John Richards, engineer with Nebraska Public Power District and Tara Hess, environmental specialist with the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, discuss how their local tribes have developed wind turbine projects to help generate revenue. (By Lucinda Hughes-Juan)

Conference: Renewable Energy Presents Economic Opportunities for Tribes

Lucinda Hughes-Juan

More than 250 attendees representing over 100 tribes attended the 5th Annual Renewable Energy Projects in Indian Country Conference, hosted by Native Nation Events at the Talking Stick Resort on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Reservation, May 21-22, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Participants learned about opportunities in renewable energy and networked with potential resources. During the two-day event, presenters and panelists discussed creating sustainable economies through renewable energy projects—such as biomass, wind and solar projects; energy markets; the policy environment; and funding renewable energy projects in Indian Country.

Several representatives of government agencies shared how they are continuing to support tribal efforts. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Tribal Energy Program, whose primary mission is to “offer financial and technical assistance to tribes through government-to-government partnerships,” reported they have “awarded funding for 159 tribal renewable energy projects from 2002-2011, investing over $36 million,” said presenter Sandra Begay-Campbell, DOE technical staff member at Sandia National Laboratories.

Stephen Manydeeds, chief of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' (BIA) Division of Energy and Mineral Development, advised that tribes who choose to capitalize on these opportunities should initially develop their own regulatory business environment. “Having good rules and fair enforcement of those rules are critical to supporting a productive economy,” Manydeeds emphasized in his presentation.

Additional U.S. federal agencies represented included the DOE Office of Indian Energy Policy & Programs, which was established under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and is charged with helping to promote Indian Energy policies and initiatives, the BIA's The Office of Indian Energy & Economic Development (IEED) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Energy for American Program (REAP), which provides assistance to agricultural producers and rural small businesses for a variety of projects including renewable energy.

The outlook for development in Indian County appears promising based on testimony from many tribal representatives: the Confederated tribes of the Umatilla, the San Carlos Apache, Moapa band of Paiutes, the Navajo tribe, the Oneida nation of Wisconsin, Jicarilla Apache Nation, Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians, the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation and the Hopi tribe.

“Indian land comprises 5 percent of the land area of the U.S. and contains an estimated 10 percent of all energy resources in the U.S.,” Begay-Campbell said.

No doubt the cost of renewable energy start-up projects is a concern for tribes. Conference presenters offered some advice on attracting private capitol. “The simpler a project is the more likely it is to attract investors,” said Paul Warley Jr., managing director of Deloitte Corporate Finance LLC, a national company that provides financial advisory services. “Indian tribes do have many benefits; however, it is important for them to keep separate their politics and streamline their decision-making processes in order to work well with outside investors,” he added.

Elias Hinckley, a law partner at Kilpatrick Townsend, who specializes in business finance, green economy and American Indian affairs, also presented during the session. “Tribes must consider what their resources are: energy, water, etc.? And whether they want to pursue bigger scale utility projects or smaller community-based projects. Also, what is their competitive market? Then they can assess their financing resources,” he stated. “Some of the challenges faced when attracting investments are power markets, environmental issues, and project complexity.” Lastly, he added: “Many people underestimate the importance of presentation, documents and proposals should be clear, concise and attractive looking when seeking the support of outside investors.”

Conference presenters from SNR Denton’s Indian Law and Tribal Representation team and conference chairs offered information on how tribes can secure New Market Tax Credits when funding their projects by leveraging their investments. Renewable energy projects may qualify for additional federal tax credits and initiatives based on the design structure of the project. State incentives are also available: “A majority of states now have Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) requiring their utilities to use a percentage of electrical power from renewable energy sources,” stated Little Fawn Boland, a partner at SNR Denton and William Cornelius who co-presented on the subject. RPS and state renewable energy credits can make a project more appealing and are also important factors when deciding which types of renewable energy project to pursue.

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