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Indian Country welcomes renewable energy

A proposed federal rule change could help American Indian tribes to develop wind, solar, and geothermal power on their reservations.

Geothermal technicians from the Jemez tribe in New Mexico. Michael Albrecht/TBA Power

JEMEZ PUEBLO, N.M.--American Indian tribes see renewable energy as a way to capitalize on their natural resources.

The Department of Interior last week proposed a rule that would speed up decisions regarding land used for renewable energy projects, many of which have been derailed by bureaucracy. The rule would require decisions within a 60-day limit for business-related leases, such as developing solar and wind projects on Indian land.

"It will require the government to act," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last Monday, according to reports. "The government cannot sit on its hands, as it has often done."

Indian lands have significant resources, including solar and wind, but little has been developed, according to the National Congress of American Indians. "We're ready to strengthen our economies now and jumpstart the clean energy economy in Indian Country. This is something the entire country can get behind," said NCAI president Jefferson Keel in a statement.

For some of the tribes already pursuing renewable energy, the results so far have been slow-going. The Jemez tribe in New Mexico, one of the farthest along in getting renewable energy projects off the ground, hosted a group of journalists in a fellowship organized by the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources earlier last month.

Working with an outside geothermal company, the 3,400-member tribe plans to start drilling on the reservation here west of Albuquerque in the coming months to assess whether hot rocks deep underground can generate usable energy. It also has financing and a project developer lined up to build a four-megawatt solar project on 30 acres tribal trust land.

For tribes with the resources, renewable energy holds the prospect of bringing in much-needed tax revenue, jobs, and potentially lower electricity costs, said Carolyn Stewart, managing partner at Red Mountain Energy Partners, which advises tribes on renewable energy.

"[Tribes] are very interested in controlling the pace of the development on the reservation, which they have not been able to do in the past for the most part with oil and gas, coal, or uranium mining [which] had significant environmental impacts," she said.

As the Jemez tribe's experience has shown, bringing projects online is time-consuming and fraught with different challenges. For example, the Jemez solar project is fully permitted and financeable, but it lacks a buyer for the electricity and access to transmission is difficult. The revenue from the plant would be used to build a water treatment plant and other needed infrastructure improvements.

Also, because Indian tribes don't pay federal taxes, it's difficult to take advantage of federal subsidies for solar, wind, or geothermal projects. On the other hand, tribes are good candidates for alternate financing structures, notably a new market tax credit designed for "economically disadvantaged" communities, Stewart said.

The geothermal project, meanwhile, required significant technical expertise to assess whether they could drill between 5,000 feet and 6,000 feet. Much of the funding for the endeavor, which led to training of a group of Jemez members in geothermal technology, was from a nearly $5 million Department of Energy grant.

Without the DOE's involvement and the tribe's general interest in renewable energy, the project would not have gotten off the ground, said Greg Kaufman, the director of Resource Protection for the Pueblo of Jemez.

Southern Utes
Even a tribe deep into fossil fuels is taking an interest in renewable energy.

The Southern Ute tribe, which has become wealthy from its deep oil and natural gas resources, is working with the Shoshone tribe on a wind farm project. And through a fund, which has investments in commercial real estate and other ventures, it also invested in an algae fuel startup called Solix Biosystems.

Solix built its demonstration plant on the Southern Ute reservation and the tribe hopes to take a stake in future algae farms that use Solix technology, said Bob Zahradnik, a former Exxon executive who is operating officer of the Growth Fund. The demonstration plant takes advantage of pipe-in carbon dioxide, a by-product of natural gas drilling, which feeds algae in its bioreactors.

Like many algae companies started in the past few years, Solix had initially hoped to be farming algae at large scale and selling fuel by this time, but its technical progress hasn't happened as quickly as the company had hoped. Mutedprices for oil and other commodities has made the economics more challenging, too.

Nearly all of the Southern Ute Growth Fund's profits from come from fossil fuels so the algae and wind efforts are relatively small side projects. But unlike a typical corporation or venture capitalists, the Southern Utes are willing to take a long-term view, said Zahradnik.

"This [algae venture] was just another way for them to diversify and you also have to understand the tribe works on much longer time frame than your average corporation," he said. "When I take a project into the Southern Ute tribal council for approval, they say, 'What does this do for our grandkids?'"