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First Major U.S. Solar Project Approved on Tribal Land

America's push toward large-scale solar took a landmark step in a new direction Thursday when the Obama administration approved a 350-megawatt (MW) PV project on tribal land 30 miles north of Las Vegas.

The project is the 31st utility-scale renewable development approved by the Department of the Interior (DOI) on public land since 2009, but it marks the first time such a project has gotten this far on tribal land. The DOI acts as the trustee for more than 55 million acres of tribal land and resources.

If built, the project would go on about 2,000 acres of tribal trust land of the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians in Clark County, Nev. According to the tribal website, two million acres were set aside in 1874, but two years later it was reduced to just 1,000 acres. In 1980, the Carter Administration restored 70,000 acres. The solar farm would take up about 3 percent of the tribe’s land.

The project would be owned by the tribe, but developed and operated by K Road Power. The K Road Moapa Solar project is expected to be built in three phases between 100 and 150 megawatts. It would also include a 500-kilovolt transmission line to the grid and a 12-kilovolt transmission line to the existing Moapa Travel Plaza, which already includes a casino, a store, a cafe, a gas station and what the tribe says is the largest fireworks selection in the West.

According to K Road — also the developer of the 850-MW Calico Solar project east of Barstow, Calif. — the first phase of Moapa Solar is targeted for completion by 2014. The project is expected to create 400 construction jobs at peak and about 15 to 20 permanent positions. At least a portion of those jobs are expected to go to tribal members. According to the DOI, the project will bring in lease income for the tribe over the 50-year term, though further details were not disclosed.

According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the tribe could work to strike a power purchase agreement (PPA) with NV Energy, the company it has been in legal battles with over emissions from a coal plant located just outside its territory. An NV Energy spokesperson told the paper that the utility does not currently need new solar contracts to meet renewable requirements, but that it wouldn’t rule out a PPA in the years ahead.

The approval further advances the Obama Administration’s agenda of forging ahead with large-scale solar projects on public lands. Since 2009, the administration has approved 17 solar projects, six wind farms and eight geothermal plants, creating a 7,200-MW pipeline on public land.

The move toward tribal lands could significantly increase the options for large-scale projects. In November, the administration proposed sweeping new leasing regulations that would streamline permitting for renewable energy projects on tribal lands.

“This is a great day for the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians, and for Indian Country as a whole,” said Donald “Del” Laverdure, Acting Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs. “As our nation’s energy portfolio continues to grow, it is important that tribal communities have the opportunity to harness the energy of the wind and sun in a way that can power our homes, businesses and economies. Today is a important step in that direction.”

Tara S. Kaushik, a senior associate with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, wrote on RenewableEnergyWorld.com in February that several tribes nationwide are working to build renewable energy projects on their land. It’s an endeavor with clear economic benefits, she added, but one with considerable challenges.

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