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Tribal Renewable Energy Projects Benefit Everyone


By: Terrance Unrein, Senior Permitting Manager

Tribal communities have been disproportionally overlooked for development and investment opportunities for decades. While some tribes have leased land and resources to fossil fuel industries, and the associated revenue and job opportunities have been an important part of their local economy, the U.S. energy mix is rapidly changing. We are witnessing this first-hand in different parts of the country, as we are actively developing large-scale renewables in the declining coal country. As tribes lose opportunities with fossil fuels, some are interested in utility-scale renewable energy projects as a new means of economic development and environmental benefit. Ethically and diligently sited renewable energy development can closely align with tribal values of land conservation, cultural integrity, and environmental stewardship. At sPower, we like to partner with willing landowners and communities interested in the right projects as a means of cultivating local economic development and environmental benefit, and we are quickly finding that tribes share this sentiment.

Opportunity in a maturing industry

Utility-scale renewable energy brings many forms of economic benefits in the communities where we develop, build, and operate throughout a project’s lifecycle.  Tribes can benefit from large-scale renewable energy through land and lease payments, employment opportunities, tax revenue, and the utilization of remote land that could otherwise be undervalued. Communities can choose to reinvest resources into off-grid solar and battery storage projects as well as cellular and online communications to bring electricity and other utility services to underserved areas. Resources can also be put towards job training, education, and environmental conservation projects. But we believe the potential benefits go even deeper. A thoughtfully developed large-scale renewable energy project on tribal land can catalyze further direct and indirect investment and development in these communities which, again, have been overlooked for too long.

While some solar and wind development has occurred on tribal lands in the U.S., such as the Moapa River Indian Reservation outside of Las Vegas and Sioux land in South Dakota, these projects are unfortunately few and far between despite the vast wind and solar resources available. Most tribes do not have utility-scale renewable energy projects on their land and are watching solar and wind farms be built all around them. We want to change that. If we can be the ones to show state and federal governments, utilities, lenders, and investors that these projects can be done successfully with a positive outcome for all stakeholders, that will lead to more opportunity and more investment in these communities. And that is when we will know we have done our job.  

Overcoming Unique Development Challenges 

There are nuances and unique risks when developing on tribal land compared with private or state/federal land, but the rewards for all stakeholders are worth the effort. Tribal lands hold some of the best wind and solar resources in the country, have increasing transmission capacity due to coal closures, and most importantly, are located in communities that are looking to our industry to diversify and enhance their economy. We are endeavoring to minimize the siting and development risks unique to tribal lands by taking education and training very seriously, staying up to speed on the latest tribal government regulations, and learning how to overcome real or perceived cultural barriers. 

Other stakeholders can help do their part too. When federal agencies get involved, they can uphold their trust and responsibilities by expeditiously reviewing and processing project approvals while allowing the tribes to practice sovereignty on their land. These entities also can help further policy to open the right development opportunities by streamlining permitting and reducing unnecessary regulatory hurdles. Likewise, utilities can increase opportunities for tribal projects to compete in energy procurement solicitations. Also, governments can create incentives and policies to raise capital for development while removing dual taxation and other barriers. 

The renewable industry is becoming more mature by the day. The “easy” sites or low-hanging fruit are being plucked up or are already gone. Meanwhile, tribal lands present an opportunity overlooked for far too long. Utilities, large commercial and industrial consumers can benefit from investments that diversify their land and energy strategies, meet renewable energy goals and power demand, and bring decades of economic and employment opportunities to tribal communities right now when they need it most.   

Building projects and partnerships 

Unfortunately, a lack of trust between tribal communities and outside entities can be common. We want to change that. No business deal, land deal, or partnership will amount to much if there is not true trust between the key parties involved, and that is where we want to change the status quo. The first thing in the front of our mind when attempting to build a relationship with a tribal entity is trust and honesty. Everything else can follow. We are not interested in leading on any tribal or non-tribal entities with unrealistic expectations. If their goals or ideas do not seem feasible or realistic, we will be honest. But if there is a chance to develop a marketable project, we are going to go above and beyond to see if it can be done, then make it happen.  

Our partners at Navajo Power have been a valuable resource and friend since day one. Navajo Power is an important organization with similar goals to fill the fossil-fuel void on tribal lands with solar power and channel the proceeds back into tribal communities. Navajo Power brings some incredible strengths to the table, and we are doing everything possible to be the right partner to empower Navajo Power, provide support and guidance, and be a cohesive team that will deliver something beautiful in the coming years. The way our partnership is unfolding, it is abundantly clear to us that we complement each other very well, and that if we continue down the road we are going, some amazing things are going to happen. Our partnership has been formalized, but the real work lies ahead. 

Education and resources  

We’re learning from great partners to help us pursue renewable energy development on tribal land. For example, we hosted a National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Tribal Energy Incubator training program in our Salt Lake City office. The program provides technical assistance for assessing the feasibility of and developing utility-scale renewable projects on tribal lands. 

National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Tribal Energy Incubator training program in our Salt Lake City office

One place tribes who are interested and have the capabilities can start is by using NREL’s Tribal Energy Atlas. The online tool shows renewable resource and high-voltage transmission lines running through tribal land, as well as solar and wind resource potential and other siting considerations. If a tribal community is interested in exploring renewable energy development on their land, they can contact us and we will offer a fair and honest assessment as to the feasibility of their idea.   

Closing Thoughts 

As a developer, we are committed to providing benefits to the local community throughout the development process, even during the early stages. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic that is disproportionately impacting tribal communities, we are doing what we can to help. sPower has made donations to the Navajo Nation’s COVID-19 Relief Fund and The Hopi Foundation in the Four-Corners region to do our small part during these challenging times. But the real benefits lay ahead when we put electrons on the grid, and we are eager to progress tribal development projects following this crisis.

We hope to inspire others to respectfully invest in these lands and work with partners who share a passion for economic development through environmental stewardship. We want our projects to attract the notice of others by breaking down barriers, which will foster additional partnerships and investment. We believe that if we work to change the status quo by cultivating honest and trusting relationships, other opportunities for tribal communities will follow.

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