Indian lands contain 10 percent of the clean energy resources in the United States, according to a new report that details how a lack of financing has kept the 564 recognized tribes from realizing this potential. But a hint of change may be in the air.
Insufficient federal funding, limited tax credits and scarce access to transmission lines are among the obstacles getting in the way of a development boom, concludes the report by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and three Native American organizations.
As tax-exempt entities, tribes do not benefit from tax credits and loan guarantees — the main drivers of new energy growth. Beyond subsidies, transmission lines that tie into the U.S. electrical grid often skirt Indian lands, making utility-scale projects "unfeasible," the report said.
"Extending transmission lines over long distances can be astronomical," the authors wrote. They noted the price tag can top $10,000 per mile.
The report calls for "equitable access" to the same financing and resources granted to states and localities. The authors also want tribes to be included in regional transmission planning.
Pat Spears, co-founder and president of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, said large-scale clean energy projects on tribal lands could help "green the federal transmission grid that interconnects us all."
The authors call for individual turbines producing local power — cheaper than adding miles to the transmission infrastructure — as a near-term fix, especially for the most remote tribes.
In lieu of policy that breaks down these barriers, however, only baby steps have been made.
The first wind farm on tribal lands was completed in 2005 — a 60-megawatt, 25-turbine wind facility on the Campo Kumeyaay Nation in California (photo). The Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico, meanwhile, is building the nation’s first big solar plant on Indian land.
Whether other facilities get built, one thing is certain: The potential for more is vast, especially in the wind-swept Midwestern plains and the sun-drenched deserts of the American West.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs has identified 77 reservations that could support wind power growth. Other estimates say that wind blowing over tribal lands could provide a full 15 percent of America’s power. Solar alone could deliver 4.5 times the total national energy generation, according to The National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
The new report is part of the recent push for more renewable energy and energy efficiency in tribal communities, which manage five percent of America’s total lands.
Upon taking office, President Obama and the U.S. Department of Interior pledged to grant tribes better access to funds and transmission. And the tribes themselves started to seize on that new chance. In July, a group of tribal governments, tribal businesses, Alaska Native Corporations, and tribal organizations launched the Indian Country Renewable Energy Consortium to lobby for more solar and wind power.
Last August, the Department of Energy announced $13.6 million in project funding for 36 tribes and Alaska villages. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs followed up with a concept paper suggesting ways to truly level the playing field for tribal energy development, both for conventional and renewable sources.
The senators highlighted the maze of bureaucratic delays that currently requires tribes to seek approval from four different Interior agencies, proposing instead "one-step" shops to speed up the process.
Earlier this month, the Senate committee introduced draft legislation to address these hurdles. A hearing on the bill is expected in April.
Also in March, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar awarded $3.7 million to 13 tribes that are developing renewable resources.
These sums, however, are a fraction of what is needed. The costs of building the Jemez Pueblo installation, for instance, run about $22 million.
Opportunities Exist: 1st Step, Weatherization
The upfront investment needed to begin churning out carbon-free power on Indian lands, analysts say, would generate revenue for Indian country. According to estimates, the $22 million project in new Mexico will bring in $1 million every year over the next 25 years to the 3,000-member, poverty-stricken group.
According to the NWF report, opportunities for at least some grants, loans and tax credits already exist for other tribes seeking to tap that potential wealth.
Tribe-owned renewable energy ventures can get money through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Business Opportunity Grant program. Tribes also can apply for many of the new clean energy grants created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
At the state level, they can earn a tax exemption on renewable energy properties and are not required to pay hefty sales tax on renewable energy equipment.
In the short-term, however, energy efficiency improvements are the springboard to longer term clean energy gains and to immediate money savings, the report suggests.
"The simplest and most cost-effective way of reducing energy costs and emissions is by increasing the energy efficiency of buildings," the authors said.
"Tribal households pay significantly more in home energy expenses than other Americans," said Bob Gruenig, a senior policy analyst at the National Tribal Environmental Council.
Weatherization programs that strengthen insulation, seal up gaps and add energy-efficient heating and cooling systems could would save tribes 15 to 40 percent in energy consumption and costs. This "should be the first stages of any energy efficiency plan," the report said.
For the Mashpee Wampanoag, a $39,000 energy efficiency investment led to a $7,600 per year savings and an overall 18 percent annual return. If efficiency spread to all 564 tribes, the results would be "dramatic," the authors said.
The DOE’s Weatherization Assistance Program currently offers grants to tribes for weatherization projects. The new Senate draft bill would give the program a lift by directing 10 percent of the amounts available for low-income communities to tribes.