Golden Opportunity: Tribes Turn to the Sun to Create a New Energy Economy

Dozens of new solar projects are sprouting up on Native lands across the U.S. as Tribes seek new ways to grow and diversify their economies in sustainable ways that advance sovereignty and power their governments and businesses. 

The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that there are around 61 gigawatts of solar potential on Tribal lands representing approximately $70 billion in investment. 

Native Business spotlights several of the most ambitious solar initiatives taking root in Indian Country: 

1. Jicarilla Apache Reservation to Help City of Albuquerque Reach its Target of 100% Renewable Energy by 2025

While oil and gas has been the backbone of the Jicarilla Apache Nation’s economy, the Tribe announced in 2019 that it is moving forward with a $220 million solar initiative through a partnership with the City of Albuquerque and utility provider, Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM). 

Hecate Energy, a Chicago-based developer, will build the 500-acre solar-power lot forecasted to go online in the fourth quarter of 2021. 

The City of Albuquerque has committed to buying 25 megawatts produced by the solar farm each year for 15 years — which will meet about 54 percent of the city’s electricity needs. 

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller has stated that the city, home to 560,000 people, will reach its clean energy goals within the next five years, well ahead of the state’s 100% mandate by 2045. 

2. Moapa River Indian Reservation Successfully Ventures Into Utility-Scale Solar

The Moapa Band of Paiutes paved the pathway for Tribal utility-scale solar with a 250 MW installation that supplies power directly to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. 

The Nevada-based Tribe is currently moving forward with the development of two new solar farms, at 200 MW and 300 MW — enough to power 180,000 homes. The Tribe has even secured a prominent customer: NV Energy Inc., the utility owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. 

3. Navajo Nation Prioritizes Renewable Energy Development 

The current Navajo Nation Administration is following through on its “Navajo Háyoołkááł (Sunrise) Proclamation,” a commitment to pursue and prioritize renewable energy development for the long-term benefit of the Navajo people.

President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer are fulfilling the Nation’s priority to complete development of its 660-acre solar farm in New Mexico, the Paragon Bitsi Ranch solar development project in the Navajo community of Huerfano. 

The Nation additionally recently completed the second phase of construction of its Kayenta Solar generation facility in Arizona, a renewable energy plant that now produces enough emission-free energy to power approximately 36,000 homes. 

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer pose with 2019-2020 Miss Navajo Shaandiin Parrish from Kayenta, Arizona, at a ceremony celebrating the completion of the second phase of the Kayenta Solar project. (Photo Courtesy Navajo Nation)

4. Born of Fire: Spokane Tribe Grows its Children of the Sun Solar Initiative 

The second largest fire in Washington state in summer 2016 ravaged the Spokane Indian Reservation, damaging 14 Tribal homes and displacing nearly 50 people. 

But the devastating incident has inspired a new vision for sustainable energy independence.

In May, the Spokane Tribe of Indians brought together Tribal leaders and project partners to celebrate the Children of the Sun Solar Initiative (COSSI) — boasting 650 kilowatts of solar capacity, and eventually, battery storage. The renewable energy source will save the Tribe $2.8 million over 35 years, in addition to forging new economic opportunity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

5. Trapping the Sun: Solar Power Makes Economic Sense for the CTUIR

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) named its new array Ántukš-Tińqapapt, meaning “sun trap.” Ántukš (on-took-sh) comes from the Umatilla Language and Tińqapapt (tin-cop-popped) is Cayuse. 

“We gave a culturally relevant name to the solar system to bridge the gap between traditional, cultural values of the Tribe and newer technology,” Patrick Mills, scientist and project management professional for the CTUIR, told Native Business. 

Mills speculates that in 10 years’ time, several more community-scale solar projects will dot the reservation, and the Tribes will pursue energy efficiency to a greater extent, working it into all future building and construction projects.