Benefits Abound for Tribes Looking to Operate Their Own Utility

By: Christopher R. Scott | Intern
Theodore J. Griswold | Partner | ted.griswold@procopio.com

If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself, or so the saying goes. It’s a saying that couldn’t be more apt for those tribal governments who have created their own utility company. Plagued by high electricity costs for some tribal citizens, no electricity access for others, and a disinterested non-Tribal utility serving their reservations, a handful of tribal governments have asserted their power as sovereigns in this way and are better for it.

The process of Tribal utility conversion is no simple task. It requires the creation of Tribal law and ordinances, the establishment of a general plan and a board of directors to execute it, the acquisition of equipment necessary to bring power to Tribal land, and, of course, money. But the benefits have largely proven to outweigh these downsides. For example, utility costs for the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe have decreased 15-20% since conversion, and the Tohono O’odham Nation has employed over one hundred people and vastly improved service from that provided by the non-Tribal utility.

What’s more, there are a whole host of federal programs for tribal governments to take advantage of in jumping those hurdles to market entry. Those run by the Rural Utilities Service and the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corp. make low-interest loans to tribal governments for the purpose of obtaining equipment. Others provide at-cost energy for use on reservation lands, like the hydroelectric power generated by federal dams and distributed by the Bonneville Power Administration.

One important fact for a tribal government to keep in mind as it considers this undertaking is that conversion doesn’t require tribal governments to self-generate power. A tribal government could, for instance, install a solar farm on its property to improve cost-effectiveness and eco-friendliness, but it could also simply purchase power from the same providers as the previous utility. There is no wrong way for a tribal government to go about conversion, and however it’s accomplished, it has the potential to vastly improve both the quality of life for individual members and the status of the tribal government as an independent sovereign.

Christopher is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and just completed his second year at the University of Oklahoma College of Law.

Ted is head of the Native American Law practice group and primary editor for the Blogging Circle. Connect with Ted at ted.griswold@procopio.com and 619.515.3277.