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Department of Energy Details Tribal Climate Change Effects, Gives $6 Million in Grants

Climate change is threatening tribal energy systems nationwide, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which is granting $6 million to help tribes cope.

As President Barack Obama toured Alaska earlier this month talking about the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions, the DOE’s Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs was coming out with a report, Tribal Energy System Vulnerabilities to Climate Change and Extreme Weather. Released last week, it’s an effort to support energy planning, education and management initiatives as tribes work to meet the increasing challenges brought on by climate change.

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“Climate change is no longer some far-off problem; it is happening here, it is happening now,” the President said while in Alaska. “We’re not acting fast enough. I have come here today … to say that the United States recognizes our role in creating the problem, and we embrace our responsibility to help solve it.”

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Since geography determines to some extent what climate change impacts are likely and how severe they could be, the DOE report presents its findings by region—Alaska, Northwest, Southwest, Great Plains, Midwest, Northeast and Southeast. Alaska Natives are among the people whose lives and cultures are at the most immediate risk from the impacts of climate change, including severe storms, thawing permafrost, river flooding, increasing wildfires and accelerating coastal and riverbank erosion. The report identifies as threats to all tribal energy systems “higher temperatures, less available water, and more frequent and intense heavy downpours, floods, heat waves,” as well as extreme weather events that could seriously damage infrastructure.

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Electricity in most rural Alaska Native villages depends on small, local diesel-fueled systems, according to the report. Fuel delivery options are few and are easily disrupted by severe weather. Further, damage to the infrastructure for generation or distribution could cut off Alaska Native villages for extended periods of time, because location and weather make repairs and maintenance highly problematic.

Thawing permafrost poses another severe threat in Alaska, causing the land to lose its weight-bearing capacity and exacerbating riverbank erosion. The rate of erosion can speed up even more if river flows increase with accelerating glacier melt or precipitation increases. Meanwhile, decreased winter precipitation and declining snowpack caused by rising temperatures could affect summer hydropower production in southern Alaska.

Oil and gas production in Alaska are also threatened by increasing temperatures, which make the ice roads impassable, and storms, which damage pipelines and equipment.

At the opposite end of the climate scale, threats in the desert Southwest are different from, but no less serious than, those in the Arctic region, according to the report. Rising temperatures and decreasing water availability will likely increase demand for power, disrupt the grid and decrease the efficiency and capacity of thermodynamic power plants, all of which would lead to higher prices and less reliable electricity service on tribal lands.

The report notes that tribal lands in the Southwest are home to extensive energy infrastructure including four major thermoelectric plants, two coalmines on Navajo Nation land, six tribal utility authorities, oil and gas production, and renewable energy projects. As in Alaska and elsewhere, energy infrastructure is vulnerable to increasing severe storms and wildfires.

The report is not big on solutions, nor is it meant to be. One suggestion is that tribes develop alternative and complementary energy supplies to decrease their vulnerability to failures in energy systems over which they have no control.

To this end, DOE has just announced the availability of $6 million in grants to fund up to 10 energy projects on tribal lands. The Deployment of Clean Energy and Energy Efficiency Projects on Indian Lands funding opportunity is open to Indian tribes (including Alaska Native regional corporations, village corporations, tribal consortia and tribal organizations) and Tribal Energy Resource Development Organizations for the installation of facility-scale clean energy production of at least 50 kW and energy efficiency projects and/or community-scale clean energy projects on Indian lands. Applications for funding under DE-FOA-0001390 are due December 10.