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Prospects for Tribal Renewable Projects Are Dimming

Among those paying close attention to the collapse of the Solyndra solar cell manufacturer, once a poster child of renewable-energy development for the Obama administration, were the energy advocates who have long pushed for increased federal investment in tribal programs similar to those that funded the failed firm.

Solyndra’s failure came less than three years after a loan guarantee of $535 million in March 2009 by the U.S. Department of Energy. Company leaders decided to declare bankruptcy in early September—effectively flushing the millions of dollars given by taxpayers down the toilet.

The high-cost death of Solyndra couldn’t have come at a worse time for tribal energy and those who believe that it has a real chance to bolster many reservation economies. Several energy programs have been pending for months and even years in the U.S. Congress, first as the second Bush administration ignored them, and then as more pressing concerns of the Obama administration took priority.

In a recent letter to supporters, leaders with the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy (COUP) highlighted one prong of the growing problem, noting that federal funding, which would support renewable-energy upgrades and new wind projects on many reservations, had been scheduled for repeal by the U.S. House of Representatives. That action was pushed by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-California, who saw Solyndra as his invitation to once again offer legislation that would cut more than $3 billion in new borrowing authority granted to the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) under the 2009 stimulus act. WAPA, one of the country’s major power-marketing administrations that serve as independent companies within the Department of Energy to market wholesale electricity mainly from federal hydropower projects, was granted the borrowing authority in order to let it grant loans to develop new transmission lines that would support renewable energies.

This funding authority had a major tribal connection, given that in late 2008 Intertribal COUP analyzed the federal electricity grid in North and South Dakota and Nebraska—states with major tribes that could take advantage of renewable programs—and crunched the numbers to come up an estimated $3.1 billion needed for WAPA upgrades to the grid in those states to enable the transmission of renewable energy. It estimated that re-conductoring some 3,955 miles of transmission wires in those states alone would support some 6,000 megawatts of new wind development and bring 23,226 new jobs in construction and operations to that region. The analysis also indicated that about 480 million tons of carbon emissions could be reduced over 20 years. Other renewable-energy projects, including some solar projects in the Southwest, were suggested by tribal leaders, bringing the full estimate up to $3.5 billion.

After tribal groups submitted the analysis in early 2009, the final request was reduced to $3.25 billion of borrowing authority and granted to WAPA in the stimulus act of 2009. To date, only a small portion of this borrowing authority has been utilized, and none in North Dakota, South Dakota or Nebraska.

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Enter McClintock, who wants to cut the funding altogether. The power of the legislator, who chairs the House Natural Resources Water and Power Subcommittee, is great in this area, in part because he has the ear of full panel Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Washington, who now says that he, too, is concerned that the stimulus legislation could cost taxpayers if any renewable energy projects funded under the stimulus act fail. “Taxpayers should not be stuck footing the bill for expensive renewable energy transmission projects that turned out to be bad investments by the federal government,” Hastings said in a statement.

Tribal energy advocates have long argued that support for renewable energy programs on reservation lands would be great investments, since many tribes are in areas with abundant wind and solar resources. Energy Department studies show that wind power from tribal lands could satisfy 14 percent of total U.S. electricity demand.

Joe Valandra, a consultant to tribes on various economic matters, says there’s no certain answer as to whether Solyndra’s collapse will unplug tribal energy initiatives, since some programs authorized by the Department of Energy that could help tribes have yet to be funded by Congress. Still, the Solyndra failure certainly doesn’t help the chances of funding appropriations, he said—especially in a time when Democrats and Republicans are looking for cuts anywhere they can get them.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, asked tough questions about Solyndra in recent Senate hearings, but she has also been a strong advocate for tribal energy: “We must support our Native people in their efforts to develop energy resources on Native lands, whether for use in Native communities or to generate income to support our tribal governments and tribal enterprises,” Murkowski said at a tribal energy conference this past winter. For now, Senate Democrats appear to be holding strong against the McClintock bill. “This is yet another bill that exposes congressional Republicans’ anti-clean-energy jobs agenda,” Eben Burnham-Snyder, spokesman for House Natural Resources Committee ranking member Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, recently told the Environment & Energy Daily online trade publication. “At a time when millions of Americans are out of work, why are Republicans cheerleading the elimination of energy, manufacturing and construction jobs? Fortunately, the one guarantee that can be made about this latest attack is that this bill will never become law.”


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