Native American Communities Launch Energy Efficiency Effort

September 4, 1998

By Allan Chen,

Native American tribal lands are often repositories of coal, oil, uranium and other energy resources fueling the U.S. economy, but they are also home to the most underserved populations in terms of energy services in the United States. Dwellings on some reservations are widely scattered and far removed from local utility power lines. Uninsulated homes waste expensive heating energy, and their owners lack the capital to invest in energy efficient improvements.

"Native Americans living on reservations pay the highest rates for fuel and electricity and have the highest percentage of unelectrified and unweatherized houses," says John Busch of the Environmental Energy Technologies Division (EETD). "They pay a disproportionately high percentage of their incomes on energy services."

Busch is the leader of the Native American Renewable Energy Education Project (NAREEP), an effort to provide technical assistance to tribes interested in developing energy efficiency measures and renewable energy resources to meet tribal needs. The project is housed at Berkeley Lab and staffed by researchers from EETD and the University of California's Energy and Resources Group (ERG). Initially funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the program now receives support from the DOE, various foundations, and directly from Native American tribes.

Responding to the wide interest among Native Americans to pursue sustainable energy projects, NAREEP researchers at EETD and ERG recently published a handbook on energy efficiency and renewable energy geared to the concerns of Native American communities. Entitled "Native Power," the book covers efficient home heating, powering homes using small-scale renewable energy systems, setting up commercial-scale renewable energy plants, and project financing geared to a tribal audience. The researchers drew on their experiences providing technical assistance to tribal communities and conducting research on relevant energy-related issues.

"One critical need that tribal authorities have identified on many reservations is to upgrade residential housing through weatherization," says Busch. "Many tribes are also interested in developing home and community-scale renewable energy systems to address the needs of widely scattered housing on reservations far removed from utility electrical power lines. Their interest reflects a desire to develop clean, locally controlled energy sources consistent with tribal values of preserving nature."

Researchers at NAREEP are currently providing technical assistance to three tribes--Northern California's Yurok, the Rosebud Sioux of South Dakota, and the Zuni tribe of New Mexico. The tribes are developing renewable energy systems that include solar photovoltaic and micro-hydropower sources and a home weatherization program.

NAREEP's longest-standing tribal relationship is with the Yurok. "In 1996, we began assessing different electrification options for tribal households, including solar PV installations, and micro-hydropower systems," Busch says. "More recently we've been providing assistance in developing a billing program, exploring the issue of their forming a tribal utility to manage the systems, and providing training so that tribe members can take over operations and maintenance. The fact that the tribe is providing financial support to NAREEP is an indication of the value of this work to them."

NAREEP researcher and recent ERG graduate John Elliott began working with instructors at the Sinte Gleska College of the Rosebud Sioux, the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Utility Commission, and the Rosebud Housing Authority in 1996 to identify energy efficiency measures for the tribe's housing stock and to find resources to finance housing retrofits. "As a result of our work," he said, "the tribe has decided to form a tribal weatherization program and is going through the process of applying for funds from the state of South Dakota and the Department of Energy."

Three NAREEP graduate students are currently working with a Zuni-run project to manage tribal natural resources. The students are assisting in creating the Zuni Sustainable Energy Project to develop solar-powered water pumping and lighting systems and to provide electricity to run small machinery that tribal members use in jewelry-making--for them a traditional means of livelihood.

The most recent example of NAREEP's outreach work took place earlier this summer when 15 Navajo teens from the Greyhills Academy High School of Tuba City, AZ, spent an afternoon with NAREEP staff members. The students, who are part of the school's Summer Enrichment for Gifted and Talented Students program, learned about sustainable energy concepts using tribal examples. They also visited the Energy Efficient Lighting Fixtures Laboratory and expressed interest in following up with internships at Berkeley Lab.

The NAREEP program also supports student research on Native American energy issues, has developed an energy curriculum for tribal colleges, runs workshops on energy efficiency and renewables for tribal educators, and assists with a summer camp for Native American teens.

More information on the subject can be found in "Native Power," written by NAREEP's John Busch, John Elliott, Tri-sha Frank, Vivian Gratton, Tom Starrs, and Jim Williams. Also, a 1997 report on "American Indian Tribes and Electric Industry Restructuring: Issues and Opportunities" was developed by David Howarth, John Busch and Tom Starrs. NAREEP publications and related information are available on the web at

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