Tribal Energy Atlas: A Way to Measure Tribal Energy Potential

Using wind to generate electricity, as is being done here at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., is an opportunity for many Tribes and capacity can be estimated using the Office of Indian Energy’s Tribal Energy Atlas.

Tribes have long touted renewable energy sources as a means for revitalizing reservation economies. Now, there’s a tool that can help them measure that potential directly.

The Tribal Energy Atlas, an interactive geospatial tool sponsored by the federal Office of Indian Energy and developed based on analyses done by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., looks at wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, woody biomass and biomethane energy, as well as infrastructure, environmental issues, energy expenditures and efficiency, electricity and natural gas prices, and utilities. It can be found at https://maps.nrel.gov/tribal-energy-atlas.

Users can also sort the data by land administration, including Tribal, county, state and federal areas, and even by Congressional district.

One potential economic finding (it is called a technical finding in the report) is that Indian lands may account for a higher percentage of renewable energy potential than the overall national average. Tribal lands, making up 5.8% of the nation’s land area, are estimated to have 6.5 percent of the country’s technical renewable energy potential. And it is double that if you include the ten-mile radius around Tribal lands.

Economic potential for wind and photovoltaic could be more than $75 billion, according to the report, which cautions that there are so many variables that number should only be considered illustrative.

Hydropower has the highest national generation potential on Indian lands, according to the analysis, at 36.4 percent, followed by CSP or concentrating sun power (8.3 percent) and wind (7.8%). Hydropower maintains the highest generation potential if the area is extended to Indian lands plus the adjacent 10 miles at 65.8 percent, with wind second and CSP third.

The first structure visitors and NREL staff see as they approach the permanent site is the Site Entrance Building (SEB), opened in March 2018. The SEB, which is home to the Laboratory’s emergency control center and seven Protective Force Officers, is where all visitors get badges and sign in before they enter any of the facilities.

The Atlas is an “interactive geospatial application that allows tribes to conduct their own analyses of installed energy projects and resource potential on Tribal lands,” according to NREL. It measures conventional energy such as oil and gas as well as renewables.

The Atlas “allows users to conduct simple analyses of demographics, installed capacity, utility-scale renewable energy technical potential, and more.”

Anelia Milbrand, one of the authors of the NREL analysis, called “Techno-Economic Renewable Energy Potential on Tribal Lands,” said the research updated an earlier effort done in 2013 and was designed to be “flexible and easy to use. No special analysis expertise is required.”

Milbrand, whose specialty is biomass, said “We updated that analysis last year and added Alaska, which was not previously included. We also added an economic analysis.”

Native Hawaiian lands are also included, though there is no data populated for them yet. The economic analysis includes Native Alaskan villages and tribes from the lower 48 states.

Milbrand said the report was “static in nature,” meaning “we had all this great data that was not visible to folks. It didn’t show all this great wealth of knowledge.” So NREL approached the Department of Energy with the idea of the atlas.

She said feedback from tribes has been very positive so far, and that people have been “very excited” by it. “Tribes can use it for decision making,” she said.

A lot of the data in the atlas comes from the tribes themselves. Milbrand estimated that 70 percent of them supplied information on current capacity. Tribes also gave valuable feedback during the development process, including “a laundry list of things they have asked us to add,” she said.

Explore the Tribal Energy Atlas at https://maps.nrel.gov/tribal-energy-atlas.

The projections of potential generation are “very tech-specific” and are “derived from many years in the field,” Milbrand said. Many considerations such as land use and terrain were added in, with conversion factors applied to come up with the estimates.

At a webinar and feedback sessions with tribes, Milbrand said “People played with the tool itself and gave feedback on functionality.”

They were especially excited about the Tribal land query functionality.

“You go to a list of Tribal lands and click on one of them. The tool summarizes everything and creates a map. It’s a very clean way to summarize the data.”

The tool is easy to use. If you are interested in particular reservations, there’s a button called “Tribal land query” that lists them all. Using the Atlas for a look at the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico, for instance, shows the largest potential energy source there is solar photovoltaic, at 1,043 megawatts and 2,087,312 megawatt hours. That is followed by concentrating sun power, at 333 MW and 1,331,552 MWh.

Other functionalities of the atlas include “select and query data” where data queries are available for a single point on the map, a specific region, a custom-shaped area you can draw on the map, and an advanced tool that can filter your query based on specific attributes.

“Data layers” drill down to specific types of energy like wind, solar, geothermal and also divide land by administration: state, federal, county or Tribal. The Atlas also has a tutorials button and even a print wizard.

Milbrand said work on the paper took a year, with another five months or so for the development of the tool. And it remains a work in progress. She would like to see tribes continue to supply data for updates, and has included an e-mail where they can send that information.

Data used for the Atlas come from the Office of Indian Energy-funded report generated by NREL and authored by Milbrand, Donna Heimiller and Paul Schwabe.

The report contains some rankings of Tribes by potential renewable energy sources.

For instance, the Navajo Nation has the highest technology potential for wind electricity generation, with a net generation of 329 million MWh. The Navajo has a wide lead over the Cheyenne-Arapaho Oklahoma Tribal Statistical Area, at 192 million MWh, and the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache-Fort Sill Apache OTSA, at 141 million MWh.

In all, Tribal wind generation potential is nearly four billion MWh, according to the study.

Potential Tribal Solar PV generation capacity is 24.5 billion MWh. Top Tribal capacity again goes to the Navajo, at 1.8 billion MWh, with second place claimed by Cheyenne-Arapaho with 900 million MWh, followed by Kiowa-Comanche-Apache-Fort Sill Apache at 769 million MWh.

CSP (concentrating solar power) potential for all tribes is 7.7 billion MWh. Navajo leads again in this category, at nearly 2 billion MWh, followed by Kiowa-Comanche-Apache-Fort Sill Apache at 830 million MWh and Cheyenne-Arapaho at 807 million MWh.

Woody biomass power generation potential at tribes is 2.5 million MWh, with the Choctaw tribe of Oklahoma coming in first at 446,000 MWh, followed by the Couer d’Alene reservation in Idaho, at 140,000 MWh, and the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina at 121,000 MWh.

Interestingly, many Tribes have efficient methods of producing biogas: their casinos (when they’re open and operating). “The main food waste generation sources on Tribal lands are casinos. There are approximately 486 Indian gaming operations in the United States; however, not all have restaurants on-site—our research indicates that approximately 394 locations have at least one restaurant on-site,” according to last year’s report.

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