Renewable energy & its potential on tribal lands<br>

Editor's Note: Third in a series of monthly columns by Window Rock freshman Rep. Jack C. Jackson, Jr., looking at issues of concern to District 2 in general and Arizona tribes in particular. It is based on his Aug. 8 speech to the Southwest Renewable Energy Fair at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and looks at the need for renewable electrical programs.)

It’s often hard to imagine for Arizonans, who live in a world of far horizons and seemingly endless vistas, that a crowded world is quickly using up its finite reservoir of energy resources.

I was fortunate to provide opening remarks last week at the Southwest Renewable Energy Fair at NAU in Flagstaff. It brought together energy development experts who are looking at establishing renewable energy systems throughout the Southwest.

My remarks, titled “Renewable Energy from the Native American Perspective,” focused on the unique aspects of developing alternative, renewable resources on tribal lands—specifically, the need for energy program developers to recognize the unique concerns of tribes and the need for tribes to develop an infrastructure that will support broad renewable energy systems.

Arizona has an inexhaustible wind and solar energy supply and the potential to generate renewable energy systems. But with that recognition of our potential, Arizona tribes have unique concerns that must be built into any renewable energy program.

Most Arizona tribes are bound by geography and demography. Simply put, there are a few people scattered over a great deal of tribal land. Single-site and regional systems using localized solar generation have been effective in bringing electricity to single homes or isolated tribal communities but have been limited by the geography, cost and tribal demographics.

For example, two important Navajo and Hopi programs have made some strides in bringing solar electricity to homes on their respective lands. The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) has installed more than 200 photovoltaic systems in Navajo homes, and the NativeSun, a Hopi foundation, has installed more than 450 photovoltaic systems in Hopi homes. The typical cost per single installation of a photovoltaic system was $5,000 to $15,000 per household, contrasted with the typical cost of $40,000 per mile to bring in electrical transmission lines.

But this only scratches the surface. Fourteen percent of Native American reservation households have no electricity vs. 1.4 percent nationally. In Arizona, 37 percent of Navajo homes (approximately 18,000) are still without electricity. Twenty-nine percent of Hopi homes, 12 percent of Salt River homes and 9 percent of Fort Apache homes also lack electricity.

Tribal residents have long recognized that this lack of dependable, efficient and self-supporting electricity systems has a direct impact on virtually every aspect of reservation life. In a recent survey, 40 percent of tribal governments said that energy was one of the most important problems of the tribe; and 78 percent said they were interested in renewable energy, while only 26 percent expressed an interest in fossil fuel development.

It won’t come to a surprise to tribes that lack of energy resource development plays a big part of other critical tribal issues. In other survey data, 70 percent of respondents said energy development impacts overall economic development, 63 percent said it affects employment/unemployment and 59 percent said energy development impacts both environmental protection and health.

It’s likely that a survey of any group anywhere in the country would have basically the same issues, but what sets the tribal data apart is that 56 percent also said energy development affects cultural preservation and 59 percent said tribal sovereignty was critically impacted.

For tribes, any renewable energy system program that does not take into account the need for economic development and job creation is flawed from the start; and any program that doesn’t also include the two unique issues of tribal sovereignty and cultural preservation is equally flawed.

A significant part of the development burden must be carried by tribal governments. However, they should in turn develop what I call “Tribal Action Plan for Renewable Energy Development.” To develop such a plan, tribal governments first must ask the same question of its members that it would ask of any outside developer: what is right for the individual tribe’s unique culture and environmental conditions. Then tribes will have to take several proactive steps to reach the goal of developing renewable energy programs and become providers to meet both tribal and U.S. energy needs.

In no particular order, tribes should:

• establish partnerships to identify regional and tribal needs;

• identify tribal renewable resources;

• establish tribal priorities; designate a tribal energy coordinator or agency;

• identify existing institutions to build on;

• and most importantly, institutionalize a formal relationship with the states.

This research confirms my own experience traveling throughout the Navajo Nation and other tribal lands throughout Arizona. It’s quite clear that tribes are very concerned over the lack of broad based energy production programs and recognize the need to develop a delivery infrastructure.

Tribes also recognize the impact renewable energy development will have on every critical issue facing the reservation. And tribes are also concerned over how to develop those programs and infrastructures in a way that’s consistent with unique tribal values.

I believe that any development program must recognize this critical two-part renewable energy development issue to meet the needs of tribes throughout the Southwest.

(Jack C. Jackson Jr., D-Window Rock, is Arizona State Representative for District 2.)

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