Native Americans Turn to Renewable Energy

By: Nick Engelfried
November 2, 2010

As the economic benefits of renewable energy become more and more apparent, it’s beginning to look as if some of the most marginalized communities within the United States could soon reap the benefits of harnessing the wind and sun for power.  Increasingly, Native American nations are seeing renewable energy as a viable development that could help bring them out of economic malaise.  With a little help from the federal government, tribal lands across the country could be energy independent renewable powerhouses. 

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that around 10% of US renewable energy resources are located on lands belonging to Native tribes.  Yet ironically, many tribes are now even more dependent on fossil fuels than most of the rest of the country.  General poverty and a lack of economic opportunities has forced tribes like the Navajo Nation to take advantage of one of the few natural resources their lands have in abundance: coal.  An astonishing one third of the income of the Navajo Nations is provided by the coal industry, with important coal mines and several coal electricity-generating plants being located on Navajo lands. 

Yet dependence on coal comes with health and environmental costs: two of the Navajo Nation’s coal plants are among the top four emitters of dangerous nitrogen oxide pollutants in the country.  Coal has also taken a toll on the water supply of the Navajos’ arid tribal lands.  Coal mined on the reservation is converted to a watery slurry for ease of transport to the nearest power plant, and this practice has significantly lowered local aquifer levels.  Increasingly residents of the Navajo Nation are seeing coal as a fuel with benefits that may not be worth the associated costs. 

Add to that the fact that fossil fuel reserves on Navajo and other tribal lands are running out, and renewable energy looks even more attractive.  Income from the coal industry has declined at least fifteen percent in recent years for the Navajos—leading to fears that for better or worse, coal is on its way out.  In this year’s Navajo presidential election, candidates are for the first time talking seriously about making a concerted shift to clean energy sources like wind and solar power.

Other tribes are already well on their way to developing renewable resources.  The Campo Kumeyaay Nation in southern California derives about fifty percent of its income from a fifty megawatt wind farm on its tribal lands.  Residents of the reservation are now looking at building a larger wind farm with three times the power generating capacity of the existing one.  Meanwhile the biggest Native-owned radio station in the United States—now runs on completely renewable energy.  Located on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, KILI-FM radio is powered by wind turbines that are part of the Pine Ridge Reservation’s effort to shift to clean energy sources. 

Yet while residents of many reservations are ready to see wind and solar energy take off on their lands, the federal government may hold the ultimate power to make these projects a success.  By making it easier for tribal nations to take advantage of federal tax credits, Congress could facilitate a large-scale transition to clean energy on Native lands.  The Indian Energy and Promotion Parity Act, introduced in the Senate this year by Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) would seek to accomplish this goal by eliminating restrictions that now prevent tribal governments from taking advantage of tax credits available to businesses. 

If such efforts succeed, they could ensure tribal communities a place near the front of the clean energy economy.  Tribes that have exported fossil fuel energy to the rest of the country for decades could become energy exporters of a different type, generating clean, renewable electricity both for their own use and for purchase by nearby states.  In such a way could some of the most economically disadvantaged communities in the United States harvest the benefits of an economy powered by renewable industries and clean energy jobs. 

Photo credit: Wolfgang Staudt

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