Wind Power

An energy source that could fuel the future of reservations.

By Kari Lydersen Mar 20, 2008

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.

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 currentl13 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. Harsh weather conditions and the difficulty of bringing in machinery for maintenance have made many leery of developing turbines in Alaska, but NativeEnergy reports that the success of these turbines so far bodes well for future projects.

Wind power is economically and symbolically promising for Indian reservations on a number of levels. Harnessing wind energy could provide thousands of jobs in construction and maintenance. Gough notes that many of these jobs require special skills, so right now many tribal members might not be qualified, but Intertribal COUP is working with tribal colleges and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to provide wind-energy industry training.

Selling clean power back to municipal grids could also provide economic infusion for tribes. For example, the Campo reservation in southern California earns extra income by selling enough energy for approximately 30,000 homes to San Diego Gas & Electric, the local utility company, from its 50-megawatt Kumeyaay wind farm.

However, selling energy back to the grid requires adequate high-capacity power lines, which are nonexistent in many rural reservations.

"The current transmission system was not built with wind power in mind and needs to be expanded to bring large amounts of wind power to market," said Christine Real de Azua, spokesperson for the American Wind Energy Association, a national trade group. "There is a lot of regional and national interest in investment in transmission because our existing system is overburdened and in need of expansion to meet growing electricity demand."

Tribes are also at a disadvantage in competing with non-tribal entities to sell power back to the grid. Tribes can’t take advantage of tax-credit incentives for clean energy, since as sovereign nations they don’t pay taxes. A non-tribal entity can offer a utility lower prices for its energy, since it is subsidized by the federal government in the form of tax breaks. Legislation currently pending in the House (H.R. 1954) would allow tribes to partner with a private entity so that the project could take advantage of clean-power tax breaks, and Gough said similar legislation may soon be introduced in the Senate.

Tribes can be compensated for creating clean energy without selling it back to the grid through the sale of green tags, or carbon offset credits. Intertribal COUP has spearheaded a program to pair tribes with cities such as Aspen, Boulder, Denver and Seattle that have committed to meet Kyoto greenhouse gas reduction goals through
a nonprofit organization called "NativeWind." Tribes with wind and solar power projects could sell carbon-offset credits to these municipalities. However, some critics argue carbon offsets are a red herring in the fight to reduce global warming, since they allow a company, municipality or other entity to claim they are reducing their carbon footprint without actually reducing emissions.

Meanwhile, wind power–and solar, also a growing movement on reservations—furthers American Indian traditions of serving as stewards and caretakers of the earth.

The current fossil-fueled-based U.S. energy structure has wreaked havoc on and off the reservations and will become even more destructive in the future without a major shift in national energy policy. Reservations including Hopi and Navajo lands in the Southwest are sites of huge environmentally and culturally destructive coal-mining projects. Coal is currently the lynchpin of U.S. electricity generation, and the nation’s current energy plan calls for the construction of more than 100 new coalburning power plants, although many projects are finding investors becoming more cautious as governments seek to limit carbon emissions. Mining of uranium for nuclear energy and the extraction of oil, natural gas and coal-bed methane have also caused serious environmental and health effects and displacement on Indian reservations.

For example, the Gwich’in people in Alaska and the caribou they depend on could be devastated by oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And the Lubicon Lake Cree in Alberta, Canada, are seeing their land torn apart by increasing construction of oil and gas wells and pipelines.

Development of and royalties for fossil-fuel extraction are among the major sources of income for many tribes. The Navajo Nation gets the majority of its operating budget
from royalties, leases and taxes generated by coal, oil and gas extraction. But the Indigenous Environmental Network and other American-Indian activists and clean power advocates say tribes could replace this income with a much less harmful and equivalently lucrative investment in renewable energy, namely solar and wind.

"These [fossil fuel projects] have been pushed by the federal government, but we’re pushing the tribes to realize we don’t need to be locked into energy development that isn’t sustainable," said Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network and co-chair of Honor the Earth, which has the slogan "Make wind, not war."

American Indians have suffered and will continue to suffer disproportionately from the effects of climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture, hunting, tourism and fisheries that are the economic staples of many tribes across the country stand to be severely affected by climate change and the increasing storms and deforestation it is expected to cause. And many tribes have already had to curtail and alter traditional fishing rituals significantly because of widespread mercury contamination in fish caused mainly by emissions
from coal-burning power plants.

Tribes have also been harmed by the effects of hydropower, including the damming of rivers like the Missouri and Wisconsin, which interferes with fishing and the harvesting of traditional wild rice. Dams are often placed on or adjacent to reservation land, flooding reservations to create reservoirs.

In recent years, droughts have made hydropower generation much less available, making wind more attractive to utilities for purely economic reasons.

Wind power is often considered the nation’s fastest-growing renewable energy source, with more than 2,400 megawatts of new power generation added and an investment of about $4 billion last year, according to the American Wind Energy Association. The country now has about 11,600 megawatts of total wind energy, enough to serve the equivalent of three million average households.

But snowballing interest in wind energy worldwide has meant a bottleneck in the availability of turbines, with prices for turbines rising and long waits to buy one. A turbine like "Little Soldier," which cost in the neighborhood of $800,000 not counting installation and maintenance, might now cost 50% more.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Wind Energy Program offers some support to tribes, including providing anemometers to measure wind potential and offering workshops and technical assistance.

Mark Henderson, an Arizona State University engineering professor who was contracted by the Hopi tribe to study the viability of wind to power a new village on their reservation, said there are numerous factors that must be taken into account.

Among other things, local leaders must decide whether digging holes for utility poles and other construction in a given area would disturb sacred sites.

With a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, Henderson and his students are taking a year’s worth of detailed readings of wind strength in the remote, off-the-grid
area where the Hopi would like a wind turbine to power a new development. The area is known for having very little wind, "but they want to try anyway," said Henderson.

"Wind is a very localized phenomenon," he explained. "The data out there indicates there is not enough wind at this site for a turbine, but sometimes local geography and features of the land [like a canyon creating a funnel effect] could cause the wind to speed up in certain areas."

The Hopi tribe lost a substantial part of its income when the Mohave coal-burning power plant in Laughlin, Nevada, closed down after being cited for pollution by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Hopis had shipped coal from the Black Mesa mine to that plant, mixed with water to form slurry that was forced hundreds of miles
through a pipeline. The Hopi hope another wind farm they are planning could replace some of this lost income in a much more environmentally friendly way. Not only has the
Black Mesa mine caused major environmental upheaval on Navajo and Hopi land, but the slurry shipping process uses huge amounts of water in one of the country’s driest areas.

"These are some of the poorest communities in America. They have rich resources but can’t use them to their benefit," said Gough. "If you’re on an Indian reservation you are 10 times more likely to not even have electricity. And if you do, you are paying a higher proportion of your household income for that electricity. Tribes have been caught in a century of economics that say, ‘sell your resources low and buy the finished value-added product high.’ That’s a recipe for poverty. Tribes don’t need any more people coming in from the outside controlling their resources and telling them what to do. Tribes need to be able to develop their own sustainable resources in full partnership with outside investors."