(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.