United States

United States

Backed against the coal lobby

Native Americans are interested in wind power, however, discussions at a recent workshop indicate utilities' resistance to developing wind projects -- even in remote windy areas where local people would welcome investment in clean power. One tribal councilman claims that utility Montana Power resistance to renewables is because of the powerful coal lobby in Montana and the utility's ownership of coal fired plants and strip coal mines.

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Wind power could be a super bet for many Native Americans, but discussions at a recent workshop also indicate how much resistance there remains from utilities to developing wind projects -- even in remote windy areas where the local people would welcome investment in clean power.

The Tribal Wind Energy Workshop in Montana in late July showcased the great diversity of possibilities for Native Americans, ranging from small projects in the ground, such as the second-hand 100 kW Vestas V-17 at the Blackfeet headquarters, to the resource assessment just completed by consultants of huge Bechtel Corp. An estimated 30 to 40 people from reservations throughout the Great Plains of the US and Canada attended the event.

Even so, problematic issues such as avian mortality, aesthetics and the proximity of transmission lines were raised so often by Montana Power during a panel discussion that some observers commented afterwards that the utility seemed adamant to avoid developing wind. The workshop, at the Rocky Boy's Reservation, was sponsored by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, and the local Stone Child Community College.

Land and wind

Stoney Anketell, a Fort Peck tribes councilman and wind advocate who attended the workshop, says that the objections raised by Montana Power were relevant only when a wind project was considered in the Livingston resort area in Rocky Mountains in southern Montana. "That's the most prime area of real estate in Montana!" he says. He notes that in contrast the Fort Peck reservation, on the Great Plains of Montana, is 2.1 million acres in size and has a population of 10,000 tribal and non-tribal people. "We've got plenty of land and plenty of wind," he says.

Indeed he claims that Montana Power resistance to renewables is because of how powerful the coal lobby is in Montana and because of the utility's ownership of coal fired plants and of strip coal mines -- actually owned by a utility subsidiary -- near the appropriately named Montana town of Colstrip.

The workshop, at Rocky Boy's Reservation, came only a few weeks after a single Vestas turbine was installed in May at the Blackfeet Community College near Browning, Montana. That project has also raised similar questions about utilities' lack of interest.

Tribal chairman Earl Old Person told the Tribune newspaper of Great Falls that though the tribe has been interested in wind power for years, the idea has not received a warm welcome from Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). "At one point we were told we didn't have enough wind, even though it can blow over a freight train," he said referring to the occasional closure of a nearby railroad whenever winds are very high.

Backers of the Vestas project say the high winds in the region are actually a subject of strong local interest. "We had noticed that wind is a subject of discussion here about 365 days per year," college president Carol Murray told the newspaper recently. In its first six weeks of operation, the turbine produced about enough power for ten homes at a cost of about five cents per kWh, said Bill Chapman of Glacier Electric.

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