Native American tribal lands in the sunny, vast regions of the western and southern U.S. seem like ideal places for solar power. Some tribes have built small solar projects, and larger projects have been announced. Nevertheless, solar development on tribal lands must overcome the same obstacles as projects anywhere, such as change of ownership, the challenges of obtaining a power purchase agreement (PPA) and community concerns about the use of land.
In June 2012, Ken Salazar, then-secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), announced the DOI had approved a 350 MW solar energy project on tribal trust land of the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians in Clark County, Nev. According to the DOI, the project was the first-ever utility-scale solar project approved for development on tribal lands.
Then, in September of this year, the project owner, K Road Moapa Solar LLC, announced that Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar had acquired the project. K-Road says construction of the project on a 2,000-acre segment of the Moapa Band of Paiutes tribal land could start soon, and could be completed by the end of 2015. The project has a 25-year PPA with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Other projects are also in the works. For its part, the U.S. government is trying to encourage the building of solar projects on tribal land, through various agencies and programs. For example, the Tribal Energy Program, part of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Weatherization and Intergovernmental Program, offers technical assistance, education and financial assistance such as grants to tribes to promote energy self-sufficiency. There is also funding available from the DOI's Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development (IEED).
One IEED grant is funding a feasibility study by the Navajo Hopi Land Commission Office and the environmental engineering and consulting company Tetra Tech. The study is for renewable energy projects on 22,000 acres of the Paragon-Bisti ranch lands in northwestern New Mexico.
Tetra Tech project manager Scott Prosuch says the feasibility study, due next spring, will look at several factors, including how to build solar on a vast amount of land. ‘We would never try to develop 22,000 acres at one time,’ he says. ‘We are trying to break this down to bite-size parcels so it would be attractive to developers and be developed over time in multiple stages.’
Prosuch adds that the study will examine which areas are better for solar, and which are better for wind or geothermal. Tetra Tech will also look at environmental impact and cultural and historical issues.
Cultural and historical issues have come up in other projects. In July, the online news site Indian Country Today Media Network (ICTMN) reported that tribes in California were concerned about a proposed project by Oakland, Calif.-based Brightsource Energy. The project, called Palen, calls for two concentrating solar power towers 60 miles east of Indio, Calif. Tribal representatives said they were concerned that artifacts and cultural sites would be destroyed. According to ICTMN, the DOI's Bureau of Land Management was scheduled to release an environmental impact report in August, followed by a 90-day comment period.
Other tribes have escaped that backlash. In Arizona, the San Carlos Apache Tribe has built several solar projects.
‘Early on, the tribe did a strategic plan, and took it to the community,’ says Kenneth Duncan Jr., the San Carlos Apache Tribe's energy coordinator. ‘The feedback was, 'It's hot out here; the sun is always shining – why don't we have any solar?'’
Duncan says in November 2012, the tribe worked with Scottsdale, Ariz.-based renewable energy company Eco-Distributing to build a 3.5 kW solar photovoltaic system with battery backup for the new tribal KYAY radio station and tower. The PV system came in handy earlier this year.
‘The utilities infrastructure servicing the reservation is antiquated and has frequent blackouts,’ Duncan says. ‘In the spring of this year, the tribe experienced a 59-hour blackout. When power went out, the music didn't miss a beat. The tribe ended up using the radio as a critical resource to share information with reservation residents during the blackout, like where to get fresh water, ice and batteries.’
Other San Carlos Apache Tribe solar projects include a proposed 1.1 MW solar PV system at the tribe's casino. The tribe is working with Framingham, Mass.-based energy efficiency and renewable energy company Ameresco, and hopes to begin construction on that project in November. The tribe also has grid-tied approximately 3 kW of solar PV systems on two dozen new tribal residential homes.
Duncan says there will be more projects: ‘In May of this year, we completed a solar feasibility study funded by a U.S. Department of Energy grant. The tribe is using the study to evaluate possible next-step community and commercial-scale projects.’
There are also First Nation projects in Canada. In Ontario, the recently completed Alderville First Nation project consists of 23,000 solar panels on 50 acres, supplying power to 1,100 people. The 5.7 MW ground-mount system used panels manufactured by Silfab Ontario Inc.
Nora Caley is a freelance writer based in Denver.