Ground has been broken on the first utility-scale solar-power plant in the country to be built on tribal land. The Moapa Southern Paiute Solar project about 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas will be built by Moapa Southern Paiute Solar, a subsidiary of First Solar Electric. The construction project will employ 400 people and, when completed in 2015, will generate 250 megawatts or enough energy to power 93,000 homes in Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) has contracted to buy power from the plant for 25 years. By 2015, LADWP has indicated that it will stop using power from coal entirely, much of which currently comes from the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona. LADWP has a target of supplying its customers with 33 percent renewable energy.
For the tribe, which owns 29,137 hectares in Nevada, the new solar project represents a triumph in a long-fought battle with dirty energy and hope for a cleaner, healthier future. For over half a century, the Reid-Gardner coal-fired power plant just outside of town has been dumping ash laced with mercury, lead, and arsenic into the community, which has been plagued with health problems. Not many people in town have air conditioning, but when demand in Las Vegas spikes, the plant starts belching dark clouds to keep the strip cool. After decades of campaigning against the dirty plant, last June, Governor Brian Sandoval signed SB 123, putting the Reid-Gardner plant on the path toward complete closure by 2017. While a huge victory for the Paiutes, the closure of the plant marks the beginning of serious work to clean up the uncovered ash ponds and often unlined landfills that, along with lingering health issues, are the plant’s legacy to the community.
The Moapa Paiutes are far from the only tribe with a long and complicated history with the fossil fuel industry. Across the nation, a disproportionate number of power plants operate near or on tribal lands. According to an AP analysis of EPA data, ten percent of all U.S. power plants are within 20 miles of a reservation affecting 48 different tribes. Historically, dirty energy has been embraced by communities who need the jobs and often lack the voice to stand up to industrial scale pollution.