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
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.