Energy experts say the swift, steady Dakota winds in the northern Great Plains could theoretically meet the nation’s entire electrical needs with clean, renewable power. But federal legislation has been thwarting a greener energy future led by tribes.
Because tribes are tax-exempt, they are not entitled to the tax credits provided to non-Native developers for renewable energy production. And if an outside company wants to team up with a tribe, the federal government will not allow a full tax credit.
That is ”basically stopping” tribal ownership of wind turbines, says Tom Boucher, president of NativeEnergy, a Vermont-based company that helps build renewable energy projects. Current legislation ”encourages outside developers not to partner with tribes because they will be penalized,” said Bob Gough, secretary of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, which represents 10 tribes.
Now, as the Senate and House are considering extensions of the renewable energy tax credit, which expires this December, the Intertribal COUP is pushing for legislation in favor of tribal ownership.
Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., has introduced a companion bill in the Senate that would allow tribes to be principal owners of renewable energy projects and would provide their non-Native partners with a full tax credit, Gough said. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., has introduced a similar bill in the House, he said.
Outside capital is essential to making tribally owned wind turbine projects a reality, said Boucher, whose company helped the Rosebud Sioux build a wind turbine with the help of federal grants and loans.
Intertribal COUP’s push, supported by the National Congress of American Indians, comes at an opportune time – just as the Bush administration is attempting to portray an image of good environmental stewardship.
”America is in the lead when it comes to energy independence. We’re in the lead when it comes to new technologies. We’re in the lead when it comes to global climate change,” President Bush said in a speech at the Washington International Renewable Energy Conference March 5.
Developing countries and the United States are being pushed to reduce their dependency on fossil fuels, and Bush has been alluding to wind energy and other renewable power sources in his speeches.
”America has to change its habits. It has to get off oil,” Bush said at the conference to delegates from more than 120 countries, adding that the concentration of greenhouse gases is increasing from the burning fossil fuels, leading to global climate change.
In the western United States, a majority of the utility-scale energy is generated by the burning of fossil fuels, which fills the air with sulfur, nitrogen and carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas linked to climate change, which environmental experts say is contributing to droughts in the Rockies and across the northern Plains, leading to the slow ruin of ranching and farming economies.
By contrast, wind power can generate clean electricity on a large, utility scale. And in the northern Plains, Gough said, wind projects can also create sustainable tribal economies.
”We’re looking at reservations that have limited resources and boundaries; some tribes have been involved in coal mining in the Southwest, but their water and coal resources have gone to meet other people’s needs and are not sustainable.”
Intertribal COUP, which owns a major stake in NativeEnergy, represents 10 tribes in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota – where the power blowing mostly unharnessed through reservations like Fort Berthold in North Dakota is more than 17,000 times greater than what is being utilized by the tribe’s 65 kilowatt wind turbine, according to Tex Hall, former chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.
Wind energy is able to be produced at a fixed, non-escalating cost for up to 30 years, experts say. The wind potential of the Dakotas has earned the region the moniker: ”The Saudi Arabia of wind.” Tribes in the region have been eager to follow in the footsteps of the Rosebud Sioux, who unveiled the first wind power turbine on Indian land five years ago.
Studies show the average wind speed on the Rosebud reservation is 18 miles per hour (enough to supply 2.4 million kilowatt-hours of electricity in a year). The $1.2 million Rosebud pilot project has been held up as a model for other tribes. But the cost of wind turbines has only been rising in the past several years, Boucher said.
His company and Intertribal COUP are hoping that their efforts on Capitol Hill will pay off, allowing tribes to partner with outside investors while maintaining majority ownership of wind turbine projects.
Someday soon, tribes can become major suppliers of green power to the federal government, the largest consumer of energy in the world, and other markets across the country, Gough said.
Until then, a change in the federal tax credit is the first step, he said.
by: Shadi Rahimi
24 March 2008
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