By Mark Wolf
Renewable energy can be a key to energy and economic independence for tribes, Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) told a session of the National Tribal Energy Summit in Washington, D.C.
"The Department of Energy estimates that wind power from tribal lands could satisfy 32 percent of the total U.S. electricity demand. And solar production from Indian lands could generate enough energy to power the country two times over. Wow! I think that’s big," Udall told the Summit, which is presented by the Department of Energy in conjunction with NCSL.
"Not only does this mean tribal energy independence. It also means economic growth. Tribes can produce and sell energy. It means stronger, more diversified economies. And it means lots of good paying jobs.."
Reservations, he said, account for 2 percent of the nation's land mass, but hold 5 percent of the nation's renewable resources."
"Fourteen percent of homes in Indian country do not even have electricity, compared to 1.4 percent nationwide. On the Navajo reservation, 30 percent of homes don’t have electricity. That’s 15,000 homes. Energy costs on reservations can be up to 10 percent higher than the national average. Transmission lines can cost up to $60,000 per mile in remote areas on-reservation. In some rural Alaska communities, electricity costs are more than eight times the national average. These numbers are not good," he said.
"Access to capital is a huge barrier for tribes seeking energy independence. The Office of Tribal Energy provides grants and technical assistance on innovative financing strategies. For example, Tribes can lease their lands for renewable projects, develop their own, or do a hybrid — lease-then-purchase.."
Big challenges lie in changing energy markets, especially in Indian Country, he said.
"In the Four Corners area, especially in Arizona and New Mexico, the coal burning power plants are around 40 years old. They have been economic anchors for the regional economy for decades. But they are downsizing and there are plans to eventually close them down. It is only a matter of time. And the time could be coming up fast.
"We all know there is a big policy debate regarding coal. But there are some indisputable facts in this particular area. These plants are old. Owners have pulled out. The price of natural gas in the area is low, and has been low for many years. Economics do not look good for coal to power the regional economy forever. The prudent thing to do is plan for the future on a practical, cooperative basis. And I believe the federal government has a deep responsibility to help. The Four Corners area is one of the most economically depressed in the nation, and has one of the highest concentrations of Native Americans, and is dependent on energy for Tribal income and jobs."
Some of those jobs, said Udall, could be in the renewable sector.
"The Four Corners area has both solar and wind resources, and, critically, has access to major interstate transmission assets — thanks to the coal plants already there. Building and maintaining substitute generation capacity makes logical sense as part of an overall economic development plan," he said.
"The Solar Foundation recently found that 95 percent of solar firms in New Mexico had difficulty finding qualified applicants. These are good-paying jobs. We need to make sure that American Indians and Alaska Natives are getting the resources they need to take advantage of the growth of renewable energy industries."
Mark Wolf is editor of the NCSL Blog.