This Dec. 11, 2009 image shows a solar panel that helps provide electricity to the Jemez Pueblo Day School in Jemez Pueblo, N.M. The pueblo is on the verge of building the nation's first utility-scale solar plant on tribal land, choosing one of its most sacred and symbolic resources, the sun, to provide a better life for its people. / Photo by Associated Press

Can Sunlight Power and Empower Tribes?

ICTMN Staff
1/12/11

Solar power can ignite a renaissance, reconnecting tribes to their lands while increasing autonomy. “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,” wrote Ryan Dreveskracht, an attorney serving a clerkship with U.S. District Judge Kathleen Kay, in a Washington and Lee Law Review article.

Because solar developers face intensive bureaucratic reviews for projects on non-Native federal lands, “solar developments on tribal lands will allow the ‘green revolution’ to pick up speed,” Dreveskracht wrote in the law review article. The largest solar installation underway is one good example—the 3,000-member Jemez Pueblo tribe in New Mexico is constructing a photovoltaic development expected to, “bring in around $25 million over the next 25 years,” according to MSNBC. That’s a major moneymaker for a tribe whose primary source of revenue used to be a “little convenience store,” James Roger Madalena, a former tribal governor who now represents the Pueblo in the state Legislature, told MSNBC.

“It’s very critical that we become innovative, creative, that we come up with something that will last generations without having a devastating impact on the environment,” Madalena told MSNBC in January 2010, when the tribe first moved forward on its 14,850-solar-panel, 30-acre solar plant.

The estimated $22 million cost is being financed through government grants, loans and tax credits – another reason Dreveskracht sees potential in tribal solar developments: there’s a lot of federal support and funding available. The Department of Energy also offers a Tribal Development Program to guide tribal energy initiatives.

The Solar Home & Business Journal reported that in December’s Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, D.C., President Obama spoke about “breaking down bureaucratic barriers that have prevented tribal nations from developing clean energy like wind and solar power. … 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.”

However, The Journal wrote, “internal dissent” between tribal leaders may be a roadblock to many potential solar projects. Previously, a prominent issue with tribal economic development has been that successful projects channeled benefits to outside investors, and failed enterprises left the tribe, “holding the bag.” This gives even more impetus to tribes to design their own energy plans. “Tribes need to… establish clear business plans, and create knowledgeable workforces of their own,” Dreveskracht wrote in the Washington and Lee Law Review article.

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