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People of the Sun
Stirling Energy Systems hopes to convince Hopi and Navajo tribal leaders of the wisdom of solar energy collection farms on native lands.

    The Navajo Nation is second only to the Cherokee in number in the U.S. Its array of incentives includes a low level of taxation, various federal and state incentives and a faster machinery and equipment depreciation schedule (four years vs. the usual seven).
      Stirling Energy Systems and two major California utilities have announced two solar energy collection projects in California that could generate as much as 1,750 megawatts. Robert Liden, executive vice president of SES, says further activity in North America might have quite a bit in common with Native American lands and goals. SES has been working with a tribal energy resources council representing more than 80 different Native American tribes who have on their lands significant amounts of solar or wind resources, and SES is looking at where on such lands it might develop a solar project. However, as in California, political clouds can sometimes obscure the sun completely.
      Liden says Arizona's Gov. Janet Napolitano would like to see a strong degree of solar energy development in the state, and he serves on her solar advisory council. But the Arizona Corporate Commission "has been extremely conservative with regard to establishing a renewable portfolio standard," and so the battle is still uphill to develop solar in the state.
      That said, tribal lands may offer an opportunity — possibly in the direct vicinity of certain non-renewable energy projects.
      "Here in Arizona, the key areas are Hopi and Navajo tribal lands north of Flagstaff," Liden says. "Transmission is somewhat of an issue, as it is in almost any power plant these days." While tribal leaders with both the Navajo and Hopi have not been particularly aggressive in wanting to develop the process, he says, they are fully aware of the potential to develop large-scale solar on tribal lands. Today, however, both tribes are more occupied with the impending closing of the 1,580-megawatt Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nev., which is powered by coal from Black Mesa mine on Hopi and Navajo property in Arizona, some 273 miles (439 km.) away. A slurry line carrying the coal uses substantial amounts of water, which many say is draining the Navajo aquifer.
      Facing both a stressed aquifer and pressure from the U.S. EPA to clean up operations, the plant is being shut down at the end of this year by Southern California Edison pending resolution of the coal and water supply issues, and upon re-opening would be subject to an expensive upgrade process. SCE spokesperson Gloria Quinn says the Coconino aquifer, an alternative water supply about 100 miles (161 km.) from the mine, is being tested right now by the U.S. Dept. of the Interior to see if it could be used to support the mine and the coal slurry.
      Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr., said in March that if the power plant shuts down, hundreds of Navajo employees at the Black Mesa Mine will lose their jobs and the Navajo Nation will lose approximately $28 million in annual royalties and tax revenue. The Black Mesa/Kayenta complex employs approximately 750 Native Americans representing 90 percent of the work force. Royalties and taxes from coal mining provide about 80 percent of the Hopi general operating budget and about 60 percent of the Navajo general fund budget. If the Coconino aquifer is used, just over half of its 11,000 annual acre-feet of water would to toward the slurry.
      SES Is Proposing Its Own Alternative. "It's an economic trauma for the tribe, so we're proposing putting solar on their lands," says Liden, suggesting that leases and royalties might take up some of the economic slack. "It's being studied by Southern California Edison in conjunction with the tribes." Quinn confirms that a study of solar and other opportunities is being conducted right now, with a final report expected in October.
      As it happens, Wayne Taylor, chairman of the Hopi Tribe, just received the Jay Silverheels Award, the highest honor granted by the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (NCAIED). Economic development has been central to his leadership, and there are indications that alternative energy could be too. In May of this year, Taylor, U.S. Dept. of Energy officials and executives from Headwaters Corp. met to discuss funding for a possible generating plant and coal liquefaction plant on Hopi lands, the latter to be used to make bio-diesel fuel.
      In the meantime, Southern California Edison terminated an interim plan that was trying to attract new power plants to Southern California. Like a late-afternoon shadow's mirror image, all parties may be inclining gradually toward the desert sun.
      The activity comes as the U.S. Senate considers the Navajo-Hope Land Settlement Act of 2005, in order to finally resolve land disputes between the tribes. Over the years, according to Senate testimony in July by Taylor, Hopi lands have shrunk from more than 2.6 million acres (1 million hectares) decreed by presidential executive order in 1882 to 60 percent of that today.
      The activity also comes amid pronounced federal interest in energy development on tribal lands. Since 2001, funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Mineral Assessment Program has increased by $3 million, with the number of projects swelling from 15 to 150. One snapshot of the alternative energy possibilities: Nearly a third of 298 reservations show high wind energy potential — a potential made all the richer by the very remoteness that has hampered that land's economic development in the past.
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