NewsSeptember 8, 2015

Climate Change Could Put Tribes’ Electric Systems at Risk

By Bobby Magill

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Heat waves, extreme storms, wildfire and other effects of climate change pose major threats to the electric power systems in Native American communities across the country, most significantly in the West and Southwest, according to a new U.S. Department of Energy report.

“Tribes are among the communities most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change,” Chris Deschene, director of the Energy Department’s Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, said in a statement. “Tribal lands, which are home to more than 1 million people, have a relatively high proportion of low-income residents, and tribes have limited resources to respond to climate-related impacts.”

The Navajo Generating Station on the Navajo Nation near Page, Ariz., is a major part of the region's electric power infrastructure.
Credit: Cathy/flickr


The DOE produced the report to help tribes, especially those such as the Navajo Nation that own and manage many of their power lines, understand the vulnerabilities of their power systems so they can adapt to the risks posed by a warming world. President Obama saw first-hand last week how Alaskan Native communities are being devastated by rising seas and melting permafrost because of climate change.

“Tribes are often at the very end of the energy systems that have grown up around them,” Bob Gough, secretary of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy in Rosebud, S.D., who is unaffiliated with the report, said.

The power lines threading through Indian reservations, especially in the northern Great Plains make up a poorly-maintained energy system, which can best be made to withstand climate change by installing more solar panels atop people’s homes and building more renewable energy sources, Gough said.

“The Western power grid is terribly exposed to the elements over vast stretches of sparsely populated regions of this country,” he said. “It’s a Third World system — it needs a lot of work.”

Native American tribes are often places where poverty and the ravages of climate change collide. For example, on the Navajo Nation, which has been devastated by severe drought in recent years, the unemployment rate was 47 percent and the poverty rate was 37 percent in 2011. Of its 170,000 residents – it’s the largest tribe in the U.S. – 38 percent have neither electricity nor running water.

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Tribes across the country are likely to pay more for their electricity as high heat forces residents to use air conditioners more often, increasing demand for electricity, according to the report. Severe storms and heatwaves are likely to damage power lines more frequently and disrupt the supply of fuel to power plants, causing more frequent power outages. And, extreme heat is likely to reduce the power generation capacity at some power plants because of their inability to keep cool during heatwaves.

On the Navajo Nation, high winds, lightning and tornadoes from more frequent severe thunderstorms could damage power lines there. Extreme heat and ongoing water scarcity will reduce the ability of the region’s power plants to produce electricity, causing blackouts. More frequent wildfires burning with increasing severity are expected to damage power lines leading to both increasing costs for power and power outages, the report says.

Electric power lines running across the Navajo Nation in Arizona.
Credit: faungg's photos/flickr


“High temperatures can cause thermal expansion of power lines, and increasing sag in lines increases the risk of outages when lines arc to trees, the ground or other power lines,” the report says, explaining the risks posed to Southwestern tribes. “High temperatures also shorten the lifetime of power transformers by increasing the rate of breakdown of materials.”

It’s much the same picture across the Great Plains, from Montana to Oklahoma, where Native American tribes and their power systems are likely to become more vulnerable to more frequent severe drought, ice storms, tornadoes, extreme rainfall and high heat.

In the Northwest, higher temperatures and increasing drought in a fairly wet region will likely reduce the ability of hydroelectric dams to produce electricity, while increasing wildfire will damage the region’s electric grid more frequently.

Beth Rose Middleton, a University of California-Davis Native American studies professor focusing on environmental policy, said the report is unique because it focuses on the impacts of climate change on energy production, infrastructure and transmission in Indian Country.

“This report is significant for a number of other reasons, including illuminating the ways in which tribes, as sovereign governments, may be both at greater risk than other jurisdictions dealing with climate-related impacts to energy, yet also have more flexibility and resources to respond, in some cases,” Middleton said.

“I think we already see these impacts happening as fire increases, water decreases and temperatures increase,” she said.

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