Renewables offer glimmer of hope for isolated reservations

By Abby Kessler | 04/27/2016 01:17 PM EDT

For 11 years, Derrick Terry has powered his home off a 1.6-kilowatt solar photovoltaic-wind hybrid generator that produces enough electricity to light his home and refrigerate his family’s perishable food in a remote region of the sprawling Navajo reservation.

For 11 years, Derrick Terry has powered his home off a 1.6-kilowatt solar photovoltaic-wind hybrid generator that produces enough electricity to light his home and refrigerate his family’s perishable food in a remote region of the sprawling Navajo reservation.

Terry, a renewable energy specialist with the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and a member of the tribal nation, and his family are one of more than 200 on the 27,000-square-mile reservation who rely on the units to generate power in its most remote areas.

Today, some 15,000 families on the reservation a little larger than the state of West Virginia still don’t have access to electricity, down from 18,000 families without access in 2008.


"These homes might be isolated and remote, but that’s where their grandparents and their grandparents before them lived," said Deenise Becenti, a spokeswoman for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. "And if living on the traditional homestead means not having immediate access to electricity, they understand that."

Small-scale renewable units have helped decrease that number, but there aren’t enough of the generators to provide one for every family in need. Lack of funding and resources to maintain the structures have hindered widespread distribution of the small units.

But they have the potential to meet the reservation’s energy needs.

"We are in northern Arizona, so we’re in a prime location in which we can utilize solar energy," Terry said.

On rare occasions when the sun doesn’t shine, a wind turbine rigged to the top of the 15-foot unit typically makes up the difference. Between that and a backup generator, intermittency is not an issue at the majority of homes powered by the hybrid units.

The units come in four different sizes, based on capacity. Families pay $75 a month to use them, and the monthly investment goes toward eventual ownership of the system.

The success of individual renewable units and a desire for reliable power generation have prompted the Navajo Nation to partner with the nonprofit utility Salt River Project to invest in a $64 million utility-scale solar power plant capable of powering an average of 7,700 homes.

Terry said the project could result in economic stimulation for the community, bringing jobs and stable energy prices to the tribe’s members.

"The Navajo Nation is very, very impoverished," Terry said. "People just don’t earn that much money, and a lot of people are on fixed incomes."

The project is expected to produce several construction-phase jobs and four full-time hires once it’s complete by the end of this year.

The majority of electricity generated from the 28-megawatt facility would be sold back to the grid, rather than powering isolated homes on the reservation. That is, in large part, due to the expense of running power lines to its most remote areas.

And while the project marks a step forward for a tribe interested in using renewable resources, the investment remains relatively small. Recently, the tribe attempted to push through a commercial-scale wind project, but permits for the project were not granted, halting its progress.

"Right now, we are trying to find another area for a large production wind farm," Terry said.

Still, the tribal nation’s shift in focus to renewables marks an "exciting time for us," he said.

An untapped resource

The potential for renewable energy on tribal lands across the country is substantial.

According to a report published by the Department of Energy, reservation lands have the potential to produce about 6 percent of the nation’s renewable energy, although reservations make up just 2 percent of total U.S. land.

Reservations "certainly have the potential for renewables," said Bob Gough, secretary of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, or ICOUP, adding that many reservations are located in extreme locations.

And despite the potential, Gough said "next to nothing" is being harnessed.

The resources aren’t being tapped due to many factors, including hefty upfront investments required, lack of knowledge about how to plan for such a project and connectivity issues to the nation’s power grid in rural areas.

During a DOE presentation last month, John Steward, acting manager for the transmission business unit at the Western Area Power Administration, estimated a feasibility study for implementing renewables would cost an estimated $10,000. A system impact study and environmental assessment would also have to be conducted, preliminary steps that would push the price of potential projects even higher.

"The customer may look and determine the cost is too high," Steward said.

Sean Esterly, project lead at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said funding is "definitely the biggest issue" tribes face when transitioning to renewable energy.

Various financing programs are available for federally recognized tribes that provide funds and assistance to nations interested in assessing the potential for renewables on their land. DOE said that between 2002 and 2014, the agency invested $48 million in 183 tribal clean energy projects valued at about $93 million.

But, Gough said, the government’s investment in renewables on tribal land is markedly smaller when dispersed among more than 500 federally recognized tribes.

Funding shortages may be a concern, but Esterly said connecting tribes to those grants is an important step that is frequently overlooked. He said the tribes aren’t always aware that grant dollars are available to invest in such projects.

"Unfortunately, due to capacity of some of the tribes and lack of knowledge of which of the resources they can take advantage, a lot of the opportunities are falling through the cracks," he said.

Another issue is access to the grid. Reservations typically are not well connected to the power grid, making transportation of generated energy an expensive endeavor.

U.S. utilities "are operating off of 19th-century organization, 20th-century technology and 21st-century needs," Gough said of the nation’s grid, noting the aging infrastructure is stymying the entire country’s conversion to cleaner power sources.

He said the Great Plains region offers immense wind potential, while the Southwest offers ample possibilities for solar.

A recent study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado, Boulder, said wind and sunshine could power most of the United States by 2030. Over large geographic regions, weather trends tend to average out, meaning spreading renewables over swaths of land could smooth highs and lows in electricity output (ClimateWire, Jan. 26).

The issue is not intermittency, Gough said, rather the nation’s utility infrastructure.

While many hurdles remain for tribal nations to invest in renewable energy, a Bureau of Indian Affairs spokesman said in an email that there is "significant interest" in developing renewables on tribal lands.

"This interest may often stem from a tribe’s need for sovereignty, energy independence, environmental sustainability, strengthening the tribal economy or any combination of these," he said.