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Solar Energy: Enlightening Tribal Economies

Assuming tribal sovereignty is respected in any development process, Indian country is in an optimal position to embrace solar energies as a tool for sustainable economic development.

Red Tape

The largest impediment to the proliferation of solar projects is the federal permitting process. Because public lands fall under the jurisdiction of federal land stewards, a federal review under numerous federal laws is required. Obtaining permits that comply with these laws can take years and cost millions, especially taking into account the almost inevitable litigation challenges to the permits.

According to U.S. Department of Energy statistics, only two utility-scale solar generators were brought online in 2009, compared to 380 non-solar generators. A recent University of Arizona study has confirmed that the red tape involved in obtaining the permits for these projects is largely to blame.

“Not in my backyard (NIMBY)” and collective action problems also loom large on public lands. This is despite public support in the polls and general encouragement from environmentalists. As recently reported by Newsweek, for solar developers NIMBY has been swapped for a newer aphorism: “build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone (BANANA).”

The Tribal Solution

Tribes, as sovereign nations, are not restrained by the same mechanisms as are federal and state governments; neither states nor the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission can block solar projects on Indian lands. Although permitting is still required in some instances, the 2005 Energy Policy Act granted the Department of Energy the power to authorize individual Indians and tribal governments to enter into energy development leases or business agreements without federal review.

Unlike public lands, where the BANANA mantra resonates, an increasing number of tribes are showing keen interest in solar projects. Tribes are in fact at the forefront of the renewable energy trend, embracing alternative energy resources on their land in ways that mirror tribal cultural values.

The founders of Lakota Solar Enterprises, an Indian-owned company located on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, provide a perfect example. Beginning with the conviction that providing solar electricity resonates with the Sioux and Lakota traditional belief that the sun should be an integral feature to all activity, Lakota Solar is now one of the nation’s first 100 percent Native American-owned and -operated renewable energy companies—offering employment and green jobs training to people in communities with unemployment rates up to 85 percent. Native Hawaiian elementary schools on the island of Molokai present another example. There, schools are installing photovoltaic panels not only to cut costs, but also to educate children in the traditional belief that “the islands provide everything necessary to exist.” These illustrations offer only a taste of the innovative and intelligent ways that tribes are using solar energy to build a renewable future that matches perfectly with traditional tribal cultures and values.

The Reasons Why

Energy independence and financial autonomy are the most significant benefits to the implementation of solar projects. In the past, investments in traditional energy resources had spawned promises of great tribal economic success. But these projects did nothing to advance tribal sovereignty. Today, however, federal, state and local governments’ shift from fossil fuels to renewable resources is providing the long-needed impetus for the expansive energy policy changes that Indian country has been demanding for years. Tribally owned and operated solar energy developments have a real chance to change the energy paradigm in tribal communities from one of exploitation to one of equity–and from one that undermines the earth-based cultures of indigenous peoples to one that nurtures cultural revitalization. This is a true exertion of tribal sovereignty.

Solar projects are also a rallying point—a point of focus that allows tribes to come together collectively to fortify governing institutions in their own way by creating regulations to fill the gaps left by the federal government. As tribes institute or take over the maturity of solar projects they can create a regulatory system of their own, in a way that addresses the unique problems faced by that particular tribal government. Education, technical training and hands-on experience opportunities can be made available to tribal citizens in a way that integrates the tribe’s traditional knowledge and the cultural norms of the community.

Indian country, it is time to enter the “green energy revolution.” While greater policy change is needed for Indian country to fully realize the economic potential of any renewable energy development effort, solar power is largely ripe for development now.

Ryan D. Dreveskracht is an attorney licensed in Washington State, where he focuses on issues critical to Indian country.