By: Clint Wilder
Early last year, a hopeful sign for the future rose from the plains of the Rosebud Sioux reservation in south central South Dakota. A 170-foot, 750-kilowatt NEG Micon wind turbine became the first commercial wind generation source on American Indian tribal land. It won't be the last. Renewable energy represents huge potential for often financially strapped reservations in the United States, and many tribes are starting to tap that potential. Success could mean not only an environmentally clean energy and revenue source for reservation residents, but also a significant contribution of clean energy to the U.S. power grid. Renewable energy can address a number of challenges faced by reservations. The first is simply providing power: an estimated 14% of Native American homes -- 10 times the national average -- don't have electricity. Clean-energy projects can bring sorely needed jobs; some American Indian communities face unemployment rates of 80% and higher. Power sales provide much-needed revenue. But unlike coal and uranium mining and other energy-related projects that have caused contention and environmental damage on tribal lands in the past, clean energy generates power in a way that's consistent with American Indian philosophy and heritage of honoring the earth. Coal and natural gas will admittedly continue to play a big role in American Indian tribal economies. But more tribes are starting to see the multi-faceted benefits of renewable energy. The U.S. Department of Energy's Tribal Energy Program has funded 14 wind, solar PV, and biomass feasibility or development projects in the past two years on tribal lands from Minnesota to Alaska. The Rosebud Sioux wind turbine already sells electricity to local utility Basin Electric and nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base, and that's just the first installment of a planned 30- megawatt wind farm on reservation land. The tribe is working with Native Energy LLC in Charlotte, Vt., which purchases green tags to fund American Indian and other community- based clean-energy projects. Another tribe, the Northern Cheyenne, also has a 30 MW wind project on the drawing board in southeastern Montana. Its business partner is Indigenous Global Development Corp., a San Francisco-based company that invests in American Indian and First Nations (Canada) business projects and increasingly focuses on renewable energy. The Cheyenne's reservation includes deposits of coal-bed methane, but tribal leaders told Indigenous Global they preferred not to extract it. They now seek to create a land trust for the area, plant fast-growing trees to sequester carbon and produce biomass, and sell carbon credits that will help fund wind energy development. "They told us they need to go back to their roots and who they are -- a linkage to the earth," says John Mejia, Indigenous Global's chief operating officer. "They want to do wind power and biomass -- to help the earth rather than hurt it." Indigenous Global is also the exclusive western hemisphere distributor of micro wind turbines from Mag Power of Japan. The company aims to develop assembly plants on reservations to make the turbines "a true American Indian product." Talks are underway for a plant in northern Oregon that would employ 60 to 100 members of the Wasco tribe. "I think the tribes can show tremendous leadership for the environment in the U.S.," says Indigenous Global chairman and CEO Deni Leonard. American Indian reservations, sometimes as a result of forced relocation, are often situated in the most remote areas of the country. That means their residents often pay extremely high electric rates, up to 19 cents per KwH, because of high transmission costs. The silver lining is that puts many reservations are located near some of the best renewable energy resources, especially areas with strong, consistent winds. According to some estimates, Northern Plains tribal lands alone could produce more than 200 gigawatts of wind power. Ron Nichols of Navigant Consulting told a Council of Energy Resource Tribes conference on renewable energy last May: "Don't let tribal renewable resources stay the best-kept secret in the quest for sustainable energy." The secret is slowly getting out -- and that's good news for everyone. Clint Wilder is Clean Edge's contributing editor. E-mail him at wilder[at]cleanedge[dot]com.