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A Method to Expand Renewable Energy Capabilities on Indian Reservations

California has committed to expanding the use of renewable energy in the state, with a goal of generating 33 percent of the state’s electrical energy from renewable sources by 2020. But, it may be missing an opportunity for expansion of the use of solar energy in Indian Country.

Most tribes receive their electricity from the major providers in California–SDG&E, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric–and the cost of electricity and bringing utility services to rural areas of the reservation can serve as significant impediment to economic and community development. Although tribes such as the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians, the Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians, and the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria have developed community scale solar on their reservations to help meet their needs and more have actively sought solar panels for individual tribal member homes, the potential for solar development on reservations in California is largely untapped.

In 2008, California passed AB 2466, which created the Renewable Energy Self-Generation Bill Credit Transfer (RES-BCT) program.  The program authorized “local governments” to receive a bill credit for electricity supplied to the grid by an eligible renewable generating facility which can be used by that government’s disparate facilities (e.g. fire station, public works, schools, etc.).  An eligible renewable generating facility must be located within the geographic boundaries of the local government and occur on property under the control of the local government.  This can be done with the renewable system owner by lease, easement or other device.

Essentially, the program allows renewable energy to be generated by the local government at one site, and credits are generated that can be used to offset costs of other service accounts held by the government.  A local government is defined as:  “a city, county, whether general law or chartered, city and county, special district, school district, political subdivision, or other local public agency, but shall not mean a joint powers authority, the state or any agency or department of the state, other than an individual campus of the University of California or the California State University.” CPUC §2830.  The definition does not include tribal governments as eligible participants in the program and this is a glaring omission from the program.

Tribal governments support health care, police, fire, sanitation, public works and educational services throughout their jurisdiction, including tribal governments as eligible to participate in the program would provide tribal governments an additional opportunity and incentive to participate in renewable energy development by reducing their overall energy costs and increasing their governance capabilities, and help California reach its renewable energy goals.  Such an amendment would be a simple addition of “Tribal Governments” to the program eligibility requirements and this could significantly increase the renewable energy investment and use in Indian Country.

Gabriela Rios is an attorney with Procopio's Native American Law Practice Group and citizen of the Cahuilla Band of Indians. She focuses her practice on advising tribal clients on a variety of issues regarding governance, environmental permitting, and contracts.