Wind Power: An Energy Source That Could Fuel the Future of Reservations

Article excerpt

PINE RIDGE, SOUTH DAKOTA resident Alex White Plume and his family are trying to "bring every form of alternative economic development" to the reservation, he says. This includes raising hormone-free beef cattle and hemp crops (which government officials have destroyed twice). And wind energy.

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In September 2002, instead of their usual fall harvest, White Plume's family installed an 86-foot-tall wind turbine on their land that generates up to 1,000 watts of energy when the wind is blowing, enough to power a local community center and sell clean energy back to the local grid.

"We had a little ceremony, flicked the switch, and everything worked," said White Plume, who is 55 and "still tougher than hell."

Wind energy is poised to be the wave--or, more aptly, gust--of the future for native reservations across the U.S. Great Plains, Midwestern and Southwestern reservations are located on some of the country's windiest tracts. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates wind energy potential on tribal land as 535 billion kilowatt hours per year, while the U.S. generates a total of about 3,853 billion kilowatt hours per year, according to the International Energy Association.

A growing number of small wind turbines like White Plume's have popped up on native land, powering schools, community centers or small clusters of buildings.

And a movement is underway to create more utility-scale wind turbines like the 750-kilowatt, 195-foot-tall one on the Rosebud reservation, just southeast of Pine Ridge, erected in 2003. That turbine, dubbed "Little Soldier," had a five-year contract that recently expired to supply power to a nearby Air Force base; now it is powering the tribe's casino, truck stop and motel. Though many tribal members may not consider military bases and casinos to be the type of development they want to encourage and fuel, wind turbines can also literally power or serve indirectly as a revenue source for more alternative and autonomous ventures. The "Little Soldier" wind turbine is considered a "show horse" to facilitate the production of larger wind farms on Rosebud and other reservations in the future. Turbines work by connecting to an electricity generator that creates an electrical current through the use of spinning magnets. The electricity, which can be stored in a battery or transmitted on power lines, is generated when the wind blows at least eight miles per hour. The average wind speed on Rosebud is 18 mph.

It was constructed with support from a Department of Energy grant, a Rural Utilities Service loan and the sale of carbon offset credits known as "green tags." The Rosebud Sioux Tribe is one of the founding members of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy (Intertribal COUP), which also provided technical assistance to the project through its president, Patrick Spears, and secretary, Robert Gough. Gough notes that while a single turbine like "Little Soldier" doesn't create a lot of jobs or a big economic windfall, it has provided encouragement for the 30-megawatts-plus Owl War Bonnet Wind Project that the Rosebud Sioux Tribe is currently planning near the town of St. Francis on the Rosebud reservation, scheduled to go online in 2008.

Intertribal COUP also has a plan to create 3,000 megawatts of wind power on reservations in the Great Plains and Midwest by 2015. Gough said there are currently 13 tribes involved in the project; their goal is 20. The Rosebud/Intertribal COUP plan earned a prestigious "World Clean Energy Award for Courage."

In 2005, Intertribal COUP acquired a controlling interest in the company NativeEnergy on behalf of its member tribes. NativeEnergy helps finance wind projects on Indian and non-Indian land by fronting the potential revenue from "green tag" carbon offset credits to be used as construction capital.

Other projects supported by NativeEnergy include a 65-kilowatt turbine erected in 2005 by the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations in North Dakota, and three 100-kilowatt turbines in the village of Toksook Bay, Alaska that went online in 2006. …