In the past five years or so, a combination of factors including government mandates surrounding clean energy and lower costs for equipment, have led to what has been dubbed a “solar gold rush” in parts of the US.
As energy companies compete fiercely to find large tracts of land with ample sunshine to develop solar projects, Native Indian tribes, many of which have an abundance of both, have been presented with a unique opportunity to become leaders as solar developers and users.
Native Indian tribes living on reservations tend to have higher than average unemployment rates and unusually high energy costs (or sometimes no energy at all). This makes solar projects all the more attractive both as a means of boosting the tribes’ economic potential and lowering their energy bills.
The largest solar plant to be built to date on tribal land is set to break ground this year on the Moapa Band of Paiute’s reservation in Nevada. The project came to fruition when the tribe struck up a deal with K Road, a renewable energy company that has a history of working with Native Americans.
The 350MW plant will supply power to approximately 118,000 homes in Los Angeles under a 25-year contract that K Road negotiated with the city’s Department of Water and Power (LADWP). From K Road’s perspective, the Moapa reservation was an ideal site for the solar plant because it is located on a transmission line originating in Arizona and going to LA.
Campaign against coal
Until now, LA has been getting its power from a coal plant in Arizona but the city’s aim to move away from coal (and clean energy mandates that compel it to do so) made the Moapa reservation a perfect fit for all parties.
The Moapa K Road solar project is a fitting symbol for the move from coal to renewables in another important way. For more than 45 years, the tribe has lived with the polluting effects of the Reid Gardner Coal plant next to their land. The actual plant is located about a mile from where most of the community live but the ash dump and holding pond where the plant puts its wastewater is only about 2,000 yards away. According to Vernon Lee, a member of the tribe, the pollution has caused health ailments in the community including chronic asthma rates.
In conjunction with environmental groups, particularly the Sierra Club, the Moapas have mounted a campaign to shut the plant but this has been opposed by the gaming industry and other heavy energy users in the state, who are concerned about rate increases. Finally, in April, faced with the reality of tougher regulations and clean energy mandates that were going to make coal production cost prohibitive, Nevada Energy made a welcome policy U-turn when they announced that all the remaining coal plants in the state would be shut down and investment in renewables would increase.
Economic benefits of a shift to solar
This shift from coal to solar will have immediate environmental benefits for the Moapa tribe, but they stand to reap significant economic benefits too. The solar plant is expected to generate around 400 temporary jobs at peak construction and 15 to 20 permanent jobs. Until now, the tribe has had just a couple of businesses on the reservation to generate income – a gas station, a truck stop and a small casino.
Because of their remote location, these businesses are not hooked up to the main power grid and so have to be powered by diesel generators. According to Lee, maintaining these generators costs the tribe $1.5m a year. Once the solar plant is up and running, the tribal businesses will be able to tap into the solar grid instead which will cut their energy costs dramatically.
The tribe will also receive lease payments from K Road and an upfront payment and various other stipends. K Road would not disclose the terms of the payment plan but Lee said the tribe has received a signing fee of $5m and expects other payouts during the project’s development. This money has been put to good use. The tribe has a second solar project in the works and is trying to form a utility to start building solar plants that they can be a part owner of (rather than simply being leaseholders). If the tribe is successful, they would be able to sell any power from future solar projects directly to the federal government, a ready made market.
Obviously, these new opportunities are momentous for a small tribe that has been struggling with unemployment and health issues. But according to Lee, what’s most important is the restoration of lost pride: “A lot of people look down on Native Americans, but this adds an aura of pride to the tribe. Right now, we are blazing the solar trail, making the break into creating renewable energy. That is good for us and for Indians across the country.”
Not every tribe will be able to emulate the their “solar gold rush” as several things have to fall into place, namely proximity to transmission lines and being able to find a market for the power. Tribes can benefit from solar projects in other ways, however, by availing of government rebate programs to install solar arrays on their reservations to reduce energy costs.
A non-profit organisation called Black Rock Solar has installed 11 arrays, totalling 540kw of power, for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe using rebates. According to Patrick McCully, executive director of Black Rock, this has saved the tribe around $97,000 a year on utility bills. The Department of Energy is currently helping several tribes to switch to solar power to reduce their energy bills and improve their quality of life.
Perhaps more important than any economic benefit, however, embracing solar power is becoming a way for Native Americans to regain some of the ancient power they have lost.
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