MOAPA RIVER INDIAN RESERVATION, Nev. — U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell toured a vast solar energy array Thursday that’s about ready to go online on an Indian reservation in Nevada, and signed an agreement with a tribal leader that gave a go-ahead for a similar plant nearby.
The nearly complete 250-megawatt Moapa Southern Paiute Solar Project was, in 2012, the first sun-to-electricity plant approved on tribal lands in the U.S.
A document that the nation’s top land administrator signed with Moapa Band of Paiute Indians tribal Chairman Robert Tom put the 100-megawatt Aiya Solar Project past that same hurdle, called a record of decision.
Aiya — a name derived from the Southern Paiute word for tortoise — would be the third solar array planned by private partners with the tribe, which has about 350 members and a sprawling 112-square-mile reservation about 40 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
“This is the first tribe in the United States to have utility-scale solar on the reservation,” Jewell said as she observed plentiful sunshine that she characterized as “spilled solar energy.”
Of the 59 utility-scale renewable projects on federal land in the U.S., Jewell said, the Moapa have the only three on tribal land.
The tribe also plans a 200-megawatt solar plant on another part of a reservation perhaps best-known to Interstate 15 motorists for its travel stop and fireworks stand at a freeway exit leading to Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park.
“We hope this charts a path for a brighter future for all of Indian country as these resources are harnessed,” Jewell said, “just as non-renewable energy resources were harnessed on Indian lands going back for many years.”
Tribal Chairman Robert Tom called the solar projects key to providing financial and cultural security for descendants of the first inhabitants of an area west of the Colorado River that includes the scenic and artifact-rich Gold Butte area.
“It means a lot in economic development, as stewards of our land, and for our culture and our traditions,” Tom said as he walked down a neat row of some of the nearly 4 million black panels, each resembling a very thin flat-screen TV. The entire site covers almost 2.2 square miles.
The sun was relentless. The view seemed limitless, some 20 miles from Arrowhead Canyon mountains on the west to the North Muddy Mountains in the east. There wasn’t a tree or a cloud in sight.
Officials with First Solar Inc., the developer of both the existing and the proposed Ayia projects, said each solar panel collects energy with a hair-thin film of photovoltaic cadmium telluride pressed between glass plates.
Brian Kunz, a vice president of the publicly-traded firm, said the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has a 25-year agreement to buy the electricity — enough to power perhaps 100,000 homes.
Project manager Geoffrey Dewhurst said the system is already collecting electricity. After testing, which Dewhurst compared with “clicking batteries together in the desert,” the site should begin feeding the power grid by the end of the year.
Kunz declined to say how much the company invested to complete the project after buying it in 2013 from the initial developer, K Road Power Holdings. But he said a similar project might cost about $500 million.
Jewell was making her third stop at a renewable energy site around the country since Friday, when she and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz talked in Boston about a wind energy project in the Atlantic Ocean.
On Wednesday, she stopped in Palm Springs, California, to highlight a renewable energy and conservation plan for 10 million acres of public land in the desert.