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Tribes Working to Buck Unemployment with Green Jobs

"You’re not sovereign unless you’re controlling your energy future.”

By Autumn Spanne

Nov 7, 2010

When Dillon Toya started his senior year at Jemez Pueblo's Walatowa Charter High School in northern New Mexico last fall, he wanted his senior project to combine the teachings of his ancestors with cutting-edge building design. 

Six months later, the 18-year-old high school graduate and aspiring architect had designed a new energy efficient high school building that he hopes will one day replace the portable trailers where he and his 66 classmates studied. The proposed building, designed to resemble traditional Pueblo dwellings of adobe and wood, includes solar panels to generate electricity, a solar-powered heating system and water recycling.
 
Toya’s project reflects one of many ways that impoverished Jemez Pueblo is building strong connections between its education system and its fledgling green energy industry. And it’s not alone. Jemez Pueblo is an example of a larger movement among native groups to promote a green sector that they hope will chip away at a problem that has plagued their communities for years: high unemployment. The jobless rate in native communities is often several times the national average.
 
While there is no single tally of the amount of money going directly to tribes for renewable energy, energy efficiency and green job training, the federal government is funding a range of energy-related programs that count tribes among their recipients. Tribal leaders and native entrepreneurs are trying for a share of billions of dollars available in economic stimulus funds administered through the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Small Business Administration, among other agencies. 
 
Creating a Skilled Energy Workforce
 
As renewable energy and energy efficiency become an increasingly important part of its economy, Jemez, like other tribes, is attempting to develop the education and training programs necessary to producing a skilled energy workforce. 

One such program will train and employ a dozen tribal members in conducting specialized technical surveys of the pueblo’s rich geothermal energy resources. The tribe is considering several uses for that energy, including a power generation station, a building heating system, greenhouse agriculture or a commercial spa.

The total number of jobs created will depend on which project the pueblo pursues, according to Greg Kaufman, director of the pueblo’s Department of Resource Protection. Kaufman said a decision will be made sometime after December 2011.
 
Next spring, Jemez plans to break ground on a 3.5 megawatt commercial-scale solar installation that would be the largest on tribal lands. It is expected to bring construction jobs and at least two permanent jobs to the pueblo, said Kaufman.
 
But Jemez is planning for even longer-term capability by integrating renewable energy into the curriculum for its 750 students. Elementary students are learning about robotics and solar-powered cars through a partnership with neighboring Los Alamos National Laboratory. Staff from the pueblo’s Department of Resource Protection teach high school students about the geothermal, solar, wind and biomass energy potential of the region with class lectures and opportunities to visit the tribe’s planned geothermal and solar energy sites and design models of solar-powered homes.
 
Using the tribe’s renewable energy resources to teach math, science and technology in experiential learning activities willl better prepared students for jobs in a local green economy—both on and off the reservation, according to Kevin Shendo, the pueblo’s education director.

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