PINE RIDGE RESERVATION – It’s said that anything worth having is worth waiting for. If that’s the case, Lyle Jack has put in more than his fair share of time envisioning wind turbines on this Oglala homeland; now he’s ready to see his dream of having the largest renewable energy source on the Northern Plains start benefiting his people.
The longtime economic development researcher has announced that the Oglala Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes are on the cusp of establishing a joint 570-megawatt wind energy project that will straddle 2 reservations and provide millions of dollars of income to both tribes.
“I’ve been at this for so long,” explained Jack.” When I started, it was dark. And now I see light at the end of the tunnel. You can actually see the opening of the tunnel now and we’re getting ready to go through it.”
That tunnel Jack refers to is the 14 years from when he was first approached by a South Dakota wind energy developer until now, when 6 tribal nations in the state have established a business relationship with one of the largest wind turbine operators in the country.
While chairman of the Economic and Business Development Committee of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council (2004-2006), Jack began researching wind energy and how it could help his people. Although there was initial interest by a local developer to build a 400-megawatt wind farm on the Pine Ridge Reservation at Cuny Table, to lease the land and pay royalties to the tribe, the project was placed on hold while the Bureau of Indian Affairs researched what fair market royalty payments for the tribe would be and what actions were necessary for the tribe to acquire 10 percent of royalties from the project.
The 3-year delay this caused saw plans for the project fall through.
“After that, I took it upon myself to do more research on renewable and wind energy,” Jack recalled, “and I was hired by the tribe as an economic development manager. I learned we have some of the best wind in the United States. That led me to ask why we couldn’t develop a project on our own. I looked around for contacts in the field, but at the time there were very few. There were a lot of big companies, but it was hard to make contact with them.”
Notwithstanding, Jack did have some success after sending out RFPs (Request For Proposals) to a number of companies.
“But all the responses we got back were from developers interested in owning the project,” Jack commented, “and the tribe would have no say in it. That’s not what we were looking for. We were looking for something that we could develop and own ourselves.”
It was at this point that Jack received a call from North Dakota attorney and Standing Rock Sioux tribal member Chase Iron Eyes, who advised that his tribe was also interested in developing a wind energy project, as were the Cheyenne River, Rosebud and Crow Creek Sioux tribes. This resulted in an informal meeting of representatives of those tribes.
“We figured out that we were all running into the same barrier,” Jack commented, “which was a lack of investment and a lack of trust of our court systems. And all the developers we spoke to wanted to own the project and just pay the tribes royalty payments. This was around 2009…2010.”
Shortly afterwards, Jack was introduced to former North Dakota senator and attorney Byron Dorgan, who was working with a law firm in Washington, D.C. at the time. Dorgan offered his assistance to the South Dakota tribes in any economic development ventures they might choose to explore.
Dorgan’s offer led to a 2011 meeting in D.C. that brought together tribal representatives and wind energy experts.
“They gave us an overview of what the whole field was about and how it works,” Jack explained. “And they told us that all of our projects were too small…100 megawatts or 50 megawatts. They said, We’re not really interested in that. But if you were to go big with a project over 500 megawatts, or maybe even a gigawatt, that would draw interest.”
For those unfamiliar with the terminology, a megawatt is 1000 kilowatts. A kilowatt is what you run your home on, while a gigawatt is 1000 megawatts.
“One hundred megawatts will power 50,000 homes,” explained Jack. “So, 10 times that, a gigawatt, is 500,000 homes.”
Rather than have all those wind turbines on one reservation, the tribes decided to combine their wind resources and pitch the idea.
“In 2015, we came together through resolutions of each tribe and formed the Oceti Sakowin Power Authority,” explained Jack, “consisting of 6 tribes, and decided it would be a Section 17 corporation. Section 17 under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 allows tribes to federally charter a corporation under their umbrella and to own it. So, that is what we’ve done, and we came up with our own bylaws and a board of directors.”
Lyle Jack is now chairman of that board. The 6 tribes involved are the Rosebud, Flandreau, Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Yankton and Oglala. The Crow Creek tribe dropped out of the group along the way.
Through the efforts of the late Bob Gough, president of ICOUP (Intertribal Council on Utility Policy), the Power Authority’s plans were presented to Bill Clinton during a Clinton Global initiative gathering.
“That’s where we went public,” advised Jack. “And President Clinton went on stage and said that our project was one of his favorites.”
Clinton’s recognition sparked more interest in the group’s efforts to bring wind energy to their reservations and eventually resulted in having plans for a tribal wind farm project introduced to Apex Clean Energy, a Virginia-based company.
“And they were, at the time, the largest operator of wind turbines in the U.S.,” observed Jack. “They were genuinely interested, and they had never developed a partnership with any other organization. They were like everybody else…they owned and operated their own wind farms. But they were interested in our project, mainly because of the wind resources we have and the land resources we have. We negotiated with them for about a year and finally came to an agreement in 2016 where we would own 51% of the project and they would own 49% of the project.”
At this point, the Oceti Sakowin Power Authority and Apex have partnered as “7G (Generations) Renewable Energy” to start construction on a 2-part project: a 120-megawatt wind farm at Pass Creek, near the Allen area of the Pine Ridge Reservation, and a 450-megawatt wind farm on the Cheyenne River Reservation. The Cheyenne River project is larger due to its access to greater transmission capacity at the Oahe Dam. The Pine Ridge project will access a power line near the village of Martin.
“We’re about to put up three anemometer towers at Pass Creek and five on the Cheyenne River Reservation to gauge wind speeds,” explained Jack. “That will take one year. Then two “SODAR” (SOnic Detection And Ranging) meteorological units will be placed on the ground at Pass Creek to register wind speeds.”
Avian studies will also be conducted to determine bird counts in the area in order to ensure that birds, especially eagles, won’t be harmed by the wind turbines.
“Eagles can fly over,” explained Jack, “but they can’t have any nests there.”
After studies are completed, financing will be acquired. Construction is projected to begin late in 2020 with a 6 to 9 month estimated completion time. If all goes as planned, Jack anticipates the farms will begin producing power in late 2021.
Both locations will be connected to the electrical grid separately but will be owned by Oceti Sakowin Power Authority with the energy from both locations being sold as combined power. It’s estimated that the project will provide 200 construction jobs on Pine Ridge, and about 20 permanent jobs for operation and maintenance of the wind farm.
“And we plan to utilize as much tribal membership as we can,” Jack explained. “We’re also going to be providing training programs and certification programs.”
Although neither wind farm will provide energy to the immediate areas, Jack estimates the project will provide $9 million to the Oglala Sioux Tribe in taxes even before construction starts, and another $6 million to $7 million from sales taxes on the 35 wind turbines that will be erected on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Tax revenue from the Cheyenne River project’s 100 wind turbines would be substantially higher.
Actual revenue from the wind farm operation has yet to be determined, but Jack anticipates $8 million to $9 million per year for the Oglala tribe for 30 years (the average life of the turbines).
“We’re proposing that the tribe utilize that revenue to create their own community based renewable energy farms, such as wind based or solar,” Jack explained. “And part of our mission statement is to help them do that. So, if the tribe agrees, we would go ahead and take the revenue and set up community- based energy projects for them that would connect directly into their homes.”
The Oceti Sakowin Power Authority is scheduled to meet with representatives of Apex in February to formally sign their agreement on the project.
Meanwhile, Lyle Jack sees this as a fulfillment of what many tribes have been trying to do for many years to help care for Mother Earth.
“When the Dakota Access Pipeline was being protested at Standing Rock, one of the things that came out was some people saying ‘Well, maybe the tribes need to put their money where their mouth is if they’re so concerned about the environment,” recalled Jack. “Well, this project shows that we’re putting our money where our mouth is.”
For more information on the Oceti Sakowin Power Authority, go to: www.ospower.org
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