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Renewable Energy Projects On Tribal Lands: A Growing Trend

Tribal communities in the Southwestern United States are making renewable energy development on tribal lands a reality.  Areas defined as “Indian country” [see the end of the article for a definition] are known to be rich with potential for the development of solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal facilities on a large commercial scale.  Studies have found that tribal lands nationwide have the potential for producing up to 10 percent of the United States’ renewable energy.  To that end, tribal communities such as the Navajo Nation have begun to own and develop renewable energy projects on tribal lands.

This is no small feat.  For decades, tribal communities across the United States have suffered high unemployment, poor social conditions and widespread poverty.  These conditions were aggravated from the environmental impacts of supplying coal from tribal lands to utilities for the generation of electricity.  As the demand in the West for renewable energy grows, tribes have now recognized that they can diversify their resources and sell renewable energy without adverse effects on their lands and communities.  They have also recognized that renewable projects would serve as a vehicle for economic development and a source of long-term revenue for their communities.

Critics often dismiss the viability of renewable projects on tribal lands, stating that projects are subject to delays, and that tribes lack the expertise to develop renewable projects.  These are myths that reflect a misunderstanding of tribal communities.  In reality, tribes are successfully partnering with renewable energy developers or developing projects on their own.

For instance, the Navajo Nation has actively pursued the ownership and development of renewable energy projects on its lands.  The Big Boquillas Ranch project is a proposed wind generation facility that will be constructed on Navajo lands in an area known as Aubrey Cliffs, near Seligman, Arizona.  The project will have an estimated capacity of 85 MW for the first phase of development, and 200 MW for the second phase of development.  The first phase is scheduled for completion by December 2013.  It will be the Navajo Nation’s first tribally owned utility-scale project.

Another project is a wind generation facility, located on Gray Mountain on the Navajo Nation’s land in Arizona.  It has been found to be a prime location for wind generation, and will be owned by the Nation jointly with other partners.  It will have an estimated capacity of 250 to 500 megawatts (“MW”) of wind power. Efforts are also underway for the Navajo Nation to develop commercial solar projects on their lands.

These are projects under development that will be located within close proximity to existing transmission corridors and the Navajo Transmission Project, a large proposed transmission line that is well under development.  The Navajo Transmission Project will consist of a 500 kV transmission line that will stretch 470 miles from New Mexico to Nevada.  The largest segment of the project will have the capacity to deliver wind energy from the Big Boquillas and Gray Mountain projects, among other renewable energy projects.

The Big Boquillas and Gray Mountain projects are significant examples of tribal efforts to diversify resources of power supply on a commercial scale and provide local benefits to their communities.  The development of projects on Navajo lands will create jobs for the local community, and a revenue source from the sale of renewable power.  As these projects will increase competition for renewable energy sources, consumers will also benefit from the opportunities to purchase clean energy at competitive prices.

Clearly, everyone stands to gain from the development of renewable energy projects on tribal lands.  This growing trend will undoubtedly play an important role in the future demand for renewable energy resources nationwide.

Tara S. Kaushik is a Senior Associate with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP in the San Francisco office, where she focuses her legal practice on energy regulatory matters. She regularly advises and represents renewable power, clean technology, natural gas pipeline, oil refinery, and water utility companies, as well as tribal organizations concerning California and federal energy regulatory matters. Ms. Kaushik can be reached at (415) 291-7409 or tkaushik@manatt.com.


This column is the eleventh in a series of articles by law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP’s Energy, Environment & Natural Resources practice. Earlier columns discussed Regulation of Nanomaterials, Energy Efficiency Retrofits, California’s Cap and Trade program, Green Marketing Regulation, Corporate Sustainability, Green Chemistry Regulation, Renewable Project Failures in California, Promoting Recycled Water, Environmental Liabilities in Bankruptcy Reorganizations, and California Renewable Policy.


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2 thoughts on “Renewable Energy Projects On Tribal Lands: A Growing Trend

  1. A very interesting and optimistic article, given the fact that the project has not yet even applied for or received approval from the County. Not to mention the sensitive wildlife issues that have been raised by AZ Game & Fish and the U.S.Fish & Wildlife. It seems highly unlikely that this project will even be approved by Dec. 2013, let alone constructed. Unfortunately, the Navajo Nation have believed the corporations that have pushed them into the wind energy with the idea of easy money, rather than adhere to their principles. I would recommend they look at the APS summary of the viability and reliability of wind power generation in Arizona before jumping in to these projects.

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