TOHAJIILEE, N.M. This flat, dusty stretch of prairie in central New Mexico is where the leaders of a remote, sparsely populated Native American community envision a sea of solar panels capable of producing enough electricity for more than 10,000 homes miles away from the reservation.
The ToHajiilee solar project is one of 19 energy projects that will share in $6.5 million recently awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy to spur renewable-energy development on tribal lands. About two-thirds of the money is earmarked for tribes in the West, and most of that will be going toward getting projects in New Mexico and Arizona off the ground.
Over the last decade, $36 million has been doled out for nearly 160 projects from Alaska to Maine as part of the DOEs Tribal Energy Program. This years grants come as Congress considers new measures aimed at reducing the bureaucratic hurdles tribes face in developing their resources and as the Obama administration looks for ways to speed up the leasing of land for clean-energy projects.
At stake is a wealth of untapped potential.
With tens of millions of acres held in trust for tribes, experts say Indian Country has the potential to supply more than four times the nations electricity needs with solar. Wind resources blowing across tribal lands could meet another 14 percent of the need.
Just huge, absolutely huge is how Michael Utter, chief executive of the nonprofit consulting corporation Rural Community Innovations, describes the potential.
Utter and Oregon attorney Doug MacCourt are among the technical, financial and legal experts helping tribal communities such as ToHajiilee become engaged with energy generation and transmission.
Renewable-energy development offers some of the same glimmers of economic salvation and self-determination as the casino boom did earlier for some tribes. However, the experts say its much harder for sovereign tribes to break into the energy market because of capital limitations, government regulations and investor perceptions.
One of the real challenges is how to you get the outside world to understand these are players just like anybody else in the business, MacCourt said. Theyre bringing some very valuable assets to bear, especially in the western U.S. where most states have statutory mandates they have to meet for renewable portfolio standards.
The assets are clear at ToHajiilee a wide open, sunbaked expanse that sits right under buzzing power lines that lead to New Mexicos largest metropolitan area.
The ToHajiilee project dubbed Shandiin Solar, the Navajo name for sunlight would be the largest utility-scale solar photovoltaic array in the U.S. on tribal land, MacCourt said. Once a power-purchase agreement is inked, construction would take as little as nine months.
ToHajiilees economic development team and SunPower Corp., the company helping develop the $124 million project, are talking with utilities, local municipalities and the federal government about purchasing the electricity from the array.
I think if were able to find a power buyer fairly quickly, we certainly ought to be breaking ground this fall. Thats our goal, said Rob Burpo, president of First American Financial Advisors, Inc., one of the consulting groups working with ToHajiilee.
The site already has been transformed into desert pavement by months of drought and relentless spring winds.
Her boots covered in fine, yellow dust, Delores Apache, president of ToHajiilee Economic Development Inc., walks across the spot where the solar panels will be situated.
For her, the project is about more than gaining a foothold in a new industry. She ticks off a list of what revenue from the plant would mean for her community: a day care center, programs for senior citizens and veterans, better roads, more efficient wells for drawing water, language-preservation programs and scholarships for youngsters.
Its going to mean a whole lot, Apache said. We have no means of economic development. No dollars. We dont have anything at all.