Tribal Lands Struggle To Bring Clean Power Online Many tribal lands in the U.S. don't have electricity yet have a tremendous capacity to produce it from clean energy sources. Only one tribe is currently operating a utility-scale energy facility, as bureaucratic red tape and tax disincentives are hindering renewable energy development on Indian land.
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Tribal Lands Struggle To Bring Clean Power Online

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Tribal Lands Struggle To Bring Clean Power Online

Tribal Lands Struggle To Bring Clean Power Online

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This week we've been looking at California's plan to get one-third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Today we're looking at a group of Americans who would very much like to supply that electricity - Indian tribes. Amy Standen has the final report in our series with member station KQED on California's clean energy.

(Soundbite of slot machine)

AMY STANDEN: The day the Golden Acorn casino opened, in August of 2001, Monique LaChappa stood right here, near the sliding glass doors, and watched as members of her tribe came in for their first look.

Ms. MONIQUE LACHAPPA (Campo Kumeyaay Nation): And I just watched everybody come in and I just - just the look on the tribal members' eyes that day. It was so exciting.

STANDEN: The casino changed everything for the Campo Kumeyaay Nation, a small tribe in the Desert Mountains east of San Diego. It bought a fire department, educational programs, jobs. But in a slumped economy, one modest casino isn't enough to sustain the Campo, where about half of the 329 tribal members are unemployed.

Ms. LACHAPPA: I'm on my way up. Okay? So can you call your guy and let him know?

STANDEN: Monique LaChappa heading up to what locals call Kumeyaay One. It's a wind farm - the only large-scale renewable energy plant on Indian land in the country.

(Soundbite of turbines)

STANDEN: The wind farm is an enormous source of pride for the Campo, but monetarily, it hasn't changed much, in part because the Campo don't own it. They just lease the land. Now the tribe is in negotiations to build another wind project, three times the size of this one. This time, they plan to go in as investors, along with a private energy firm and the local utility.

While all sides are tight-lipped about the numbers, the electricity produced by that plant would be worth about $24 million a year on today's market. Whatever the tribe's cut, they say it would be considerably more than they make now as leaseholders.

Campo member Mike Connolly.

Mr. MIKE CONNOLLY (Member, Campo Kumeyaay Nation): This is so important for Indian country, because for so long, they've been under a colonial system - a neocolonial system. It's been a system that's been geared toward resource extraction - whether they're timber or uranium or oil or coal, or whatever -without leaving any real economic benefit to the community behind.

STANDEN: He says renewable energy, ownership, could change that for tribes across the country. But he adds that one fact gets in the way: a tax issue.

Because Indian tribes are semi-sovereign nations, they can't collect federal tax credits for renewable energy. Those can cut the price of a big wind or solar project in half. Connolly has taken this issue to Washington, D.C., where he says the response is always the same.

Mr. CONNOLLY: People in Congress actually express surprise that taxes even come off reservation lands, because they've been told all their lives that Indians don't pay taxes, Indians don't pay taxes.

STANDEN: And they don't. But non-Indians operating on Indian land do pay state and local taxes. And that means tribes can't tax them, as well, because that would amount to double taxation - a likely deal-breaker for anyone who wanted to do business with the tribe.

Connolly says it's the worst of both worlds. Tribes can't access tax credits like a private company would, but they also can't levy taxes the way a government would. If this keeps up, he fears the whole green economy is going to skip right over communities that really need it.

Mr. CONNOLLY: We have reservations that have gone four or five decades of unemployment that's over 60 to 70 percent.

STANDEN: That fact seems not to have been lost on President Obama, who pledged last November to ease the path to renewables for tribal people.

President BARACK OBAMA: We are securing tribal access to financing and investments for new energy projects. And thanks to the Recovery Act, we've established an energy auditor training program that could prepare Native Americans for the green jobs of the future. And that's going to be absolutely important.

STANDEN: Tribes are now eligible for stimulus money, and there's also been an increase in the amount of federal aid that's available to them for energy development.

As for those elusive federal tax credits, well, there's a draft federal bill called the Indian Energy Tax Act that would extend those credits to tribes. The question is whether that idea will suffer the same fate as other proposed changes to energy policy in this country so far stalled out in Congress.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen, in San Diego County.

WERTHEIMER: For more on our series on California's clean energy goals, go to npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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