The rising power of America's tribes

American Indian lands are among the hottest prospects for renewable-energy investment in North America, with several gigawatts in the pipeline, and the potential for hundreds more.

Encouraged by President Barack Obama’s administration, numerous tribes across the US are opening up their reservations to wind and solar development, with the intention of bringing jobs, long-term revenue and energy self-sufficiency to their struggling communities. It would also ensure that the tribes — which live in semi-autonomous “nations” inside the US — are less dependent on government assistance and can gain access to private capital and technology.

Tribal lands comprise 2% of the US’s surface area but 5% of all renewable-energy resources, according to the Department of Energy (DOE). There is potential to install a staggering 6.7 terawatts (TW) of renewable electricity on that territory — six times the country’s total energy capacity.

The Navajo Nation, the largest tribe, could alone support more than 1TW of utility-scale PV on its reservation that sprawls across four southwestern states, according to the DOE. For starters, the tribe is looking at developing up to 4GW of solar capacity — more than the US installed in 2012. The tribes — such as the Cherokee in Oklahoma and the Sioux in the Dakotas — have more than 6GW of utility-scale wind projects under development. Some, including the Blackfoot and the Crow in Montana, are exploring the possibilities and welcoming potential partnerships with private developers.

Even the smallest of the 566 tribes and Alaskan Native entities recognised by the federal government are getting into the act. The Moapa Band of Paiutes, with just 340 members, is leasing land in southern Nevada for two solar projects totalling 390MW.

The tiny tribe drew national attention in December when the Los Angeles city council approved a $1.6bn deal to buy 25 years’ worth of electricity from a 250MW PV farm that New York-based developer K Road Power will build, finance and own. Construction of this utility-scale solar project — the first on Indian lands — will begin in June and take about two years to complete.

K Road managing director Sean Gallagher believes the project can be a template for other tribes and investors looking to develop solar projects in Indian country. “It’s a great story. We’re trying to show it can be done on tribal land,” he says.


pa Band chairman William Anderson says the keys to the project’s success have been the support of the tribe, the local area, the state and the US government; ensuring that due diligence was carried out on potential project partners; and that there were no short cuts in meeting the permitting and regulatory requirements. 

He predicts that the tribe will see many spin-off benefits from the project. These include additional tax income, revenue from the lease, supply contracts and increased sales of food and fuel from the tribe’s “Travel Plaza” truck stop off US Interstate 15 — its chief source of income.

“We’re striving to be economically independent from the federal government by relying more on our businesses that we are trying to get going here,” Anderson says. His pride in his people is evident as he gazes across the quiet reservation, where the main village consists of a few streets, several dozen humble houses and a small church nestled against a backdrop of sun-baked hills. He recalls the struggles of previous generations to survive there, relying on subsistence farming and hunting. Electricity and running water did not arrive until the 1960s.

Numerous tribal business ventures subsequently failed or were not carried through to completion. One exception was a greenhouse for growing vegetables, but it was destroyed by a freak hailstorm when Anderson was a child. “There was never money to start it back up,” he laments.

The truck stop and adjacent casino have helped tribal finances, but possible growth and employment is modest. Job opportunities elsewhere are limited by the reservation’s desert isolation.

Solar energy holds greater promise. The K Road project will create about 450 temporary jobs at peak construction — with some going to tribal members — and 15-20 permanent posts that include monitoring a reserve the tribe will create for federally protected desert tortoises.

Learning industry-specific skills will open new horizons. “It’s not just ‘work on this project and it’s done’. We want to create a career for our people who want to do this,” Anderson says.

RES Americas is developing a 140MW facility on Moapa land that will utilise either PV or concentrating solar power with storage. Plans call for a third party to own the project, with RES as a possible partner. A completion date of 2016 is possible, but a buyer for the power has yet to be found.

The DOE is also funding a small solar array that may enter operation this year, providing the truck stop with power and enabling the tribe to turn off its expensive, noisy, dirty diesel generators.

Anderson says the solar projects are partly a response to what he alleges are health issues among tribal members caused by fly-ash contamination from an ageing coal-fired plant adjacent to the reservation, which is majority-owned by utility NV Power. “We wanted to demonstrate that there are alternative ways to produce energy without polluting the earth,” he says. (NV Energy tells Recharge that the plant is independently monitored using equipment on Moapa land and is one of the cleanest for coal in the US.)

For millennia, Native Americans saw the sun and wind as gods. Together with soil and water, those elements helped form the basis of tribal identity and influenced customs, governance, health, spiritual beliefs and economic security. In many cases, they still do today. But in a modern world, maintaining harmony with Father Sun (the Creator) and Mother Earth (the Provider) is a growing challenge for tribes.

Their reservation land is increasingly vulnerable to environmental degradation from coal mining, oil production and other industrial causes, as well as the effects of global warming, such as prolonged drought and other extreme weather events. Water supply, the ability to grow crops, and the health of tribe members are at risk.

Renewable energy has emerged as one response to those ills, as a growing number of the 800,000 Native Americans living on reservations desire a return to ecological balance and environmental heali


Navajo Nation president Ben Shelly tells Recharge that renewable energy is compatible with his tribe’s religious beliefs for respecting the land and human life. “I tell everybody that they are composed of air, dirt, fire and water. The choice is theirs. When you pollute the environment, it’s really you [that you are polluting],” he says.

Desperate for jobs and income, his tribe has learned the hard way. Decades of mining coal on the reservation has led to water loss in the main aquifer and contamination, while fouling the air. After health issues, uranium extraction was banned in 2005. But coal still remains important for the tribal economy.

Not only does that tribe see wind and solar as important economic opportunities, it also plans wider investment — such as an equity stake in the $1.5bn Tres Amigas project in eastern New Mexico, which would link the three major US electricity grids. This would spur the tribe’s own renewable-energy development by providing access to the broader US power markets, and give it an opportunity to create distribution contracts. Shelly likes the idea of Navajos as partners and in control, not reliant on lease fees and royalties from outsiders.

The other Native American solar project currently at an advanced stage is the 30MW Shandlin — the Navajo name for sunlight — which will be built on land belonging to the To’Hajiilee chapter in New Mexico, west of Albuquerque. SunPower is the project partner. “All we need is a buyer for the power,” says Rob Burpo, president of First American Financial Advisors, a consulting group working with the To’Hajiilee.

Only one large wind farm is currently operational on Native American soil — a 50MW facility on land leased by the Campo Band of the Kumeyaay Indians in the southwest corner of California. That tribe is reportedly working on a new 160MW project. Utility-scale projects by other tribes are in various stages of development.

“There is a tremendous amount of potential out there and tribes are interested. But renewable energy is expensive to develop and is a steep challenge for them,” says South Dakota’s secretary of tribal relations, Leroy “JR” LaPlante.

Tribes say their biggest need is technical expertise, explains Tracey LeBeau, who was appointed in 2011 to establish and lead the DOE’s Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs. Initiatives involving her office and DOE national laboratory experts are helping tribal teams to evaluate financial and technical feasibility, and provide the early development and technical assistance needed to move commercial-scale wind and solar projects forward.

LeBeau has also been looking for synergy between tribal lands and nearby US military installations — large potential customers for renewable energy. “This is a very interesting opportunity for tribes,” she says.

There are sti

ll many potential obstacles for the tribes — such as federal regulatory delays, financing, lack of power purchasers and transmission availability. But the biggest issue may be assuring companies and investors that contracts will be enforced under tribal laws.

Commercial codes are not well-developed or uniform and lack precedents. In some cases, tribal laws are antiquated — for instance, the Navajo have not updated much of their statute book since 1923. The probity of local judges is also a concern. But some tribes are already busy updating their legal systems to reflect 21st-century business requirements.

Shelly says that tribes, investors and federal government all have their part to play in unlocking the renewables potential of tribal lands.“What we want are win-win situations all-around for everybody,” he says.

  •  About 15% of Indian homes have no access to electricity.
  •   Only 800,000 of the 2.9 million Native Americans in the US live on reservations.
  •   Tribal governments and enterprises cannot utilise federal production or investment tax credits as they are not subject to federal income tax.

Photography Jacob Kepler & CJ Woodie