tapped the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund to finance two giant fuel cells that use hydrogen and operate like a battery. This cleaner power replaces diesel generators as the source of emergency power for the tribe's gambling facility. The tribe plans eventually to go off-grid by adding more fuel cells for their main power source as well.

HELPING THEIR OWN

One-third of the 2.4 million Native Americans living on or near tribal lands live in poverty. The unemployment rate is double the national average. There are an estimated 18,000 Lilies in the Navajo Nation alone still living without electricity.

"Our hope is that if the tribes choose to develop these renewable energy resources," says DOE's Pierce, "it could enable local economic development and contribute to additional jobs."

For some tribes, taking on renewable energy projects means helping members pay for, and in some cases acquire, power. If tribes can generate their own power, they can lower utility bills and bring power to more people.

Energy projects also provide new jobs, and potential profits translate into additional assets for tribes. In some cases not only do tribes benefit, but so do the areas near the reservation. A handful of tribes supply power to neighboring communities, which can be beneficial for the tribes as well as the surrounding area.

Funding for new projects can be a challenge, however. Many tribes have been able to invest their own money, while others have turned to banks, the federal government and other tribes. Since 1992, the Tribal Energy Program at the U.S. Department of Energy has supported tribes with renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies to encourage self-sufficiency, economic development and employment opportunities. So far, the DOE has invested $12.4 million in 76 projects in Indian Country with tribes putting in around $3.3 million.

GREEN TAGS

Tribes can also benefit by selling the environmental benefits of clean energy through energy certificates called "green tags." Anyone who wants to offset the polluting effects of personal energy use can purchase clean energy--that is powered by wind, solar or other renewable resources--by buying these green tags, instead of or to complement traditional power.

Native Energy, for example, bought green tag credits from the Rosebud Sioux wind turbine project in South Dakota. Native Energy purchased the green tags for the life of the project--rather than on a year-by-year basis--allowing the tribe to acquire upfront capital to fund the wind turbine project. Native Energy is reselling the tags, which represent clean, carbon-free electricity, to people and businesses who want to support renewable energy. Since March 2003, the sale of green tags and excess power to a regional electric company has brought $500,000 in profit.

The Native Energy and Rosebud Sioux deal will produce enough energy to power approximately 220 South Dakota homes a year, and will offset an estimated 2,100 tons of carbon dioxide pollution annually over the turbine's expected lifespan.

The tribe also built a renewable and energy-efficient home, which operates on wind energy with a small turbine, solar power and geothermal energy. It incorporates energy efficiency mechanisms, such as trees for shading, that can serve to cool the structure.

Private investors are eager to pursue collaboration with tribes because they see profit in developing renewable energy projects on tribal lands. But trust is a big issue for both parties. Investors fear tribal sovereignty and worry that the tribe could shut them out of the process at any time. Tribes are hesitant to work with private investors because of a history of exploitation and broken promises.

Most tribes have created their own utility and make an effort to cooperate with local ones. This has been successful because few utilities can stand alone. The very connectedness of the electricity grid makes cooperation a given. Most see tribal renewable projects as a benefit to the local community and a means to provide more clean power.

Jurisdictional issues may arise if a tribe wants to purchase existing facilities on its land from a utility. These legal matters are often worked out, however, and transmission, interconnection and power agreements follow. The Umpqua Indian Utility Cooperative is the first tribal utility to acquire existing utility infrastructure and begin operation with a different power supplier. The cooperative purchases power from the Bonneville Power Administration and distributes it at its casino and truck stop locations by Canyonville, Ore.

MEETING STATE STANDARDS

Nevada's requirements for clean, sustainable electricity from renewables--at least 5 percent of electricity must come from renewable energy sources--spurred a geothermal project on the Paiute Reservation in the northwestern part of the state.

Geothermal power uses the earth's heat to generate electricity. The tribe is working with Advanced Thermal Systems to develop a facility at the hot springs in Pyramid Lake that will produce enough power for approximately 28,000 homes. The tribe hopes the project will help pay for the electrical costs of running five hatcheries they maintain for the endangered Lahontan cutthroat trout. Eventually, the tribe is expected to provide enough power to garner substantial revenue from electricity sales to the state power grid.

Another tribe, the Makah Indian Nation in Washington, hopes to harness the ocean's power. It is working with AquaEnergy Group to construct a pilot offshore wave energy power plant. Buoys, placed some 3.2 nautical miles offshore in water depths of about 150 feet, will generate enough electricity to power 150 homes in the area.

PROTECTING MOTHER EARTH

Using natural resources on tribal lands for power--and to fight global warming--fits a core value shared among tribes: an innate respect for Mother Earth. Tony Rogers, a member of the Rosebud Tribe who serves on the Tribal Utility Commission, says the key is to make these energy sources available to tribal members while maintaining the desire to "protect Mother Earth from the abuse the human race has done."

Tribal governments, private investors, local governments and utility companies see the benefit of exploring alternative, clean sources of power. Washington Representative John McCoy says this is an important trend and one he hopes has sustainability.

"There are a number of tribes exploring alternative energy sources. Umatilla is working on wind; Tulalip will build a bio-digester this year. Makah has been working on waves," he says. "Tribes are concerned about global warming and its effects on the environment. Everyone should be concerned since it upsets the way every plant, creature and human lives. Major corporations have finally gotten the message and are now wanting to get something done."

"The revenues aren't lucrative, yet," says Sandra Begay-Campbell of Sandia National Laboratories. "But federal and state support for renewable energy is gaining momentum. As awareness of climate change and energy efficiency increases--along with the price of oil-renewable energy development will continue, and tribal renewable energy development will be in demand."

Kate Burke is NCSL's energy program manager and Linda Sikkema is director of NCSL's Institute for State-Tribal Relations.
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Author:Sikkema, Linda
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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