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Renewable Energy Projects on Tribal Lands

Renewable Energy ProjectsSandia National Laboratories, a multimission research facility based in New Mexico, has been researching ways to incorporate renewable energy projects onto tribal lands to create dependable energy and boost the economy of several Native tribes.

Energy Poverty in Reservations

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about a third of U.S. Natives are forced to live on reservations. These are located in extremely remote locations set aside by the Treaty of 1868. Many U.S. Natives are denied basic necessities as a result, including electricity and running water. Such a separation can lead to extreme poverty and unemployment. In the Navajo Nation alone, 35.8% of households live below the poverty threshold. This is extremely high when compared to the national average of 12.7%. 

To address this issue, Sandia National Labs has led a number of renewable energy projects on Native lands. The successful projects have created solutions to resolve both energy poverty and the economic needs of Native tribes. Listed are five benefits of such projects, taking the Aqua Caliente Solar Installation in Arizona and the Campo Kumeyaay Wind Farm in California as great examples of successful projects.

5 Benefits of The Ongoing Projects

  1. The team communicates with locals to find the most informed solutions. These projects involve plenty of communication with locals in order to be as effective as possible. The Sandia National Labs team and interns work closely with indigenous leaders and local experts to find the most advantageous energy solutions for the tribe based on their current needs. The plans for these projects are therefore methodical and organized before they are implemented. The team and interns are able to learn about the significance of proper communication and important considerations that must go into such projects.
  2. The projects have provided financial benefits for many impoverished households in the Navajo Nation. Setting up running electricity cables can cost up to $25,000 per mile, and it could be especially expensive for tribes located in remote reservations. In these cases, renewable energy sources are the better option. The upfront cost of renewable energy may be high as well. Still, it has great potential to save money later as it offers energy independence, saving households from dealing with rising electricity costs. Additionally, these projects have been funded by the Department of Energy for their ability to provide substantial amounts of power to both Native tribes as well as the nearest cities and energy companies.
  3. These projects have been proven to be reliable sources of energy. In the early 2000s, Aqua Caliente was powered by a propane generator, which was functional but extremely inefficient. Its replacement with solar energy panels was a logical solution for a location in Arizona that receives plenty of sun. The solar energy panels of Aqua Caliente were made even more efficient with the development of new inverter technologies. The new inverter system allows operation during larger voltage variations than traditional inverters and improves delivery to the utility grid. The energy stored by the new inverters can be used by the tribe even during cloudy days.
  4. It is an economically valuable resource for Native tribes. As well as providing clean and valuable energy, Aqua Caliente Solar Panels and the Campo Kumeyaay Wind Farm have been economically valuable resources to the tribes that utilize them. To make the Campo Kumeyaay Wind Farm a reality, the Kumeyaay tribe put in land leases with Kinetech Windpower. From this agreement, the tribe continues to receive royalties from the Power Purchase Agreement to sell their energy to power 30,000 San Diego homes. This project has continued to provide funds for the tribe even during difficult economic times, such as the Recession. The tribe is considering building 60 more windmills due to these successes. The Cahuilla tribe of Aqua Caliente sells the extra energy generated by the Wind Farm to the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. The energy that is generated by the Wind Farm is able to provide electricity for more than 225,000 homes, producing 559,000 MWh of energy annually. Additionally, the process of implementing these solar panels has created 400 new construction jobs and 10 permanent jobs.
  5. Sandia National Labs provides internship positions to prospective future Native leaders of renewable energy projects. Sandia National Labs provides two internships for students wishing to pursue careers in sustainable energy. These include The Department of Energy’s Indian Energy (DOE IE) Internship and the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Minority Serving Institute Partnership Program for Tribal Colleges and Universities (MSIPP TCU). The former internship is open to anyone interested in the development of renewable energy on tribal lands and finding solutions to energy poverty, and the latter provides positions for Indigenous students from all over the U.S. This allows Native students to build up their experience and become critical leaders in renewable energy projects in their communities. 

Some Remaining Hurdles and Future Plans

Some hurdles still need to be overcome when it comes to renewable energy projects. Although they are a great source of renewable energy, wind farms are known to harm wildlife, especially migrating birds. Many locals have raised concerns about this problem. The Campo Kumeyaay Nation has stated that their experts are currently working on ways to make their wind farms as safe as possible for wildlife. 

At present, Sandia National Labs Indigenous Energy Experts are considering a number of new projects, such as renewable energy storage and nuclear power. Many hurdles had to be overcome to implement both the Aqua Caliente Solar Panels and the Campo Kumeyaay Wind Farm, but as a result of both, people from tribes of the Aqua Caliente and Campo Kumeyaay regions have begun to overcome poverty while becoming key leaders of renewable energy projects.

– Sophia Holub
Photo: Unsplash