Tribes Find Power In Wind

Northern Great Plains tribes have come up with an ambitious energy plan that could provide huge amounts of clean energy to North America: tribal wind power.

“We believe the wind is wakan, a holy or great power. Our grandmothers and grandfathers have always talked about it, and we recognize that,” explains Pat Spears, a Lower Brule tribal member who is the president of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, or Intertribal COUP.

On May 1, the first tribally owned wind generator was dedicated on the Rosebud Reservation. That turbine is a model project, and Intertribal COUP hopes it will set the stage for a broad wind generating plan for the tribes in the Great Plains region, bringing at least 3,000 megawatts of power to market in the next decade. This ambitious goal is but a fraction of the over 300 gigawatts of wind power potential found on the Great Plains Indian reservations, equal to almost half of all present US installed electrical capac-ity. The wind power potential on just the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations alone could meet the Kyoto targets for all of North America.

Presently, wind energy is the fastest growing energy source in the country and the world. New plans are sprouting up everywhere, and by and large, those consist of utilities buying wind rights from landholders who have windy lands, and giving those individuals a percentage of the royalties, about 2 or 3 percent, with the rest of the profit going to the utility. Because the only costs for wind turbines are putting them up and some maintenance—but nothing for fuel—the profit margin can be high. That's what Intertribal COUP wants to keep in Indian country. The reservations could provide some of the most cost-efficient wind power in the world, while cutting pollution downwind.

“We have learned with watersheds, that you don't pollute upstream from where you get your drinking water,” says Rosebud Tribal Utility Commission Attorney Bob Gough. The tribes have extended this idea to the “windshed,” a term coined by Inter-tribal COUP to talk about why anyone east of the Great Plains might like to see a bit more wind power and a bit less coal burned. For Great Plains tribes, a clean energy windshed means sustainable homeland economic development (SHED) built upon wind energy.

On the White Earth Reservation, like many other Ojibwe reservations, pollution from coal-fired power plants and incinerators upwind from tribal lands pollutes local waters and reduces the amount of fish that can safely be consumed. That's a huge problem for tribal fishing cultures.

By removing this source of pollution, the tribes could help both themselves and the rest of the country. “Tribal renewable energy development could just come to the service of America, like the Navajo and Lakota code talkers of World War II, and all of those other times that Native people volunteered for service to the United States,” says Bob Gough.

No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.