First Tribal Solar Project Set to Shine

A map of the Moapa Project

A map of the Moapa Project

WASHINGTON—After years of pointing out that renewable energy is abundant in Indian country; after years of wading through a complicated federal-tribal bureaucracy; and after years of looking for money to do it, one tribe is set to become the host of the first-ever solar energy project on Indian land.

It was announced by the U.S. Department of the Interior in late-June that the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians in Nevada has been granted permission to operate a new 350-megawatt photovoltaic facility that could generate enough energy to power at least 100,000 homes.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar gave his official stamp of approval on June 21, saying during a press conference call that it was a “historic decision” to help the tribe make progress in the “new energy frontier.” His approval will move forward the planned construction, operation and maintenance of a low-impact photovoltaic (PV) facility and associated infrastructure on about 2,000 acres of the tribe’s reservation.

“This has been a high priority project for me because I want to make sure that Indian country is not left behind as we move forward with our very robust and very successful renewable energy program on public lands for this country,” Salazar said on the call. “We need to make sure that we make believers out of the skeptics. There are still skeptics out there.”

Salazar added that tribal lands hold great renewable energy potential, and he believes that smart development of these resources has the power to strengthen tribal economies, create jobs and generate clean electricity for communities across Indian country. He expects the lease for the Moapa project to be issued over the next several weeks and that construction will begin in the fall.

“This is a great day for the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians, and for Indian Country as a whole,” added Donald Laverdure, acting assistant secretary of Indian affairs. “As our nation’s energy portfolio continues to grow, it is important that tribal communities have the opportunity to harness the energy of the wind and sun in a way that can power our homes, businesses and economies. Today is an important step in that direction.”

Department officials said the Moapa development isthe first-ever, utility-scale solar project approved for development on tribal lands. It is the 31st utility-scale renewable energy project that Interior has approved since 2009; before that, there were no solar energy projects permitted on public lands. They estimate that the project will generate about 400 jobs at peak construction and at least 15 permanent jobs, and noted that it would create lease income for the tribe.

The project was proposed by K Road Moapa Solar LLC, and it is scheduled to be built in three phases. “In addition to PV panel arrays, major project components include a 500-kilovolt transmission line to deliver power to the grid and a 12- kilovolt transmission line to the existing Moapa Travel Plaza after Phase 1 is complete,” according to an Interior fact sheet. “About 12 acres of U.S. public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management would be required for the 500-kv transmission line.”

Laverdure said several tribes throughout the country have expressed similar interest in getting their own renewable projects started, and some are in early phases of getting wind, solar, biomass, and hydropower projects launched.

On that point, Salazar said that 250 reservations have been identified nationwide that have significant renewable energy potential, so the Moapa development could be the first of many tribal endeavors on this front.

“We expect that this is the point of a spear,” Salazar said, adding that he hopes more tribes, including the Navajo Nation, will soon be able to move forward with the department to develop solar projects.

Department officials also noted that under the Obama administration, Interior has launched major reform plan of federal surface leasing regulations for American Indian lands. These reforms are supposed to streamline the approval process for home ownership and spur renewable energy development in Indian country.