There are many ironies in the history of relations between the United States and its indigenous peoples, but one in particular may be a telling illustration of the distribution of power.
Flip on a light switch in any of the great cities of the Southwest, such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas or Phoenix, and much of the time the energy that creates the light will be coming from one of four massive coal-burning electrical plants located on or a few miles from Navajo Nation land in Arizona and New Mexico.
The power plants and the machines and equipment that dig and haul and pulverize the coal that is burned to produce electricity are operated to a large degree by Native Americans. The plants are critically important employers for members of the Navajo and Hopi tribes, about 40 percent of whom live below the poverty line. Coal sales are reported to make up the bulk of the Hopi Tribe’s funds for governmental operations.
An army of transmission towers marches across the landscape away from the power plants. The vast empty deserts of the Southwest are veined with high-voltage power lines crackling with electricity produced by the Navajo and Hopi. The electricity makes modern life possible for people in the cities.
The irony is that as many as 20,000 Navajo and Hopi families, surrounded on the south, east and west by power plants that deliver electricity to brightly lit cities hundreds of miles away, don’t have access to the electricity grid themselves. They live without it, as people do in remote parts of India, Africa, Haiti and other less-developed lands, including other reservations. Seven decades after the Tennessee Valley Authority brought electricity to the rural South, a significant population in the U.S. – estimated at 14 percent of Indian homes on U.S. reservations – has yet to experience a crucial advantage of 20th-century life.
Ryan Dreveskracht believes that solar power may be a way to change that.
In a draft article written for submission to a law review, Mr. Dreveskracht, an attorney who is currently serving a clerkship with a federal judge in Louisiana, argues that solar photovoltaic development can help bring tribes income, jobs, electricity and independence.“
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“Right now, if I were a solar developer, I think it would be greatly advantageous to look to Indian Country,” Mr. Dreveskracht said in an interview.
“Solar projects can be a rallying point, allowing tribes to come together collectively to pursue their own objectives in their own way, promoting cultural awareness, and creating a self-image that has been missing in many communities for years,” his draft article said.
He noted: “Indian lands have some of the most significant energy potential in the country.” It has been estimated that all of the nation’s electricity needs could be met if about one-fourth of tribal lands were used for solar energy production.
In addition, Mr. Dreveskracht said, the legal status of tribes means that neither states nor the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission can block solar projects on tribal lands. They are immune to “Not in My Back Yard” opposition from outside the tribes, with fewer potential bureaucratic hurdles than projects sited on non-tribal property.
Solar development on tribal lands may be “devoid of the bureaucratic denial process that solar developers face on State lands and non-Native federal lands. This is a huge advantage,” Mr. Dreveskracht said.
Many relatively small solar projects have been installed by tribes in the past decade. The largest installation, now under way, is a 4-megawatt array on the land of the Jemez Pueblo tribe in New Mexico.
Meanwhile, hundreds of mega-scale solar power plants, ranging up to 1,000 megawatts, are planned, and some are starting construction, on non-tribal public and private property in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.
What is blocking tribes from taking greater advantage of solar resources?
PHOTO CREDIT: SOLAR HOME & BUSINESS JOURNAL
Visitors at Canyon de Chelly National
Monument on Navajo Nation land in Arizona.
Tribe members serve as guides at the park,
which features ancient cliff dwellings, and
sell jewelry and other items to tourists.
For one, the 565 tribes recognized by the federal government are all different and do not represent a “pan-Indian” culture, Mr. Dreveskracht said. Solar development may be practicable for and appeal to one tribe but not to another.
One of the largest obstacles is internal dissent among tribal members, the lawyer said. He suggested a number of strategies to account for and address disagreements and political interference, one of the most important being independent tribal courts.
While solar development projects for business purposes may sometimes conflict with tribal values, the lawyer said, “Traditional Native American values do not include poverty, and time-honored values are useless if there is nobody left on the reservation to practice them.”
In the past, a key issue with tribal economic development has been that if a project works, he said, many of the benefits flow to outside investors, but if it fails, the tribe is left holding the bag.
Tribes need to design their own energy plans, Mr. Dreveskracht said, establish clear business plans, and create knowledgeable workforces of their own.
The federal government “should not be a decision-maker in the implementation of a solar project,” he said, “but rather, it should be an advisor and resource.”
Although tribes are diverse, said Mr. Dreveskracht, whose law practice is in the state of Washington, “it is common for most American Indians to revere the sun and value its energy-creating capacities.”
Gaming enterprises have helped many tribes with economic development but are far from a sure bet themselves. When successful, they can provide start-up capital to expand a tribe’s economic base. “Many tribal representatives are realizing that the economic benefits of gaming will not last forever,” the attorney wrote.“
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The federal government has recognized the potential for solar development on tribal lands, and the Department of Energy operates a Tribal Development Program. However, the projects completed under the program so far have been modest, far below the scale at which non-tribal solar installations have been advancing through the Southwest and the rest of the United States.
In December, President Obama spoke at a Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, D.C.
“Our strategy begins with the number one concern for all Americans right now – and that’s improving the economy and creating jobs,” he told the representatives.
“We’re also breaking down bureaucratic barriers that have prevented tribal nations from developing clean energy like wind and solar power,” the president added. “It’s essential not just to your prosperity, but to the prosperity of our whole country. And I’ve proposed increasing lending to tribal businesses by supporting community financial institutions so they can finance more loans. It is essential in order to help businesses expand and hire in areas where it can be hard to find credit.”
Mr. Dreveskracht mentioned in an interview that the Obama administration, which has promoted renewable energy development, has reversed a past U.S. position and supports the non-binding U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“I think we’re in a situation right now where real change is happening,” he said.
Mr. Dreveskracht, who is serving as a clerk to U.S. District Judge Kathleen Kay, said he developed an interest in the subjects of solar energy and tribal economic development while attending law school at the University of Arizona.
As he explored the topics involved, “It opened my eyes to an area of the law that’s new and fresh,” he said, and one where “there is a lot that can be done.”
He said he views solar energy as a “tool and conduit” for economic development that is a good cultural fit for many tribes and is closely tied with the desire of tribes to engage in self-determination, assert sovereignty and deal with the United States on a government-to-government basis.
“The story of solar power is inexorably tied to Native Americans,” he said in his draft article. “Until recently, the energy needed to sustain life came almost entirely from the sun.”
It is an “unfortunate and paradoxical twist” he said, that “many tribal lands lack electricity service altogether. Where electricity service is available, Native Americans pay the highest rates in the nation – usually totaling a disproportionately high percentage of their income.”
As electricity demand grows and the availability of fossil fuels declines, the cost of conventional energy inevitably will rise, Mr. Dreveskracht said, presenting an opportunity for tribes to benefit by developing solar resources.
“Investors have virtually limitless potential to tap the energy of the sun and convert it to money,” he wrote.