In a Quest for Renewable Energy, Tribes Try to Catch the Wind
(CN) - Native Americans have been left with 5 percent of the land of the United States, and that land contains an estimated 10 percent of the nation's energy resources, but harnessing that renewable power is like trying to catch the wind, tribal members say. It's not for lack of motivation from the 565 federally recognized tribes.
Nor is it lack of attention from the U.S. Department of Energy, which has run a Tribal Energy Program since the early 1990s.
The challenges are more deep-seated than that, ranging from the economic impoverishment of Native American communities, their tax-exempt status, the nature of incentive programs meant to foster economic development, the energy market, and perhaps most stubbornly, the logistics of moving power from the High Plains to the nation's more densely populated Midwest and East Coast.
"We're dirt poor, but resource rich and the potential is really great," said Ken Haukaas, a grandfather and member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota.
For more than a decade, Haukaas has been an outspoken advocate for harnessing the wind that blows generously over his tribe's 900,000-plus acres.
"The tribes of the Northern Plains really have a lot of untapped power," he said.
But the Rosebud Sioux have succeeded in building just one, 750-kilowatt Nicon Meg turbine, which supplies power to the casino the tribe operates on its southern border.
Called Akicita Cikala by the tribe, or "Little Soldier," the turbine has worked fitfully since it was commissioned in 2003.
"It operates on and off, and tends to overheat," Haukaas said. "We try to deal with it as best we can."
Such is the tough reality of renewable energy on tribal lands in the American West.
DOE Tries to Kick-Start it
Among those trying to do something about the situation is Lizana K. Pierce, project manager for the Tribal Energy Program at the U.S. Department of Energy's field office in Golden, Colo.
Its purpose is to "promote tribal energy sufficiency, economic development and employment on tribal lands through the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies."
Appropriations ebb and flow from year to year. Pierce said the program has provided $36.7 million to 160 tribal projects in the past 9 years.
"Given that the DOE tribal energy effort is a relatively small program, averaging $5 million or $6 million a year, our main focus has been on feasibility studies - collecting wind data, for instance - and we've also provided some planning grants," Pierce said.
In the past 12 years, Pierce said, she's seen situations evolve from initial conversations about training and education and awareness of renewable energy technologies to tribes founding energy committees and utilities.
Since most tribes are cash-poor and don't have the money to pay for the myriad studies necessary before a major energy project is undertaken, and because they are tax-exempt and don't qualify for the tax breaks used to spur development elsewhere, the tribes seek commercial partners that do not have those constraints.
The resulting work product - studies of the energy resources, land use, archaeological, historical and environmental impacts - tend to be paid for and therefore belong to the non-tribal partner. So if for one reason or another the tribe and developer do not move forward with a project, the studies leave with the company.
Not surprisingly, one of the first things tribes told Pierce and her colleagues in the energy program was that they needed grants that would allow them to own the data on their resources if they ever were to have any hope of creating a renewable energy project.
Shovel-Ready Wind Project Stalls
Inspired by the DOE's Tribal Energy program, the Rosebud Sioux applied for and received a $500,000 grant to install a wind turbine at the reservation.
Haukaas said at the time wind energy was "new to everybody" in the region, and to advance the project, the DOE suggested the tribe partner with Dale Osborn, president of DisGen, a Lakewood, Colo.-based company also known as Distributed Generation Systems Inc.
"In 2000, the DOE asked me to take a look at the potential of tribal wind deployment in North and South Dakota," Osborn said. "So I spent several months there, visiting all of the reservations, talking to tribal leaders, and in the course of that, I identified a total of about 2000 megawatts of potential wind power I thought could be developed on tribal trust lands."
Since then, Osborn has worked with 25 to 30 tribes, including the Cheyenne, Kaw, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara, in addition to the Rosebud Sioux.
Shortly after the commissioning of the Little Soldier on the Rosebud Sioux reservation, Osborn began talking to tribal members about developing a far more ambitious, 30 MW facility. They soon gave it a name: the Owl Feather War Bonnet Wind Farm.
As it had for the Little Soldier, the Rosebud Sioux applied for a DOE grant and with Osborn's assistance, secured $586,000 to pay for preliminary wind and environmental impact studies to be performed by DisGen and a transmission and interconnection study conducted by Nebraska Public Power District.
By February 2008, the environmental assessment was complete and the utility had determined there would be no problem connecting the 30 MW wind farm to its transmission system.
Seven months later, the tribe and Osborn entered into a land use and lease agreement that set aside 680 acres for the project.
When the Rosebud Sioux began considering the 30 MW wind farm, most of their studies were based on the idea of tying the facility into the 115 kilovolt Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) line that ran through a portion of South Dakota before dropping down into Nebraska.
Haukaas said the tribe approached the utility in the mid- to late-2000s, and was told that it would put out a request for proposals for a green power purchase.
But when it did the request for proposals, or RFP, "basically they said they would not look at any wind power from outside the boundaries of Nebraska," Haukaas said.
Mark C. Becker, a spokesman for the utility, denied that.
Becker said that in 2007 the NPPD issued an RFP for up to 100 megawatts of wind power, and DisGen, representing the Rosebud Sioux, submitted a proposal that was accepted by the utility's management, subject to reaching a power purchase agreement.
"The developer was unable to sign a (power purchase agreement) with terms that had been submitted through the original RFP," he said.
Becker said the utility asked DisGen and the Rosebud Sioux to enter the next round of the process, which was held in 2009.
Without a power purchase agreement "with a price that made the economics work out," the shovel-ready project has stalled, Haukaas said.
Osborn described the Nebraska utility as "very gracious - with the exception of the contract terms."
Haukaas said the memory still stings.
"What really gets to us is they charge the local co-op here, [the Cherry-Todd Electric Co-Operative], a wheeling fee (or tariff) of between $14,000 a month and $25,000 a month, for using its transmission line to transfer power to the local consumer," Haukaas said. "We have had a 30 percent increase in our electric rates over the last four years, and part of it definitely stems from that fee.
"They won't buy our power, yet they charge the local utility a tariff fee that gets passed on to us, the local consumers. It's kind of unfair, but ... "
A long pause.
"... it is what it is," he said.
Having failed to secure a deal with Nebraska power district, the Rosebud tribe is considering other options, but outside forces, including turmoil in the broader economy and the price of natural gas, is making it difficult for the tribe to find a buyer.
"Maybe we'll build an independent line that will tie in with the Western Area Power Administration line to the north of the reservation," Haukaas said.
But that carries with it a hefty price tag - construction of a 15-mile-long transmission line that is likely to cost $250,000 to $300,000 a mile.
Another possibility - from the tribe's perspective, exclusive of its relationship with Osborn -- is building a second wind farm closer to those power lines.
Federal Energy Policy
Under the Microscope
Osborn believes the answer lies with the federal government.
The biggest federal entity in the area is Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha. Having struck out with NPPD, Osborn and the Rosebud Sioux thought it would be a good candidate to buy their energy.
"But it really hasn't gone very far," Osborn said.
"The utilities in Nebraska somehow believe the state Legislature has said that wind projects need to be within the state's borders, despite the fact that the Legislature, for its part, has made it clear this is not the case," Osborn said.
"So technically speaking, when NPPD says that statement was not in the RFP, they are correct. But when they spoke to me about why we didn't win the RFP, a) they didn't mention price, and b) they said [it was] because the Legislature wanted them to rely on wind power generated in Nebraska.
"So there is nothing written anywhere that says that, but that statement has been made by NPPD and Omaha Public Power District officials in other forums, and it makes sense on a certain level, because if you are a regulator or a utility, you'd want to encourage the economic development that goes along with developing a wind farm to occur in your territory. I understand it.
"But Rosebud is sort of a special circumstance, in that they are, through Cherry-Todd, paying this bunch of money every month for the wheeling," Osborn said. "So the way the tribe looks at it is, they are on our sovereign land, we're paying them all this money for wheeling, and they are not allowing us to compete."
Frustrated by the way things stand with the utility, Osborn said that working with tribes on renewable energy projects is rife with other challenges.
"The first thing is, you've got tribal government, and it's complicated - much more complicated than anywhere else - because you've got all these dynamics at play between the tribal districts and the individual council members and these things take up a lot of time," Osborn said. "I think as far as Owl Feather War Bonnet is concerned, I'm probably working with my fourth or fifth council.
"The second challenge, in my opinion, is that from the federal government perspective, the deck is absolutely stacked against the tribes."
According to Osborn, while tribes are supposed to be sovereign entities, in reality, tribal land is actually controlled by the Department of Interior and its Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA.
"Now, what I am going to say next is said from the perspective of my being a free-enterprise guy, but in my opinion, the rules and regulations created by the U.S. Department of Interior exist solely for the benefit of the Department of Interior and don't do a damn thing for the tribes," Osborn said.
On reservations, the initials BIA are said to mean "Boss Indians Around."
Osborn pointed to the tribe's experience when they filed their lease agreement for the Owl Father Wind Bonnet wind farm with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
"When we work in the private sector, typically we'll sit down with a large landowner, come to an agreement on terms of land use, and then send it to their attorney for review ... a process that might take three to four weeks," he said.
But in the case of the Owl Feather War Bonnet wind farm, Osborn said, it took the Bureau of Indian Affairs a full year to make a comment, then Osborn and his team spent another 6 months teaching the BIA how to value the land.
Once that was done, the BIA told the tribe they needed to send the document to the solicitor at the State of Minnesota, "and we were told that he had a 9-month backlog of documents he needed to review," Osborn said.
"In the end, the goal here is not to make a lot of money; the goal is to create some economic opportunity for people on these reservations," Osborn said. "It's frustrating, but it is a goal worth pursuing until I'm dead. That's the promise I've made."
Education Never Ends
The tribe eventually put out a request for proposals for a second wind farm project in 2007. Among those who responded were Midwest Energy, of Kansas, Pinnacle Wind, of Michigan, and Citizens Energy Corp., of Boston, a firm chaired by Joseph Kennedy II, former congressman and son of the late Sen. Robert Kennedy.
Citizens won the RFP. In December 2008, the firm put up two test towers to gather data and compare its findings to those of the tribe. And it hired a contractor to take a fresh look at the capacity left on the Western Area Power Administration line.
Haukaas said the contractor found the available capacity was closer to 190 MW, so the tribe designed its project - now called the North Antelope Highland Project - to accommodate 190 MW.
Officially, the tribe won't own either of the wind farms it has been developing; it will act as a passive landowner of the sites.
The tribe, which is bringing land and access to wind to the table, and assisting the developer with land issues and permitting, will receive 33 percent of the fee; Citizens, which is bringing its development expertise to the project, will get 66 percent.
As with its agreement with Osborn, the tribe won't share in a development fee for the Owl Feather War Bonnet wind farm, but it will receive a percentage of the revenue stream from both projects.
"That part of the financial picture, at least, is pretty cut and dried," Haukaas said. "We'll have access to the meters, and once we sign a power purchase agreement, we'll get copies of all the checks, so we'll know how much money the wind farms are actually getting."
DOE Program Appreciated
Haukaas credits the Department of Energy's tribal program with getting the ball rolling on the Rosebud reservation.
"The DOE encouraged it all," he said. "They came and spoke with us and said, 'Go out. Seek wind. For the tribe.' They were the ones who encouraged Dale Osborn to come up and work us, and Dale in turn encouraged many different tribes to begin looking at their wind resources.
"They've also provided us with a $1.5 million grant and other support, and I really respect them for that," Haukaas said.
Though he has nothing but praise for the DOE, he expressed less happiness with other branches of the federal government.
"There are a lot of issues here," Haukaas said.
"We have people here who have to decide whether they are going to feed their families or keep their houses warm in the winter, and it is especially troubling because it's not an isolated case here or there - a lot of people are living like that," he said. "It's really, really bad.
"Our resources are the one way we can endure this, and I understand that you have to take one step at a time, but what we need to sustain this hope is a power purchase agreement, and no one in the federal government has been willing to assist us in getting that to happen," he said. "I think the DOE has done its part; now other agencies need to step up to the plate."
Haukaas is particularly put out with the Department of Interior, which he says has an obligation to foster the Native American economy - an obligation it has not fulfilled. But there's enough blame due in official Washington to go around.
"If the full weight of the federal government, all of these agencies, came out and said, 'We want to buy tribal wind,' maybe we could get something done. But until that really happens, our projects won't happen.
"We'd like to start construction in 2012. We'd like to think that. But right now, Owl Feather War Bonnet is basically at a standstill," Haukaas said. "We need the feds on our side, otherwise this is just going to continue to be an uphill climb and a real serious struggle.
"In my mind, it seems like a simple equation," he said with resignation. "Why is it so darned hard? I don't understand."
Looking to Geothermal
and Solar in Sioux Country
Pierce said that given the cost of energy, and the desire among tribes for energy sovereignty and self-sufficiency, she expects tribes' interest in renewable energy will only grow over time.
"The thing about the work that we do is it's really like you're planting seeds all over the place - you inevitably leave advocates behind wherever you go," she said. "We call them the 'energy champions' of the tribe and they tend to have a lasting impact.
"You know, Indian Country is really a small place, and people tend to stay either with their own tribe or with another. So once they know about renewables, that knowledge stays within the community. It becomes a part of what that community is, and hopefully represents a path forward," Pierce said.
Despite his frustration with the delayed wind farms, Haukaas said he's a firm believer in the potential of renewable energy and would like to get the tribe off the grid.
"We do have some water power that comes through here already, but I'd also like to see solar panels on everybody's roof and maybe some small wind turbines here and there, as needed," he said.
The Rosebud Sioux are also looking into how to tap the reservation's geothermal potential. Maps developed by the Geothermal Laboratory at Southern Methodist University in Dallas suggest the tribe is sitting right on top of a hot spot of the Earth.
Next month the tribe will dig two wells down to 3,500 feet, hoping eventually to pull hot water from the aquifer to heat their homes.
"We are looking at all of our resources," Haukaas said. "We have to find a way to be self-sustainable here, on the reservation, because in my view, the global market ... well ... we've seen how uncertain it is, haven't we?
"Not that I'm a doomsday person, but I think we should always try to sustain ourselves with what we've got here. It's the same way I feel about wind," he said. "You see, I'd really like to see this money helping our people."