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Native Americans see money in the wind

Growing numbers of Native American tribes see renewables such as wind offering perhaps the best solution for rural electrification as well as the means by which tribes can emerge as independent producers of bulk power. For Fort Peck Tribes in northeastern Montana the problem has been finding a customer but a recent solicitation by the Western Area Power Administration may be the answer until deregulation. The first installation, a turbine at the Blackfeet Community College near Browning, is a showcase. The wind resource on land owned by the Blackfeet tribe is outstanding but transmission constraints pose formidable obstacles to immediate large scale development.

Millions of Americans rely upon electricity generated from fuel resources found on Native American lands. Coal, natural gas, oil, uranium and water are all extracted or exploited from these landscapes by private mining companies, utilities and the federal government. Wind power is now on the brink of being added to the growing list of energy resources developed on these typically isolated and quite desolate reservation lands. Only this time, Native Americans will develop energy resources on their own terms, a positive story for wind energy that is an outgrowth of the brave new world of electricity competition.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's recent proposal for legislation to liberalise the US electricity market (see next story) will open up transmission access for independent power producers throughout the country. Since some of the nation's best wind resources are located in remote regions, such as in Montana, opening up the US transmission grid could help wind generated electricity find urban markets. What's more, growing numbers of Native American tribes see renewables such as wind offering perhaps the best solution for rural electrification as well as the means by which tribes can emerge as independent producers of bulk power.

The history of energy resource development on Native American lands has been fraught with tales of exploitation and manipulation. Tribes were typically resettled on reservations whose land was viewed as largely uninhabitable due to lack of water, lack of adequate soil or, in some cases, incessant wind. These land holdings trace their roots to the days of Kit Carson, General Custer and the soldiers and cowboys that "won" the West. The fact that the lands yielded income from energy sources was once counted as a blessing. Now, due to increasing levels of pollution, some Native American tribes are not so sure about continuing coal and uranium mining.

New revenue

Among those who view wind power as an answer to the threat of continued pollution -- and as a new source of revenue for tribes -- is Stoney Anketell, a Ft. Peck Tribes council member who foresees a huge wind farm in the not so distance future in northeastern Montana. Bechtel Corporation has just completed a wind resource assessment of prime reservation wind sites, revealing there are several Class 4 and 5 sites on land owned by the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes.

Anketell claims the results of the $250,000 one year wind resource assessment justify a 45 MW near term goal, a 200 MW mid range goal, and, ultimately, a 500 MW wind farm. Transmission access for an initial phase of development is readily available. The problem has been finding a customer. A recent solicitation by the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) may be what Anketell has been waiting for. The federal agency has created a 5% set-aside for renewable energy, a percentage which translates into a near term 30 MW bid solicitation.

"WAPA's bid could give us a toe-hold," says Anketell. "Once they see that we can generate commercial wind energy, we could easily increase wind power production." Anketell maintains it is only a matter of time before wind turbines start showing up on high desert plateaus and canyons of the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains and the Southwest. Coal plants are unattractive because of air pollution concerns. Hydroelectric dams are out of the question as are new nuclear plants. "What else can they do?" asks Anketell. "The WAPA opportunity could put us over the hump. It could be the proposal that enables us to get wind power into the grid."

There are some problems with the bid. WAPA slices up the renewable commitment into six small pieces, an approach which Anketell and the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) has criticised as raising the cost of renewable projects. Further more, WAPA suggest earmarking half of the renewable capacity for more expensive solar power, a policy that both Anketell and AWEA also denounce. Nevertheless, Anketell is "cautiously encouraged" by WAPA's consideration of relying more upon non hydro renewable resources.

waiting on deregulation

When regional markets are fully deregulated, Anketell thinks finding a customer will not be that difficult. In today's unsettled market, however, most utilities are leery of any new commitments. Montana and North Dakota utilities have already declined offers to buy wind power from the proposed Montana project.

The strategy Bechtel has proposed to the Fort Peck tribes is to anticipate opportunities in a restructured electricity market. The company did not advocate a development strategy based on old utility power purchase models, instead choosing to wait and see if direct access programmes could be designed to allow residential and industrial customers to buy green energy such as wind power. Regardless of the ultimate buyer of wind developed on Fort Peck tribal lands, the first development phase will be put out to competitive bid.

The work with Fort Peck tribes grew out of a grant from the federal Department of Energy (DOE) under the 1982 Energy Policy Act. It offered a pot of money to Indian tribes to investigate energy resource development. This funding, included in Title 26 of the Act, has now expired. Though most tribes used money to conduct feasibility studies, one recipient of $153,000 in federal DOE funding, Marty Wilde, used it to erect what he claims is the first wind turbine to be erected on Native American lands.

First installation

The installation of a 100 kW Vestas V-17 in May is largely a public relations ploy to get the Blackfeet tribe excited about the prospects of large-scale wind power development. "We placed the turbine on a hill at the Blackfeet Community College near Browning, the Blackfeet tribe's headquarters. It sits right dab in the middle of the best wind site in the lower 48," says Wilde, referring to the 48 states that comprise the continental US.

While some locations have higher average wind speeds (annual readings at the college site register winds at 20-22 mph), no other location boasts so large a potential wind development arena, notes Wilde. The project is "a first step to develop local expertise and to get our feet wet with wind power," he continues. So far, local tribe members are fascinated by the wind turbine and want to erect more as soon as possible.

Along with the federal funds, the turbine installation has been supported by Glacier Electric Co, the local utility, and California wind company Zond Systems which donated equipment and services totalling $20,000. The total project cost was $238,000.

Wilde says the highest priority of the installation was to make it "a glowing example of how local people took the initiative. Historically, hustlers have promised the world to these tribes, only to let them down time and time again. This project could be a major moral boost that will allow the Blackfeet tribes to determine their own destiny."

Transmission constraints

While the wind resource on land owned by the Blackfeet tribe is outstanding, transmission constraints pose very formidable obstacles to immediate large scale development. According to Wyatt Rogers, a consultant to the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, in Denver, Colorado, for over 15 years, a 100 to 140 MW project could be developed without additional transmission capacity. But in order for full scale development to occur, which could yield well over 10,000 MW of wind capacity, new transmission capacity would need to be constructed. Who would pay for such upgrades remains an open question.

Beyond adding additional transmission capacity, the biggest roadblock to full-scale development is the scenery. The Blackfeet tribe lands border Glacier National Park, a pristine Rocky Mountain destination that ranks as one of America's top tourist regions. The huge park also stands in the way of what could be cost effective transmission corridors. From Rogers' point of view, one of the bright spots for wind developers is that "the fastest growing US power markets are nearby." He notes that Seattle and the rest of the Pacific Northwest is one of the most attractive, and growing, electricity markets. Polls show that residents in this part of the country are willing to pay more for green power supplies. The Blackfeet tribe reservation land represents 90% of the wind resource available in the Pacific Northwest, according to the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency which oversees power supply in the region.

The reason Rogers, a Native American himself, is optimistic about renewables such as wind power in the long run is that such resources "fit in with our traditional philosophy. Sources of natural energy that can be re-generated are definitely preferred over sources that must be wasted."

The key advantage to developing wind on tribal lands is that "developers may be able to bypass cumbersome state siting laws." Tribal lands are sovereign and therefore are exempt from state government siting and environmental review regulations. However Rogers notes that the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which oversees development on tribal lands, has its own environmental assessment provisions, though its regulations tend to be less cumbersome than state siting proceedings.

Close observers such as Paul Parker, an analyst with the Salt Lake City, Utah-based Center for Resource Management, which plans on releasing a White Paper this month about prospects for renewables development on Native American lands thinks tribal lands are an excellent near term sites for wind and other renewables. "At the institutional level, Native Americans have more control over permitting and can use tax-exempt financing if power projects are compatible with their culture and goals," he says.

Symbolic of sovereignty

Wind development could represent a break from the past as wind, unlike coal, uranium and oil resources, will not steer all of the profits to large corporations. Tribes can develop wind and other renewables on an incremental basis. "Over the long term, renewables are symbolic of sovereignty and self-determination," adds Parker. "If people are willing to pay more for green power, they might be even more interested in purchasing green power from Indian tribes."

While outside expertise is necessary, Native Americans themselves need to play a large role. "In the past, tribes have been passive. They need to be aggressive in order to take advantage of the limited window of opportunity that exists with deregulation, " he continues.

Tribes such as the Navajo, located in Arizona, now supply Americans with fossil fuels used to generate electricity for major markets such as Los Angeles and the bright lights of casinos in Las Vegas. Yet roughly half of the Navajo tribes still lack electricity. Along with the prospects of large wind farms generating tribal revenue, small scale applications are also necessary to bring the comforts of electricity to remote villages that are often miles and miles away from transmission lines.

If the wind industry wants to build a sustainable relationship with new Native American energy entrepreneurs, it will need to understand the technical needs, as well as the culture, of these tribes. One thing is for certain. Wind developers cannot follow in the footsteps of past energy resource development practices.

The idea of renewable energy development on tribal lands first surfaced at a conference held in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a few years ago. Peterson Zah, president of the Navajo Nation, noted at the conference that many Navajo thought it was a miracle when coal, as well as uranium, was discovered on their land. Now, because of rising numbers of cancer deaths and poor visibility, many are not so sure. "We can no longer see the beauty of the land the Great Spirit put here," he said. "Now is the perfect opportunity to shift gears and take a new direction. We have the space, the people, the land." Directing some comments to the Anglo-Saxons in the audience, he added: "Before you immigrated to our land, we had a better way to live: to live with nature within a circle. What we are now doing is going to be our downfall."

Today, forward-looking Native Americans such as Zah, Rogers, Wilde and Anktell are investigating wind development opportunities, a sign that growing numbers of tribes wish to return to their cultural roots. Such development would not only benefit these chronically depressed Indian tribes, but could make the earth a better place to live.

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