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Tribes hope investing in alternative energy sources helps supercharge their economy

Solar panels in rows on a wide, empty field.
Courtesy of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, Navajo Nation
The Kayenta solar farms on the Navajo Nation, shown here in 2019, span 365 acres and produce 55 megawatts of power that supply enough electricity to power 36,000 homes. Renewable energy such as solar power is drawing increasing attention in tribal communities as a way to build jobs for the future and help tribal economies.

Casinos have helped many tribes improve their economic challenges. Tribes are also investing in clean energy alternatives. Tribal representatives from across the U.S. are participating in a Tribal Clean Energy Summit taking place in Southern California this week.

Attendees at the Tribal Clean Energy Summit in Temecula, Calif., heard from people like Wahleah Johns, a member of the Navajo Nation and Director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Indian Energy. Johns said that while many communities still lack basic amenities, investing in alternative energy sources is helping many tribes supercharge their economy.

“These moments of leadership come and go," Johns said. "In 20 years, most of us won’t be in these roles that we have today. But the decisions we make while we are in this leadership space can have huge impacts in our communities and for our world. We organized this summit to make big things happen.”

Those big things include the creation of the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA). CEO Tracey LeBeau, who’s also a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe said WAPA has created a system of delivering energy to large-scale entities.

“We market and deliver federal hydropower from 57 dams throughout our 15-state footprint," LeBeau said. "Our wholesale customers are municipal utilities, cities and towns, military bases, electric cooperatives and well over 100 tribal governments or tribal utilities.”

Meryl Picard, Chairwoman of the Bishop Paiute Tribe said their big concern is balancing the pros and cons of lithium mining. Sherry Parker, Chairperson of the Hualapai Indian Tribe says finding the appropriate balance for the future is critical today.

“I believe that we Tribal people can work together to be progressive without destroying,” Parker said.

The Department of Energy announced the allocation of $200 million for 17 alternative energy projects, most of which are on tribal lands. Secretary of the Department of Energy Jennifer Granholm described some projects planned with Federal funding. She talked about solar projects with the Navajo and Hopi tribes whose land traverses Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, and a hydro-solar project with the Yakima Tribe in Washington state, where solar panels will be positioned over irrigation canals, preserving environmental and cultural resources.

“And with this new project the Yakima people will prove that clean energy and responsible development can and must go hand in hand," Granholm said. "And they’ll make sure that young people won’t come to know about sacred sites through stories, instead they’ll come to know those sites and cherish them and protect them for generations to come."

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Yvette Fernandez is the regional reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau. She joined Nevada Public Radio in September 2021.

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