Why tribes may be key players in eco-energy

An effort to transform American Indian tribes into the world’s new energy barons is being nurtured at a company founded by a Puget Sound region Indian.

Native Green Energy, formed in October, is building wind turbines and delivering them to Indian tribes that will use the energy to power their own reservations and will sell energy to nearby cities and other governments.

“This is a great source of economic development, and it increases our sovereignty as tribal nations,” said Gary Davis, a Seattle-based Cherokee Indian and co-founder of Native Green Energy.

Much of the country’s available wind power can be harnessed on Indian reservations, Davis said. According to Patrick Spears, president of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, roughly one-fourth of the energy needed to light and heat homes and other buildings in the United States could be generated by just eight tribes on their reservations in the Midwest.

As technology advances, tribes with reservations in areas where wind patterns are less predictable, including the northern Puget Sound region, could harness enough wind to power their own homes, casinos and other buildings, with enough left over to sell to local cities and other governments, Spears said.

The Tulalip Tribes have considered harnessing wind energy in past years, but technology at the time demanded wind conditions more stable than what’s found on their reservation, said Terry Williams of the tribes’ Natural Resources Department.

“Now, the potential is there,” Williams said. “It could work.”

The Tulalip Tribes don’t have plans to build a wind farm, but as tribes around the country create their own utility companies, it’s possible that the Tulalips could join the effort, Williams said.

Davis plans to market his model to tribes in the Northwest, many of which have casino profits that could bolster fledgling utility companies. Tribes without casino cash will be able to access financing through Native Green Energy.

The company has four shareholders, most of which are Indian, Davis said. With private funds, it is partnering with a turbine manufacturing plant in Vermont.

This summer, Native Green Energy will deliver turbines to the Passamaquoddy Tribe on Maine’s coastline, said Jon Ahlbrand, a co-founder of the company. At least two turbines will be placed on Passamaquoddy reservation land. Others will be placed on land owned individually by tribal members or on nontrust land owned by the tribal government. By year’s end, the tribe could have between six and eight turbines in operation, Ahlbrand said.

It costs about $380,000 to build and install one turbine. The turbines will generate enough power for about 10 percent of the tribe’s homes. The tribe also plans to sell power to a nearby utility company.

Other tribes are building their own wind farms.

The Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota in 2003 installed a 750-kilowatt wind turbine. The 190-foot-tall turbine generates enough power for 220 homes.

Now, the tribe has plans for a wind farm that could generate between 30 and 50 megawatts of power — enough for nearly 15,000 homes. According to the tribe, wind harnessed on its land could, in theory, power up to one-twelfth of the United States.

Yakama Power, the utility owned by the Yakama Nation, began monitoring wind speeds on its reservation a little more than a year ago. Yakama Power provides energy, purchased from the Bonneville Power Administration, to the tribe’s casino, sawmill, administration building and health clinic and some housing.

Wind power in the Northwest is intermittent, said Scott Simms, a spokesman for the Bonneville Power Administration. That means when the wind isn’t blowing, wind customers are forced to feed off other power sources, including the BPA’s hydro power.

The BPA last month agreed to raise costs for wind power customers to account for breeze-free days.

“If a tribal nation decides to go off the grid, that’s within their rights and abilities to do so, but power portfolios can be tricky,” Simms said, adding that tribes should maintain diversity in their power sources to avoid an energy crisis if the wind doesn’t blow or water dries up.

Spears believes that wind power soon will emerge as one of the country’s most reliable energy sources, with tribes leading the way.

“Hydropower was a once-renewable resource, but there’s less snowpack and rain,” he said. “And coal power has contributed the most of any industry to global warming.”

Davis said Native Green Energy wants tribal governments to manage wind farms.

“White guys in suits show up and say, ‘We’ll handle it,’ and then our tendency is to turn over the keys to the kingdom,” Davis said.

San Diego Gas and Electric leases land with a 25-turbine wind farm from the Camp Indian Tribe in southern California.

Davis wants tribes to avoid that model. In Maine, the Passamaquoddy tribe will use a complete system provided by Native Green Energy, provide energy to tribal members, then profit from selling extra energy locally.

Reporter Krista J. Kapralos: 425-339-3422 or kkapralos@heraldnet.com.

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