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Tribal Lands: An Emerging Market for Renewable Energy Development

Renewable energy projects on tribal lands are fast becoming a reality. Tribal communities in the Southwestern United States reside on lands that are known to be rich with potential for the development of solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal facilities on a large commercial scale. Studies have found that tribal lands nationwide have the potential for producing up to 10 percent of the United States' renewable energy. This development could mean lower rates for electricity, new directions for the nation's energy industry and a new economic reality for some Native American tribes and their neighboring communities. To that end, tribal communities such as the Navajo Nation have begun to own and develop renewable energy projects on tribal lands.

This is no small feat.  For decades, tribal communities in this region have suffered high unemployment, poor social conditions and widespread poverty.  As the demand in the West for renewable energy grows, tribes have now recognized that they can diversify their resources and sell renewable energy and leverage their assets to spur economic development.  This could create an emerging, domestic market that would serve as a vehicle for economic development and a source of long-term revenue for tribal communities.

Critics often dismiss the viability of renewable projects on tribal lands, stating that projects are subject to delays, regulatory hurdles, and lack of expertise by the tribes to develop renewable projects.  These are myths that reflect a misunderstanding of tribal communities and ignore the efforts underway to clear the hurdles to renewable energy development.  In reality, tribes are working with Congress to clear federal regulatory hurdles to development on their lands, and successfully partnering with renewable energy developers or developing projects on their own.

Recently on February 16, 2012, the U.S. Senate held an oversight hearing on energy development on tribal lands.  Representatives of the Navajo Nation, the Jicarilla Apache Nation, and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, among others, submitted testimony to Congress concerning the need to clear federal regulatory hurdles for the development of energy projects on tribal lands.  The tribes addressed ways to streamline approval processes for energy development, including applicability of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to the use of tribal lands and resources, dual taxation by states and tribes, and federal agency regulatory requirements on tribes and tribal resources.  The tribes urged the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to support legislation that would remove these hurdles.

Notwithstanding the hurdles, tribes such as the Navajo Nation are actively pursuing the ownership and development of renewable energy projects on its lands.  The Big Boquillas Ranch project is a proposed wind generation facility that will be constructed on Navajo lands in an area known as Aubrey Cliffs, near Seligman, Arizona.  The project will have an estimated capacity of 85 MW for the first phase of development, and 200 MW for the second phase of development.  The first phase is scheduled for completion by December 2013.  It will be the Navajo Nation’s first tribally owned utility-scale project.  

Another project is a wind generation facility, located on Gray Mountain on the Navajo Nation’s land in Arizona.  It has been found to be a prime location for wind generation, and will be owned by the Nation jointly with other partners.  It will have an estimated capacity of 250 to 500 megawatts of wind power.  Efforts are also underway for the Navajo Nation to develop commercial solar projects on their lands. 

These are projects under development that will be located within close proximity to existing transmission corridors and the Navajo Transmission Project, a large proposed transmission line that is well under development.  The Navajo Transmission Project will consist of a 500 kV transmission line that will stretch 470 miles from New Mexico to Nevada.  The largest segment of the project will have the capacity to deliver renewable energy from projects developed on tribal lands.

These projects are significant examples of tribal efforts to diversify resources of power supply on a commercial scale and provide local benefits to their communities.  The development of projects on Navajo lands will create jobs for the local community, and a revenue source from the sale of renewable power.  As these projects will increase competition for renewable energy sources, consumers will also benefit from the opportunities to purchase clean energy at competitive prices. 

Clearly, everyone stands to gain from the development of renewable energy projects on tribal lands.  This growing trend will undoubtedly play an important role in the future demand for renewable energy resources nationwide.

Image: Paul B. Moore via Shutterstock

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