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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 '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 . 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.

“With more solar and geothermal projects coming to fruition, there’ll be a greater shift toward students going into those careers,” said Shendo. “We’re presenting it to them now, but employment opportunities aren’t really there yet. When they can see it and be of part of it, that’ll shift the movement toward green energy jobs.”
 
Hopes for Green Facilities—and Jobs—on Native Lands
 
Tribal lands contain about 10 percent of the nation’s renewable energy supply, according to the , and that presents opportunities for native leaders looking to diversify their tribal economy.

It’s not just about harvesting renewable energy. Many tribes are getting into the business of energy efficiency—retrofitting buildings and homes with new technology like energy conserving lighting and weatherizing older homes so that it takes less energy to retain warm or cool air. Residential and commercial buildings are responsible for about 40 percent of energy consumption in the U.S., according to the .

Jemez Pueblo is far from the only tribe harnessing green energy technologies. Last year the became the first tribe to pass green jobs legislation, establishing a fund for small-scale green businesses that minimize greenhouse gas emissions and, in many cases, incorporate traditional cultural values. Funding will support renewable energy, traditional agriculture, green manufacturing weatherization and green workforce training. 

The in Montana is training wind technicians at the local tribal college to run a proposed wind development. The tribe has also taken the first steps in developing a solar panel production facility on the reservation. And on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the two-year-old Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center is installing solar heating in reservation housing and providing training in renewable technologies for tribes from around the country.

Energy Sovereignty Is the Goal

For many tribes, the long-term goal is to control their own energy rather than relying on the long-established revenue model of leasing their land to a private company that would develop the energy resources and reap most of the profits.
 
“It’s the idea of sovereignty,” said Thomas Sacco, manager of the Department of Energy’s Tribal Energy Program (TEP), which provides financial support, training and technical assistance to tribes developing renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. “You’re not sovereign unless you’re controlling your energy future.”
 
A division of the Dept. of Energy, TEP is one of the biggest sources of funding for tribes, with a current $10 million budget—a $4 million, or two-thirds, increase over last year.
 
“We think this indicates that Congress understands the needs for additional funds to assist Indian Country and perhaps that the TEP is doing an effective job in providing services to Indian Country,” said Sacco.
 
The also provided $125 million for training, targeting low-income communities. Small tribal enterprises may qualify for U.S. Department of Agriculture grants for rural businesses. More recently, the has provided several energy-related opportunities for Native Americans. Tribes in more than 575 towns were selected to receive $55 million in DOE block grants for energy efficiency and conservation programs, and another $27.5 million for renewable energy, weatherization and smart grid projects.
 
“The stimulus money is being used by and large for energy efficiency and strategy, so that’s been a godsend for many tribes,” said Sacco. Some tribes contract with public universities, industry and nonprofit organizations to provide training. Tribal colleges are other important training sites.
 
So far, however, stimulus funding has not translated into rapid green job growth, according to Cristala Mussato-Allen, the director of the nonprofit organization in Austin, Texas, which advises tribes about green jobs and provides training opportunities. While the Recovery Act has started to create more green jobs in Indian Country, bureaucracy and cumbersome reporting requirements are delaying processing of funds.
 
In some cases, Mussato-Allen said, a year or more has passed before an applicant receives stimulus money. And without ready funding for native businesses to train and employ tribal members, the green energy industry’s potential to keep money in the communities is diminished. 
 
“When an outside contractor comes in, they...make that money and then it leaves, so we don’t have sustainable economies in our communities,” said Mussato-Allen.  “We want to build an Indian economy, we want to foster a native workforce and native-owned businesses, where the dollar turns over and over, five or six times before it leaves.”

Image: Floyd Muad'Dib via flickr Creative Commons license

See Also:

Congress Awakening to Renewables on Native Lands, Advocates Say

Native Americans Left Out of America’s Wind Power Boom

Navajo Nation Approves First Tribal 'Green Jobs' Legislation

Tribal Councils in U.S. and Canada Uniting Against Oil Sands Pipeline

Renewable Electricity Promotion Act of 2010 Introduced into Senate

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