Harnessing the Wind


graphic of a lightbulb with feathers coming out of it in a windmill patternRicardo Gonzalez

The Rosebud Sioux like to tell the story of a visiting elder from a Southwest pueblo who came to their South Dakota tribal lands and asked, “Say, all your animals up here kind of lean over to one side. Do they fall over when the wind stops?” The Sioux answered, “We don’t know. It never stops blowing.”

In today’s era of global climate crisis, that prairie wind is doing much more than keeping livestock upright; it’s blowing a lot of excitement into the search for plentiful sources of clean, green, renewable energy.

During the late 1980s, while searching for a low-cost energy source to meet the reservation’s needs, the Rosebud Sioux learned that the wind on their reservation could potentially meet one-twelfth of the entire US electricity demand. Despite a lack of experience in wind technology or energy policy, the tribe determined to harness what people were calling the tri-state area of the Dakotas and Nebraska: “the Saudi Arabia of wind.” They constructed the first native-owned wind turbine on reservation land, distinguishing themselves as enterprising leaders on the edge of eco-energy technology. In the process, the Sioux have shown how communities can take advantage of unique local resources to bolster their economic self-sufficiency. By choosing a “green” solution that honors their belief in living in balance with nature, the Rosebud Sioux have contributed to solving the US energy problem and the global warming challenge, and have inspired other Native American nations to explore how to meet their power needs in an environmentally wise fashion.

A Viable Empowerment Strategy

It is hard to overestimate the potential of wind. It does not pollute or require painful extraction methods such as mountaintop removal for coal or superheating the earth for oil, and it will never disappear. Although it currently accounts for less than one percent of total US energy output, wind is a multi-billion dollar industry, and the fastest growing energy technology in the country. Today, wind power in the US exceeds 11,600 megawatts, enough to light the city of Detroit. Experts at the American Wind Energy Association’s 2007 annual conference forecast that by 2030 an estimated half a trillion dollars in investment will bump wind’s share of the US electricity generation to 20 percent.

p>Despite the promise of wind, the US remains reliant on dirty electricity generation methods. The utility industry says this is due to the expense of converting the energy infrastructure to cleaner technologies. But the argument that fossil fuels are cheaper is called into question after taking into account all of the government subsidies for carbon-heavy energy. The 2005 energy bill gave the oil, gas, and coal industries some $32 billion in subsidies over five years. Wind power companies received less than one percent of federal support for energy projects.

There is truth to the claim that the infrastructure is not yet in place to bring full-scale wind energy nationwide. “The Dakotas, Texas, Wyoming, and other rural places have vast wind resources,” says wind energy expert Dale Osborn. “But the problem is that they are in the middle of nowhere. Large developers need to focus on transmission, but building it in short order is not yet possible.”

Osborn is a wind pioneer and the owner of a small wind firm, DISGEN. He is often credited with growing the US wind industry from its infancy in the 1980s to its more robust and technically advanced state today. He points out that transmission obstacles have been overcome in the past with federal assistance. “If you think about how agribusiness evolved,” says Osborn, “there wasn’t electricity [in rural areas] so co-ops were formed with the support of the federal government. It made no sense for commercial enterprise to install it. Crops were grown in the country, but there was no way to get those goods to market, so the federal government developed the highway system.”

But there is no need for tribes or other rural communities to wait for big picture solutions that may not ever benefit them. As Osborn reckons, “We can’t just do it with large-scale projects geared for big population centers. We need other, small-scale strategies [for the rest of the country]. And beyond energy policy, other than coal and gas, wind represents the largest economic opportunity for rural communities that I have ever seen.” As the Rosebud experience illustrates, small-scale wind production is a viable community-controlled economic empowerment strategy that is ready right now.

Tag It Green

Patrick Spears is the president of the Intertribal Council On Utility Policy (ICOUP), a consortium of Plains tribes working to bring lucrative green power to reservations. As he says, “The wind is a blessing. Harnessing this gift, we can benefit our people, help reduce the impact of global warming, and provide economic restoration. I’ve never seen a situation quite like it. It’s win-win-win.” Like all tribes, economic restoration has been a long time coming for the Sioux. In 1944, the Flood Control Act authorized six dams to be built along the once-mighty Missouri River, forcing many Plains Indians to move away from traditional lands along the fertile river basin. While some tried to make a go of it in US cities, most were relocated to less hospitable lands and poorly planned communities on the reservations.

Life on the Rosebud reservation is difficult. There is a casino, but the reservation’s remote location does not attract a lot of traffic. Winters are long and with the windchill, temperatures can fall 30 degrees below zero. Unemployment, according to tribal officials, is between 80 and 90 percent, and a multitude of health and social problems persist, as they do on other reservations. Spears was only 13 years old when the land where his uncles taught him to hunt and fish was flooded. “It’s a serious emotional issue for us,” he says. “Clustered housing, no jobs, not much fresh food ... It wasn’t our choice to move, but we’re doing the best with what remains. We were giving up our land for the public good, for the rest of America.”

The move to the reservation was just the latest chapter in an ongoing history of hardship, violated treaties, and broken promises. Despite the overwhelming obstacles the tribe faced in erecting the turbine – vast sums of technical data to master, a complete lack of financing, absolutely no expertise in wind technology – the biggest challenge was convincing the tribe to trust outsiders. “When you lose a war, like the Indian wars, and the people are put on reservations – they were like prison camps, initially – well, it has taken generations for people to trust,” says Tony Rogers, director of the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Utilities Commission (RSTUC). “Some thought maybe by creating our own energy we would be making trouble with the local electric cooperative, that maybe they would disconnect [our] service.”

Similar to other tribes’ experiences, the Sioux found that the economic opportunities that came their way were often exploitive, placing the environment and community health in jeopardy. In the 1990s the Sioux entered into a contract with the Hormel corporation and Bell Farms to place a large industrial hog farm on the reservation. That deal proved far more polluting and far less profitable than promised and it took years in court to shut it down. Experiences like that tempered the tribe’s enthusiasm for wind energy, and reaffirmed for them that ownership of the turbine, as well as the technical knowledge to develop it, needed to be native.

Rogers, who was ultimately tapped to oversee the project, laughs, recalling those early days: “If you had asked me in 1996 how to do this, I’d say, ‘I’ll get back to you.’ We had to teach ourselves. The Elders told us to be patient, to bring back the knowledge and teach us. I had some good teachers. Dale Osborn – he just wanted to help us. That is how we learned.”

photo of modern windmillsPhotos.comWind power is the fastest growing
energy technology in the US.

Tribal attorney Bob Gough and Patrick Spears were instrumental in convincing the tribe to overcome their mistrust of outsiders, and worked closely with Rogers and Osborn to conduct preliminary assessments and to understand the highly technical side of the work. As Osborn says, “I wanted to help them do their first two or three projects. The transfer of technical knowledge, that was a totally foreign concept for the renewable energy sector.” But it was something Osborn was compelled to do, in part, because of his belief in the potential of small-scale wind energy as an important resource for rural communities. He adds, “But Bob [Gough] and Pat [Spears] were superior in helping the tribes recognize the true potential of what they had, creating the general marketing awareness.”

The cost of erecting the turbine was more than $1 million, and the tribe was insistent that control remain in their hands. “We had to find our own funding,” Rogers says. “We got a cooperative Department of Environment grant. A 50-50 grant, we had to match it. …We had a lot of people to convince.”

ICOUP was also involved in the hunt for financing of the turbine, and developed what would turn out to be a critical partnership with a one-year-old alternative energy broker, NativeEnergy. What NativeEnergy brought to the table was a bold marketing plan that would ensure tribal control over the commercial turbine by raising $250,000 of the capital through the sale of renewable energy credits, also known as “Green Tags.”

Green Tags enable those with no access to clean energy to offset the carbon emissions caused by their daily energy consumption. This is done by paying a little more – through a Green Tag purchase – for someone else to switch to clean energy where it is available. For every Green Tag purchased, a set amount of energy that would have come from a polluting source is instead generated from a renewable “green” source. The Green Tag can also be used to erect new wind turbines – like the ones NativeEnergy promotes – thus creating new sources of green energy for the future.

Green Tags are generally sold to the public in small numbers, but in this case, NativeEnergy bought the remaining Green Tags up front, and then sold them to green-friendly companies, including Ben & Jerry’s and the Dave Matthews Band. Green Tag financing also came from Turner Network Television, which was filming a movie on Lakota lands.

Soldiering On

After an eight-year process, a 190-foot, 750-Kilowatt commercial turbine was installed in March 2003. It is named “Little Soldier” in honor of Alex Lunderman, a tribal elder who passed away in 1999, but whose vision, Rogers says, inspired the process. “He believed that we could use modern technology and nature’s resources in a way that was compatible with our values,” Rogers told a reporter for Fortune Small Business who was covering the windmill inauguration. Over the next 25 years, this single windmill will eliminate 50,000 tons of carbon dioxide, comparable to the emissions from 8,300 cars during that same time. After costs are recouped – which is estimated to occur in 2010 – the turbine will become a source of profit for thetribe, and a source of new jobs in the fast-growing green energy sector.

But the power of the Little Soldier promises to goes far beyond one windmill. The Rosebud tribe is making plans for a large-scale wind farm that could earn up to $20 million a year for the nation and create hundreds of jobs. The Rosebud Sioux success has also inspired other tribes to embrace wind power. The Spirit Lake Sioux and Turtle Mountain Chippewa reservations in North Dakota – along with the Inupiat community in Kotzebue, Alaska – have recently erected their own wind turbines. As the centerpiece of its tribal empowerment strategy, ICOUP acquired a controlling interest in NativeEnergy in 2005, making it truly “Native.” The Green Tags will help support new reservation energy development.

For their innovative plan to develop wind energy throughout the Plains reservations, ICOUP was recognized with the inaugural World Clean Energy Awards in Switzerland in June 2007, dubbed the “renewable energy Oscars.” Also this year, both the RSTUC and ICOUP were recognized as Environmental Justice Community Revitalization Demonstration Projects by the federal government; municipal utility districts around the country are now learning from the Rosebud experience. Incredulous, Osborn says: “No one could believe the effect that single turbine had on Indian country. They demonstrated that by using only regularly available programs, they could own and operate a project like this, something no one would have believed was possible before. It’s truly an inspiration.”

Shannon Biggs is the co-author of Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots (PoliPointPress), in which a longer version of this story appears.

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