American Indian Reservations: A Showplace for Renewable Energy

Paper presented at the 1996 Annual Conference of the American Solar Energy Society, Asheville, North Carolina — April 13-18, 1996

Steve Sargent
U.S. Department of Energy
Golden Field Office
1617 Cole Blvd.
Golden, CO 80401

Ernest J. Chabot
U.S. Department of Energy
Office of Technical and
Financial Assistance
1000 Independence Ave.
Washington, DC 20585


The Indian Energy Resource Development Program, authorized by Title XXVI of the 1992 Energy Policy Act, provides funding to American Indian tribes to develop Indian renewable energy and other energy resources. In fiscal years 1994 and 1995, 35 grants totaling $6.5 million were awarded to 29 tribes and Alaskan native corporations in 13 states. The projects cover the development range from feasibility studies to purchase and installation of equipment for commercial projects. Technologies include photovoltaics, biomass, wind, building energy efficiency, hydroelectricity, integrated resource planning, coal-fired cogeneration, and multi-sector natural gas. The Title XXVI program provides an important opportunity for assessing the technical and economic feasibility of renewable energy on Indian lands, and also for demonstrating DOE-developed technologies in real-life settings.

  1. Introduction

    Title XXVI of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, entitled "Indian Energy Resources", established a program for development of energy resources on Indian reservations. The Title is aimed at promoting tribal energy self-sufficiency and fostering employment and economic development on America's Indian reservations. Two sections are of primary interest. Section 2603 promotes the development of a vertically integrated energy industry on Indian reservations, and includes renewables, fossil energy, and cogeneration. Section 2606 establishes a financial assistance program for tribes to develop energy efficiency and renewable energy projects on reservations. In 1994, the program's first fiscal year of authorization, it received an appropriation of $5 million, and was assigned to the DOE Office of Technical and Financial Assistance for program management, and to the Denver Regional Support Office (DRSO) for field implementation. A competitive solicitation by DRSO resulted in 17 projects, of which two were under Section 2603 and 15 were under Section 2606. In FY 1995, the program had available approximately $2.5 million in new and carryover funding, with Congressional language limiting it to Section 2606. A second DRSO competitive solicitation resulted in 18 funded projects. In FY 1996, a total of $8.6 million was appropriated, but all Congressionally earmarked for 3 tribes; therefore, no general proposal solicitation was undertaken.

    This paper describes the projects funded by the FY 1994 and 1995 solicitations.

  2. Photovoltaic Projects

    PV water pumping in remote areas is being used commercially by two tribes.
    The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in southwestern Colorado brings in considerable income from its cattle-ranching operation, with a herd of nearly 2000 head. Since annual rainfall is only 10-15 inches and the only stream is dry part of the year, the tribe must rely on ground water for cattle watering. Traditional wind pumpers have been used but are not satisfactory due to seasonally inadequate winds and high maintenance costs (est. at $1200 per well per year). Power line extensions by the local electric cooperative would cost some $4400/well-year. The tribe is therefore replacing about 35 wind pumpers with PV pumps, which have an estimated annual maintenance cost of $500. In this project, the performance of several selected pumping installations will be monitored for a year.

    The Hualapai Tribe of northwestern Arizona suffers from nearly 70% unemployment and has limited income sources. A tourist facility on the Grand Canyon rim currently draws some 500 day visitors but lack of water limits expansion potential. DOE is co-funding the purchase and installation of a PV system to pump water 26 miles from a well to the facility. System data will be collected for one tourist season after installation. The tribe plans to expand the Grand Canyon West facility to include a hotel and casino, which will require a water distribution system and wastewater management system. The expanded facility is expected to provide substantial employment opportunities for the tribe.

    PV water pumping for human consumption is also the subject of a feasibility study being conducted by the Zuni Pueblo of northwestern New Mexico. The current supply is from wells with an insufficient output of water which tastes bad and is contaminated with sulfates and uranium. Several wells at Ojo Caliente, 13 miles south of the village, produce an adequate supply of clean water, but there is no electricity available there for pumping. A line extension would cost an estimated $700,000. The feasibility study is comparing the cost of a PV pumping system, possibly with diesel backup, to the line extension.

    The Laguna Pueblo west of Albuquerque has a plant that assembles electronic components for the Defense Department. Laguna Industries, Inc., in partnership with Spire Corporation, is studying the feasibility of converting part of the plant to assembly of PV modules. The Nambe Pueblo is examining the technical and economic feasibility of constructing and operating a 1-MW PV power system on Pueblo land north of Santa Fe. A key factor is the ability of the tribe to secure firm purchase agreements from local utilities.

  3. Biomass Projects

    DOE funded a feasibility analysis of a co-generation system at the White Mountain Apache Tribe's Fort Apache Timber Company lumber mill in northeastern Arizona. A previous resource assessment, funded by the Western Regional Biomass Energy Program, had confirmed that a plant up to 37 MW could be fueled from lumber mill and logging waste. The economic feasibility study, conducted for the tribe by the NEOS Corporation, examined a number of cogeneration options and predicted energy costs ranging between 4.4 and 9.3¢/kwh. Waste steam would be used to power the plant's lumber kilns. The tribe is considering the construction of a pulp mill, which would justify a 15-20 MW plant; otherwise, a 2.4 MW facility would be adequate. Establishment of a tribally-owned utility would be an advantage because (1) it would permit wheeling to non-tribal customers on the reservation, and (2) it would make the tribe eligible for an allocation of inexpensive hydropower from the Western Area Power Administration.

    A similar feasibility study is being conducted for a 35-MW cogeneration plant by the Keweenaw Tribe of Michigan's upper peninsula. The study is considering the relevant aspects of fuel availability, power sales agreements, transmission requirements, and environmental studies. The Nez Perce Tribe of western Idaho is constructing a pilot plant to produce biodiesel fuel from vegetable oil and waste animal fat. The feedstocks are reacted with alcohol in the presence of a catalyst to produce the fuel. The plant will be located on the reservation and will produce up to 1000 liters per batch (one batch per week), which will be tested in tribally-owned vehicles.

  4. Wind Projects

    Northwestern Montana, home of the Blackfeet Tribe, has a very substantial wind resource. The Northwest Power Planning Council estimated in 1991 that an area of 3,250 square miles on the reservation could support up to 15,000 MW of generation if transmission constraints could be overcome. (The Bonneville Power Administration identified 100-140 MW of transmission capacity in the area). Wind measurements have been taken periodically since 1980, which data are being consolidated in the tribe's 1994 project. Several locations showed long-term average wind speeds between 17 and 18 mph at 10m height. As expected, sites on ridge lines had significantly higher speeds.

    The 1995 Blackfeet project involves the installation and operation of a utility-grade wind turbine at a site near the main town of Browning. The project is being conducted in concert with the Zond Corporation, which will supply the turbine, and with Glacier Electric Cooperative, which will supply an interconnection with their grid. Turbine performance will be monitored for a minimum of one year. Together, the two Blackfeet projects should provide a sound basis for a decision on proceeding to development of a commercial wind farm.

    Demonstration turbines will also be erected and monitored as part of projects on the reservations of the Devil's Lake Sioux and Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribes in northern North Dakota. Both are in high-wind areas with significant potential for commercial wind farm development.

    The Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes in northeastern Montana are conducting a wind resource assessment at five sites on their reservation, in conjunction with the Bechtel Corp. Preliminary data conducted in mid-1995 showed average wind speeds between 16.3 and 16.8 mph at four of the sites. The Western Area Power Administration performed a transmission study which indicated that additional transmission capacity will need to be constructed to carry the output of a commercial-scale wind farm. A similar wind resource assessment is getting started at the Jemez Pueblo in northern New Mexico.

    The Manzanita Band of Mission Indians in southern California is pursuing wind development by establishing a Wind Energy Project Office. This office will examine environmental and legal issues, perform market research, identify additional lands for possible acquisition, and examine wind energy projects by other tribes that can serve as models. In addition, the office will put on workshops and other educational activities for Manzanita members, including touring wind farms in nearby San Gorgonio Pass.

  5. Buildings Projects

    An influx of tribal members back to the reservation has motivated the Oneida Tribe, near Green Bay, Wisconsin, to undertake an ambitious six-year plan to construct 222 new housing units and rehabilitate another 345. Thirty five of the new units will be energy "Dream Homes", constructed to the Canadian "R-2000" superinsulation standards, and including such features as: (1) structure orientation to take advantage of passive solar heating, earth berming, summer shading, and wind breaks; (2) R-25 insulation in walls, R-54 in attics, R-20 in foundations, and R-3 windows; (3) air-to-air heat exchangers; and (4) low-wattage fluorescent fixtures. The 1994 Title XXVI grant is funding a portion of the cost to install these features in the 35 "Dream Homes", as well as to purchase and install one active solar hot water system as a prototype unit. Preliminary utility data showed an average heating cost, using natural gas, of $45 per house for December 1995, well below the cost for houses with conventional energy features.

    An active solar water heating system is part of the equipment being purchased by the Hoopa Valley Tribe of northern California with their 1994 grant. The tribe is converting their community pool to year-round operation by covering it with an inflatable fabric dome, heating the water with the solar system and a new high-efficiency gas backup heater, and upgrading the old pump/filter system. Under a 1995 grant, the tribe is performing an extensive energy efficiency upgrade to a 3700 ft2 commercial building which they are converting into a youth center. The ceiling will have R-38 insulation and the walls R-22, both incorporating "Reflectix", a commercial multi-layer insulating material with reflective foil on both sides and two layers of bubble pack. A zoned high-efficiency heating/cooling system will be installed, along with low-wattage fluorescent lighting fixtures and occupancy sensors. The new energy system is expected to reduce the building utility bill by 32%.

    The Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut obtained title to a former DOE facility, used to assemble nuclear submarine engines, and is converting it into a tourist destination resort. The tribe is using its Title XXVI funding to develop an integrated energy management plan for the facility, in order to minimize energy costs and mitigate environmental impacts. Energy efficiency options being considered include: high efficiency glazing, lighting, and business equipment; added thermal insulation; window films; co-generation; and occupancy sensors. Renewable options include: solar hot water; ground-source heat pumps; daylighting; photovoltaics for on-site electricity such as parking lot lighting; wind generation; fuel cells; and alternative-fueled shuttle vehicles.

    A desire to combine traditional tribal architecture with contemporary energy efficiency features led the 750-year-old Picuris Pueblo of northern New Mexico to undertake an energy study for their new community center building. A HUD grant is funding the basic building and the Title XXVI grant is paying for an energy study and selected energy-saving hardware. The project's first phase of 10,000 ft2 will contain a multi-purpose gymnasium and associated facilities. Phase II will increase the facility to 19,000 ft2 and add space for day care, classrooms, arts and crafts shop, and administrative offices. The basically round building will obtain passive heating through a long south facade, and an 80 x 4 foot clerestory window will supply daylighting for the gym and locker room. This will be supplemented by dimmable fluorescent lighting controlled by a light sensor. Current plans call for a passive solar hot water system using two 40-gallon tanks covered with a selective coating mounted in a clerestory space, to function as a pre-heater for the gas hot water heater. Additional features to be studied include:

    1. solar hot water system with heat exchange in the slab;
    2. ventilation heat recovery;
    3. compact fluorescent lights;
    4. increased insulation in ceiling, walls and foundation;
    5. low-emittance window coatings;
    6. occupancy sensor, timers, and light level management.

    The tribe plans to use locally-manufactured adobe for the structure as much as possible, in order to provide employment for tribal members.

  6. Hydroelectric Projects

    Six hydroelectric projects are supported by the Title XXVI program, five of them in Alaska.

    The Agdaagux Tribe, located in the town of King Cove, near the western end of the Alaska peninsula, received DOE funding to partially finance their 800-kw run-of-river generation and distribution system, which became operational in December 1994. The system includes a 9000-lb flywheel for stability (since it is not grid-connected), 6000 ft of buried penstock, five miles of buried cable, and a remote control and data system. The plant produces electricity for the town's 700 inhabitants and fish processing plant more cheaply than the old diesel system, and without the local pollution from burning up to 400 gallons of diesel fuel per day.

    The Native Village of Chignik Lagoon, on the tip of the Alaska peninsula, has suffered for many years from the lack of a village electrical system. All residents rely on personal diesel generators, which burn fuel costing $1.35/gallon and which must be transported at great personal and environmental risk from the depot to the village aboard small fishing vessels. The lack of a central power system has disqualified the Village from HUD housing assistance. The Village received a 1994 Title XXVI grant for a feasibility study of a run-of-river 200 kw hydroelectric plant located on a nearby creek. A follow-up 1995 grant is providing funds for purchase of materials for an underground distribution system to all village buildings. Initially, power will be provided from a new central diesel generating system funded by the state of Alaska; when the hydro plant is constructed, the diesel plant will function as a backup.

    Three other Alaska hydro feasibility studies are currently underway:

    1. The Haida Corporation is completing a feasibility study, funded by 1994 and 1995 grants, of a 1.5 MW plant on Prince of Wales Island in the southeastern part of the state. Hydro generators could be placed on creeks flowing between an upper lake and a lower lake, and between the lower lake and the ocean. The plant is projected to produce power at 11¢/kwh versus 18¢ from the current diesel plant. The project includes preparation of a license application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

    2. The Cape Fox Corporation also received 1994 and 1995 grants for a feasibility study of a 9.6 MW hydroelectric plant based on an innovative approach known as a "lake tap", in which water is withdrawn directly from the bottom of a lake and transported through an underground pipe directly to a turbine. The project includes NEPA review and FERC license preparation.

    3. The Atka Native Village is located on the island of Atka in the Aleutian chain, some 1250 miles southwest of Anchorage. Commercial fishing provides the main income source, and a larger freezer is needed to expand the industry. This will put a further strain on the village's already overburdened diesel generation capacity, which produces electricity at 38¢/kwh accompanied by local air pollution. The DOE-funded feasibility study for a 40-270 kw hydro system is examining the area topography, routes for the penstock and transmission line, permitting requirements, equipment costs, and overall power plant economics.

    The only "lower 48" hydro project is being conducted by the Jicarilla Apache Tribe of northern New Mexico. The Bureau of Reclamation's Heron Dam, part of the San Juan-Chama water project, is located on reservation land and offers the potential for up to 16 MW of hydroelectric generation. The tribe is studying the technical and economic feasibility of such a plant, including preliminary plant design, transmission and interconnect requirements, and compatibility with the tribe's long-term energy and economic development objectives.

  7. Integrated Resource Planning Projects

    In the center of South Dakota, the Lower Brule Sioux reservation has significant natural resources, including:

    • A 250,000-acre land base
    • A lake with surface area of 80 mi2
    • Artesian wells of geothermal water
    • Average wind speeds of 10-15 mph, and
    • Hydropower potential.

    The tribe aims to become as energy self-sufficient as possible, in ways that protect the environment. DOE is funding their effort to develop an Integrated Resource Plan that will tie together energy consumption and production in an optimum manner. Specific aspects to be investigated include: current energy usage by sector; a farm energy system (ethanol and methane); a community energy system (batteries and fuel cells); photovoltaic, hydro, geothermal, and wind potential; and potential for demand-side management. In addition, the tribe is investigating the possibility of establishing its own utility authority, in part to qualify for an allocation of WAPA hydropower

    The Koniag Native Corporation, encompassing an area around the Kodiak Archipelago of the Alaskan Peninsula, is engaged in a five-year program to upgrade the residential and commercial energy infrastructure for its members, as well as to safeguard the environment. A prime motivating factor is diesel-generated electricity cost, which ranges from 30 ¢/kwh to nearly $1. Diesel fuel is also the main energy source for space and domestic water heating, at costs ranging from $1 to $3 per gallon, significantly higher than in the lower 48. DOE is co-funding Phase I of the program, which encompasses development of a baseline energy analysis and profile; feasibility and design studies for 3-5 priority villages; drafting tailored model energy contracts; analysis of renewable energy potential; and technical and business training for village members, to enable them to manage subsequent phases of the energy upgrade program. In the second phase, the Corporation will implement energy upgrade projects at the targeted priority villages, and in the third, the program will be replicated at other villages in the Corporation's area.

    Straddling the border between North and South Dakota, the Standing Rock Sioux reservation encompasses some 3600 square miles and, like many Indian reservations, has high rates of unemployment and poverty. DOE is co-funding the development a tribal Integrated Resource Plan in conjunction with the Western Area Power Administration and the XENERGY company, a subcontractor. The first project phase is examining current (baseline) energy usage and resources; the second will project future demand; and the third phase will evaluate potential supply- and demand-side resources, including renewables, and integrate this information into the final IRP.

  8. Vertical Integration Projects

    Two projects were funded in FY 1994 under Section 2603 of the Energy Policy Act:

    The Crow Tribe of southeast Montana owns the rights to a large amount of coal which is currently mined by an outside company under a royalty agreement. The tribe, acting through its wholly-owned Crow Energy Corporation, is performing a feasibility study of a 260 MW mine-mouth co-generation plant, the waste heat from which could be used in an industrial plant. The targeted application is a fuel ethanol manufacturing facility, which could provide a market for locally-produced grain crops as well as employment for tribal members. The preliminary project report concludes that the powerplant could produce electricity in 2002 at a busbar cost of about 3.25¢/kwh, which will be between the current short-term spot market price of 20-25 mills and the average local utility rate of 40-50 mills. This price is expected to be competitive in the local market.

    Natural gas is the energy source for a planned multi-faceted vertical integration project of the Colville Confederated Tribes of eastern Washington, which will include:

    • A gas pipeline from British Columbia
    • A local gas distribution company
    • A combustion-turbine-based cogeneration plant of up to 450 MW
    • A steam sales company, and
    • An industrial park utilizing local raw materials.

    This is a 10-year project which the tribes initiated in 1992, using both tribal and non-tribal funds. The DOE grant is funding the feasibility study phase, which also includes marketing and distribution investigations. The overall project cost is estimated to approach $500 million.

  9. Conclusion

    The Title XXVI program provides an important opportunity for assessing the technical and economic feasibility of renewable energy on Indian lands, and also for demonstrating DOE-developed technologies in real-life settings.


The authors thank the Indian Energy Resource Development Program grantees for their contributions to this paper.