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Indian tribe sees bright future in solar power

Forget blackjack tables or roulette wheels. Tribal lands could generate wealth through solar, wind, and geothermal energy.

By Susan Montoya BryanThe Associated Press / January 13, 2010

A solar panel that helps provide electricity to the Jemez Pueblo Day School in Jemez Pueblo, N.M.

AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan

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JEMEZ PUEBLO, N.M.

A poverty-stricken Indian tribe that holds the sun and nature's other gifts sacred sees a brighter future for itself in solar power.

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The 3,000 members of the Jemez Pueblo are on the verge of building the nation's first utility-scale solar plant on tribal land, a project that could bring in millions of dollars.

Experts say tapping into the sun, wind and geothermal energy on Indian land could generate the kind of wealth many tribes have seen from slot machines and blackjack tables.

"We don't have any revenue coming in except for a little convenience store," says James Roger Madalena, a former tribal governor who now represents the pueblo in the state Legislature. "It's very critical that we become innovative, creative, that we come up with something that will last generations without having a devastating impact on the environment."

The 30-acre site where 14,850 solar panels will be set up has been selected, and after four years of arduous planning and negotiations, a contract to sell outsiders the electricity produced by the four-megawatt operation is at hand. The plant would be capable of cranking out enough electricity to power about 600 homes.

The project — which would cost about $22 million, financed through government grants, loans and tax credits — could bring in around $25 million over the next 25 years. That could help the tribe improve its antiquated drinking water system and replace the lagoons it uses to treat wastewater.

Renewable energy is a new option for bringing revenue to Indian country, where many communities are poverty-stricken and unemployment is often double the national rate. Jemez Pueblo's effort comes after the federal government in 2008 turned down a request to let it build a casino because the proposed site was too far away from the community.

"Not every tribe is a gaming tribe, but every tribe is an energy tribe," says Roger Fragua, a Denver-based consultant who works with the Council of Energy Resource Tribes.

Indian tribes control more than 55 million acres of land across the nation, and those lands are capable of producing an estimated 535 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year from wind power, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's Tribal Energy Program. Solar has even greater promise, at 17 trillion kilowatt hours per year, or more than four times the amount of electricity generated annually in the U.S.

"There's huge potential," says Jerry Pardilla, executive director of the National Tribal Environmental Council.