Native Americans Find True Home in Renewable Energy
By RONA FRIED, Ph.D.
A recent development in renewable energy projects that’s caught my eye is the increasing involvement among Native American tribes.
Six Sioux tribes are collaborating to build the biggest wind complex in the United States — and one of the world’s largest — in South Dakota. Their plan is for an interconnected grid of wind farms to span at least six reservations with 1 to 2 gigawatts (GW) of capacity.
They are using an innovative model to finance the project, expected to cost between $1.75 billion and $3 billion. They are creating a “Multi-Tribal Power Authority,” which will sell bonds. Rather than using private equity, where investors own the project and expect double-digit returns, a bond issue taps low rates and keeps ownership in tribal hands.
“This will be a first in many respects,” the tribes said in a joint statement. “The first use of public power bonds in a project of this type; the first time multiple tribes have cooperated in an economic development project of this size and scope; the first new joint municipal power authority formed in the United States in decades. And it will be a market-driven initiative that doesn’t rely on federal tax credits — start-up costs will be funded by private grants and investments and project development costs will be fully funded by Power Authority bonds. It is our hope that this project may become a model for the development of wind power and other forms of renewable energy across the United States, both on and off Native Lands.”
In its press release, the organization says, “We are honored to have this opportunity to pursue our sacred trust as responsible stewards of the earth, not only on the Mother Land of our tribes, but also as members of the global community.”
The nations view solar and wind projects as a way to provide for their communities without resorting to casinos, and in a way that fits with their traditional values.
“Moreover, developing our renewable energy resources will make a significant contribution in addressing the global crisis in climate change,” the joint statement continues. Together, our tribes cover 16 percent of the total land area of South Dakota, and have the capacity to develop as much as 58 GW of power while producing zero emissions.”
Five tribes are teaming up to develop the largest wind farm on U.S. tribal land. A 90-turbine, 153-megawatt (MW) wind farm in Oklahoma will cover 6,000 acres, half owned by the Cherokee Nation and the other half on lands owned by the Kaw Nation, Otoe-Missouria Tribe, Pawnee Nation and Ponca Nation. The project will meet tribal electricity demand with excess to spare for the grid. It will also establish a Native American Green Tag market.
Construction is by PNE Wind USA, which will own half the equity along with the Cherokee Nation. “The Cherokee Nation expects to play a key role in Oklahoma’s emerging wind energy industry,” says Bill John Baker, Cherokee Nation chief. “The Cherokee Nation is committed to grow- ing the Oklahoma economy, helping reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and creating green jobs for our people in the renewable energy sector.”
The Cherokee Nation expects to gain skills in wind farm development and maintenance, and they plan to form a business entity that helps other tribes develop their own wind projects.
Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT)
CERT consists of 57 Native American tribes that signed a long-term agreement to develop $3 billion in biofuels and bioenergy projects across tribal lands in California. The Thunderbird project will cover 750,000 acres of agricultural land and CERT expects to build 10 biorefineries over the next 10 to 15 years, to supply renewable jet fuel and diesel.
The objective is to develop the projects using tenets of sustainability that preserve Native American heritage, emphasize social equity and environmental risk management, while creating jobs and profits for all stakeholders.
Moapa Band of Paiute Indians
The Moapa Reservation in Nevada spans 70,000 acres, and the tribe has plans for as much as 1.5 GW of renewable energy projects that will sell excess energy to utilities across the Southwest. Their first project is a utility-scale solar plant. At 250 MW, it will serve 100,000 households.
The project is being developed with assistance from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Tribal Energy program, but all projects will be majority owned by the Moapa Band. They are decommissioning a coal plant, and natural gas will supplement solar instead.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Interior approved the Moapa Solar Energy Center, a 200-MW plant that consists of half solar photovoltaics and half concentrating thermal. One of the first large-scale solar projects on tribal lands, it is being built on 2,000 acres on the Moapa River Indian Reservation and on federal lands.
“Generating clean, emissions-free solar power on our reservation has long been a goal of the Moapa people, and is true to our heritage of environmental consciousness, respect for the Earth and reverence of our sacred lands,” says Eric Lee, vice chair, Moapa Band of Paiutes.
Rona Fried, Ph.D., is president of Sustainable Business.com, a thought leader on green business known for its daily news and Green Dream Jobs service since 1996.