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Desert tribe looking to go 'green'

BURNS, Ore. - If there's one thing there's plenty of in the high desert of Oregon, it's sunshine.

For years the Burns Paiute tribe has seen the potential of this inexhaustible asset for solar power. But lack of adequate funding made developing even an experimental solar collection system impossible.

Now, with a $30,000 grant from the Bonneville Power Administration's environmental foundation and $10,000 in additional funds from the state's Natural Resource Conservation Service, the tribe is one step closer to accomplishing its goal of some day becoming an independent power provider in the green market.

"The marriage is about over with fossil fuels," says Jim St. Martin, general manager of the tribe. "Solar has been kind of a pet project that the tribe has tried out a number of times and we keep whacking away on it. We want to be in the game when people finally realize that maybe we ought to start doing more in this area. By then we'll have a certain amount of hardware in place and the technology behind it in order to be a player."

With energy technologies coming of age and a slowly growing public demand for cheaper, more environmentally friendly energy, "renewables" such as solar, wind and geothermal power may soon provide opportunities for economic return. Tribes in distant rural locations that have few resources will be able to turn to green power as a potential source of income.

The Burns Paiute tribe is a prime example. With a small amount of land, no timber and no mining or fishing resources the tribe has survived on a grant economy for decades. Although it runs a small casino, the local economy can only support so much. If the tribe is to become sovereign, economic diversification is a must. And St. Martin says solar is one way to go.

For the first time since the energy crunch of the early 1970s and the effort to develop solar technologies in the United States began, the cost of setting up a solar collection system has become almost reasonable.

Whereas 30 years ago solar cost $30 per kilowatt hour to produce, it now averages around $10 per kilowatt hour to set up a small system, and $6 per kilowatt hour to set up a larger system. And there have been other changes.

Energy deregulation requirements by the Department of Energy kicked Bonneville Power Administration and the country's other major power providers such as the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) into subsidizing the technological development of renewables.

"The idea is to slowly fade out our reliance on fossil fuel," says Darrell Eastman, tribal relations coordinator with Bonneville Power. " So far most of the wind generation and photovoltaics are not great as far as being cost-effective. ... (But) there's so much going on it's almost mind boggling."

Even though green power is more expensive and consumers may not like paying the cost, legislation mandating a certain percentage of green power in the "grid" is pending in several states. Bonneville Power Administration will soon purchase the output of renewable energy systems and then sell it as green power.

"It's basically melted into our rates so that it really doesn't show up as any higher," Eastman says. "There are utilities that are willing to pay a higher cost because it is green power and it's something that the Department of Energy has ordered us to do."

The Burns Paiute tribe is starting out with a 2.5 kilowatt solar generating design. While not big enough to meet the energy needs of a small house, the system is capable of running a well pump and supplying irrigation. The tribe plans to use this first system to irrigate about 10 acres of crop land and establish a year-round pond and wildlife area on another 30 acres.

The plan is to develop in 40 acre increments until the tribe has multiple 2.5 kilowatt modules linked in a series capable of irrigating as well as pumping water and supplying power for the whole community.

"At that time we have a bit of a transformation to go through," says Dave Evans, environmental and energy coordinator for the tribe. "If we still want to go through with it and get bigger, the tribe has several thousand acres in a more remote site ... and then we can start up-scaling in 160-acre-parcel increments. At that point we would be looking at utility scale going with genuine contracts with utilities."

Vast fields of solar panels have other potentials. Linked solar panels, as it turns out, also provide a perfect metal framework for hanging irrigation pipe. Working with the local Natural Resource Conservation Service and Oregon State University's local research station, the tribe is researching shade tolerant grasses that can grow underneath the solar panels. The potential crop also needs to be frost hardy and able to manage a fairly short growing season, but Evans says the research for a cash crop looks promising.

In desert regions where water is at a premium and water tables are dropping because of irrigation, crops that can be grown in extensive shade are a godsend. For one thing, they require less water. Watering at night cuts use even more because there is a lot less evaporation.

If the system is connected to the power grid there is another advantage called load-leveling.

"You can buy power off the grid at night - and that's low-cost power," says Evans. "Most power plants ... are a daytime peaking type system, and they have to build those plants with a lot more capacity than what they need at night. So at night they have surplus power."

By producing green power and selling it by day at higher prices and buying cheaper power at night to run irrigation systems, Evans says this kind of load leveling can "justify power to the tune of two to three times its market value." Which is just enough to offset the high technology production cost of solar.

Renewables are now doable, and the advantages are clear.

Eastman, who has been working as tribal coordinator with BPA for years, says rather than continuing on the path of depleting the earth's resources and fostering ever greater pollution by developing oil reserves and coal mines, it is time for tribes to step forward and use the kinds of earth-friendly technologies that can make producing power a win-win situation for everybody.

"I hope more of these types of projects can catch on with the tribes and people will step forward and start funding them," he says. "We try to bring the messengers to the tribes to deliver the right message."