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Tribal Energy Program at Sandia powers tribal lands

Mon, 08/15/2011 - 10:05am

Most Americans take electric power for granted, but for thousands of people living on tribal lands, getting to the grid can be a challenge.

A lack of infrastructure, transmission capabilities, and policies impede the availability of electricity within the reservations and to outlying tribal areas.

A program at Sandia National Laboratories addresses those challenges and connects tribal governments in remote regions with viable electricity solutions. At the same time, Sandia is training a new generation of Native American renewable energy advocates.

Interns are key to the decade-old Department of Energy Tribal Energy Program, which provides three levels of support to tribes turning to renewable energy sources: financial assistance through competitive grants; education and training; and technical assistance from Sandia and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. Sandia's interns provide education and training as well as technical assistance.

Sandra Begay-Campbell, a Sandia researcher and member of the Navajo Nation, started the internship in 2002 and works with tribes all over the country. "I wanted to help build capacity within tribal governments. The goal is to get to the point where you have tribal members who have technical skills to implement these programs," says Begay-Campbell. "DOE Tribal Energy Program funds the interns; the students do the work and intensive research. At the end of the summer, we provide the DOE with their research papers. The students are able to see what is available to them, and they grow as advocates for renewable energy."

Begay-Campbell is actively involved in higher education and mentoring students. The University of New Mexico (UNM) Regents President recently named her to the UNM presidential search committee. She is a former UNM regent, Foundation Board member and Distinguished Engineering Alumna for 2005.

This year, Begay-Campbell selected four interns:

  • Tammie Allen is a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation in northwestern New Mexico and is enrolled in the Community and Regional Planning master's program in the School of Architecture at UNM. She expects to complete her degree this summer. Allen graduated with honors in humanities from the College of Santa Fe. She hopes to work in renewable energy and community planning after graduation. Allen is also recognized for her traditional ceramic pottery work, which is displayed in galleries nationwide.
  • Gepetta Billie is a member of the Navajo Nation, grew up in Red Rock, N.M., near Gallup, N.M., and is recently earned her master's from UNM's Community and Regional Planning program. She earned her undergraduate degree in environmental planning and design from UNM's School of Architecture and Planning, and also attended the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute where she earned an associate of applied science in civil engineering technology. This is Billie's third summer working with Begay-Campbell and she has been a year-round intern. She hopes to continue work in tribal energy development.
  • Chelsea Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation from Cedar Springs, Ariz., about 35 miles north of Winslow. She is working on her master's in UNM's Community and Regional Planning program. She worked for two years for a nonprofit youth organization that focused on the effect of climate change and global warming on indigenous people. With the experience Chee gains this summer, she hopes to take additional courses and eventually find work in the field of renewable energy.
  • Devin Dick, a member of the Navajo Nation, is enrolled in the Navajo Technical College in Crownpoint, N.M., about 50 miles northeast of Gallup. He became interested in renewable energy while attending dances with his family on the neighboring Hopi reservation, where he saw solar panels and wind turbines and grew curious about how they worked. He plans to graduate in the spring of 2012 with a degree in energy systems and hopes to work for a utility or as an installer. Dick also is using his knowledge of alternative energy to make suggestions for powering a veterans' center that his parents helped establish.

The summer internship starts in mid-May and ends in mid-August, and interns spend nearly six weeks traveling to various tribal lands to meet with tribal utilities, customers, and tribal leaders to explore options for renewable energy generation.

Using renewable energy sources is increasingly popular among tribes seeking affordable and sustainable ways to meet the demands of growing populations on tribal lands. On a recent field visit to Acoma Pueblo's Sky City, Begay-Campbell and her interns listened to the energy efficiency goals met by the pueblo. Beginning discussions with Acoma's Tribal Utility Authority may lead to Sandia's support of their energy planning efforts.

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