Photo: GPA Photo Archive/Flickr
Photo: GPA Photo Archive/Flickr

What Is holding back renewable energy development in Indian Country?

Posted by Lauren Hertel on Monday, December 16 2019

Editor's note: The following op-ed by Margaret Tallmadge first appeared on Yale's Clean Energy Finance Forum blog.

An energy paradox lingers in Indian Country, the land base of Native Americans in the contiguous 48 states: enormous renewable energy generation potential, but numerous barriers to development and electrification. This article is the first in a two-part series: first, exploring the barriers to renewable energy development in Indian Country, and second, laying out potential regulatory, legislative, financial, and business solutions for overcoming them.

The Potential and the Benefits

Native American tribes could provide 10% of the nation’s total energy and 6.7% of U.S. renewable energy capacity. But despite this generative potential, over 14% of households on Native American reservations lack access to electricity. Further, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, 86% of American Indian lands — 15 million acres — with energy or mineral resources were still undeveloped as of 2012.

With an estimated 9 terawatts of potential renewable energy capacityin Indian Country, tribes have the opportunity to be key players in the transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy. And practically, much of Indian Country offers a renewable energy development environment with little existing competition, little to no legal restriction on land use, and tax-exempt status that provides a potential competitive advantage.

Renewable energy and microgrid development provide a number of potential benefits to tribes beyond energy provision, including economic development, energy cost savings and stabilization, environmental protection, climate change mitigation and increased climate resilience. The ability to develop and regulate renewable energy is also an expression of sovereignty and self-determination, Tanksi Clairmont, Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund director at Grid Alternatives, told CEFF.

“The relationship between renewable/solar energy and sovereignty is the overarching responsibility to protect the land in a way that aligns with cultural and traditional principles, while affirming the inherent powers of tribal nations,” Clairmont wrote in an email. In creating environmental codes, issuing permits, levying taxes and entering government-to-government agreements, for example, a tribe exercises its ability to self-govern.

But why, despite these benefits, are we seeing so little public and private capital flow to renewable energy in Indian Country? While investment in renewable energy in the U.S. continues to grow, according to a January 2019 article by Garrett Hering from S&P Global Market Intelligence, renewables presence on tribal lands still remains a fraction of its potential. Barriers to accessing capital, limited technical expertise and transmission infrastructure, regulatory hurdles, and minimal knowledge of sovereignty and federal Indian law amongst business and financial institutions currently prevent tribes from actualizing benefits of the renewable energy transition.  

There are unique renewable energy barriers and opportunities facing each of the 573 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. We focus on overarching trends in this article.

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