Native American reservations are among the most economically disadvantaged regions in the United States; lacking access to economic and educational opportunities that are exacerbated by “energy insecurity” due to insufficient connectivity to the electric grid and power outages. Local renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and biomass offer energy alternatives but their implementation encounters barriers such as lack of financing, infrastructure, and expertise, as well as divergent attitudes among tribal leaders. Biomass, in particular, could be a source of stable base-load power that is abundant and scalable in many rural communities. This case study examines the feasibility of a biomass energy plant on the Cocopah reservation in southwestern Arizona. It considers feedstock availability, cost and energy content, technology options, nameplate capacity, discount and interest rates, construction, operation and maintenance (O&M) costs, and alternative investment options. This study finds that at current electricity prices and based on typical costs for fuel, O&M over 30 years, none of the tested scenarios is presently cost-effective on a net present value (NPV) basis when compared with an alternative investment yielding annual returns of 3% or higher. The technology most likely to be economically viable and suitable for remote, rural contexts—a combustion stoker—resulted in a levelized costs of energy (LCOE) ranging from US$0.056 to 0.147/kWh. The most favorable scenario is a combustion stoker with an estimated NPV of US$4,791,243. The NPV of the corresponding alternative investment is US$7,123,380. However, if the tribes were able to secure a zero-interest loan to finance the plant’s installation cost, the project would be on par with the alternative investment. Even if this were the case, the scenario still relies on some of the most optimistic assumptions for the biomass-to-power plant and excludes abatement costs for air emissions. The study thus concludes that at present small-scale, biomass-to-energy projects require a mix of favorable market and local conditions as well as appropriate policy support to make biomass energy projects a cost-competitive source of stable, alternative energy for remote rural tribal communities that can provide greater tribal sovereignty and economic opportunities.

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