Native American Power: Native American Tribes Are Tapping into Alternative Energy Sources with Great Benefits to Themselves and Their Neighbors

By Burke, Kate; Sikkema, Linda | State Legislatures, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Native American Power: Native American Tribes Are Tapping into Alternative Energy Sources with Great Benefits to Themselves and Their Neighbors


Burke, Kate, Sikkema, Linda, State Legislatures


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. …

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