Native American Wind Energy Projects and Training

Reader Contribution by Brenna Long
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It’s interesting how one conversation leads to another.

A few weeks ago I talked to Henry Red Cloud from Lakota Solar Enterprises in Pine Ridge, S.D. This interview showed me the variety of different renewable energy projects happening on reservations in South Dakota.

Red Cloud himself has started his own business and training center, which I talk about more in Henry Red Cloud Returns to Native American Reservation, Starts Business and Renewable Energy Training Center.

Besides his projects in Pine Ridge, S.D., Red Cloud has worked with outside organizations and helped other reservations make use of renewable energy resources, especially wind. Trees, Water and People (TWP) and Intertribal Council on Utility Policy (COUP) have both worked with Red Cloud on energy projects.

Catching the Breeze in South Dakota

While wind energy is now starting to pop up all over the country, Red Cloud is helping tribal communities build turbines of their own.

The group Trees, Water and People, a nonprofit out of Ft. Collins, Colo., has developed a Tribal Lands Renewable Energy program that has aided Red Cloud in his endeavors.

Liz Sutherland, the Tribal Lands program coordinator, took the time to explain how they are involved in making renewable energy projects happen on reservations.

She joined the program in 2007, four year after it was created. Before Trees, Water and People, Sutherland worked in environmental education, so she had little experience with renewable energy and tribal lands.

Seeing the land and the people gave her a deeper understanding of how her work could help the people on the reservation.

“It is shocking how different it is,” Sutherland says. “You can see how much they are still the Lakota culture.”

While she was visiting, she could feel the sense of family and the value they placed on the land. Along with that, they still speak their own language. These aspects add depth to the job Sutherland has of helping the tribe develop renewable energy projects.

“The more you know about the culture, the more complicated it is,” she says.

The history and policies within the tribe have to be considered with every project. Sutherland says all she can do is keep trying to understand so she can be a bridge between cultures. And without Red Cloud, Sutherland says the bridge would not be possible.

“I don’t think it would work otherwise,” she says. “There is a history of people just coming and doing things. Sometimes the people just stop listening to them.”

One project called the Little Thunder Project transformed one family’s home into a demonstration of various renewable energy technologies. The home of Cecil and Rosie Little Thunder has a solar air heater, solar panels and a small wind turbine.

The Little Thunder family opened its doors to be a visiting center and learning opportunity for anyone who wants to learn more about renewable energy.

Talking to the communities is a big part of the whole process. That and in-person demonstrations let people learn about the technology. (This depends on individual circumstances, including available incentives.) Red Cloud helped install the turbine at the Little Thunder home and there is another turbine at the resource center in Pine Ridge. The full cost of the 1.8-kilowatt turbine came to about $12,000 without any tax incentives. That turbine is used for training purposes at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center. Another exciting wind energy project is taking place at the radio station, KILI-FM, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which will be operating off of wind energy after the dedication July 31.

Wind Energy Across the Nation

As I continued to learn more about tribal wind energy projects, I got the chance to talk with Robert Gough from COUP, an organization working with multiple Native American tribes, about how reservations are using wind energy.

Gough said the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota has been getting ready for wind energy for decades. The reservation started researching turbines in 1995, and eight years later, in February of 2003, the first utility-scale Native American wind turbine went up on the Rosebud Sioux Native American Reservation in South Dakota. The 750-kilowatt NEG MICON turbine came after the tribe applied for a grant from the Department of Energy in 1998.

“This was an opportunity to test resources and interest,” Gough says.

This project then spurred more interest, especially because of the job market it could create. The goal was to use the energy to power the casino and motel in the community and then sell the excess energy to the local power plant and Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City, S.D., 160 miles away.

Even though that sounds ideal, Gough says entering the energy marketplace has been a very slow process.

“The companies selling the power aren’t willing to give that market up,” Gough says.

The future for tribal wind energy continues to grow despite setbacks.

“There are a lot of plans happening,” Gough says. “They have measured and decided they have the resources.”

Eight different reservations have plans for wind energy, including the Hopi tribe in Arizona and other tribes in Alaska. The Navajo Nation also just announced in May that it would be building nearly 300 turbines near Flagstaff, Ariz.

Above: The granddaughters of Rose Little Thunder, the host of the Little Thunder Clean Energy Education Partnership demonstration project on the Rosebud Reservation, sit out by the wind turbine installed by Lakota Solar Enterprises (top). Visitors to the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center view the SkyStream 3.7, a 2kW residential-scale wind turbine (bottom). Photos by Trees, Water & People.

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