Wind energy in Indian country: a study of the challenges and opportunities facing South Dakota tribes.

AuthorGarry, Patrick M.

    The proliferation of wind energy as a viable alternative to fossil based fuels used in the production of electricity is well documented. (1) While media reports on the influx of wind power farms often shed a positive light on the use of wind for generating electricity, few reports have squarely addressed the challenges faced by states, municipalities, and investors in implementing such projects. Even fewer reports have recognized the difficulties Indian tribes face when attempting to develop wind power facilitates in Indian country. This article outlines the special challenges and potential benefits Indian tribes may experience when attempting to navigate the bureaucratic and economic obstacles that exist when implementing such a project.

    The Owl Feather War Bonnet wind energy project being pursued by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe provides an opportunity to analyze the legal obstacles that may need to be overcome when a tribe develops an operational wind power facility in Indian country. (2) Such an analysis begins by identifying the opportunities that wind power production provides for tribes. Next, an outline of the challenges associated with the implementation of such a project is presented. This includes an examination of the economic realities surrounding wind power production, as well as the identification of some particular challenges that exist for Indian tribes. This article concludes with a summary of the measures tribes can take when attempting to bring a successful wind power production facility into Indian country.



      Indian country has the potential to produce a significant portion of the electricity consumed in the United States. (3) An expressed goal of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in developing the Owl Feather War Bonnet facility is to produce an economic stimulus for the Tribe through the export of electricity to meet the country's rising demand. (4) This economic boost to the Tribe would come not only from the sale of the electricity produced or the fee generated from the leasing of the land to an outside investor, but also from the construction and maintenance of the facilities. (5)

      The size of the wind farm has a large impact on the amount of revenue generated. (6) The Owl Feather War Bonnet Wind Farm will be a 30 Megawatt (MW) facility. (7) This facility will produce enough electricity to power 7,500 homes without creating any appreciable carbon dioxide emissions. (8) These facts, in concert, create the impetus for attempting to overcome the significant challenges that exist when undertaking such an endeavor. (9)


      A unique characteristic of Indian country in the Great Plains is the presence of a "phenomenal wind resource." (10) This resource, combined with millions of acres of unobstructed land, (11) creates an ideal environment for harnessing the wind's power. (12) Tribal entities have identified this resource as a potential solution to a fluctuating revenue stream and have made it a priority to pursue wind power facilities in hopes of alleviating some of the adverse affects associated with their current economic situation.

      The Owl Feather War Bonnet Project is representative of the push tribes are making to implement wind power facilities in Indian country and illustrates some of the tensions that exist in bringing such a project to fruition. The Owl Feather War Bonnet Project is located on the Rosebud Sioux Tribe's trust lands near St. Francis, South Dakota, and is unique in several respects. (13) First, it will be the first large scale wind power facility in the Midwest to be located exclusively in Indian country. (14) Additionally, it is in an ideal location because: it is located in an area with a low population density; (15) it is projected to have a minimal impact on wildlife; (16) and the particular site identified has little to no cultural significance to the members of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. (17) The same characteristics that make this site ideal, however, also result in difficulty transmitting the power produced. Because this site near St. Francis, South Dakota, is sparsely populated and geographically isolated, the power produced there must be transmitted great distances to larger population concentrations that can use the electricity. (18) Consequently, high transmission expenses are part of the reality of locating a wind power facility in this area. (19)



    There are several preliminary steps that must be completed before construction on a wind facility can begin. These include conducting a wind assessment to determine whether the amount of wind in the area is sufficient, an ethnographic study to determine whether the site has any cultural significance, an ecological study to determine whether wildlife would suffer any adverse affects, and the courting of private investors to provide expertise and financial backing. These challenges require extensive time and study before any conclusions can be drawn. Consequently, the results of the studies that were conducted for the Owl Feather War Bonnet Project took many years to be completed, which itself further increased the costs of implementation. (20) In addition, the federal power grid poses an obstacle to the exportation of electricity from South Dakota. (21) Examining these three integral studies sheds light on some of the obstacles that are inherent in pursuing a project in Indian country. While these three studies do not represent an exhaustive list of those that may have to be completed, they do provide a basic representation of those necessary.

    1. Required Site Studies

      The first study often undertaken when pursuing a wind power facility is intended to identify the wind resource present at a particular site. This is the first crucial step in determining whether a wind project may be economically viable. (22) This starts with measuring the wind resource as soon as development becomes an option. Investors require that accurate data be accumulated before entertaining proposals for implementation. The more information a tribe has, or the longer they have been collecting wind data, the more likely it is that a developer will agree to undertake some of the costs of any additional studies that may be required. (23) Measuring this resource often requires an anemometer study at the site before such a determination can be made. (24) This is actually beneficial for the tribe as collecting wind data through anemometers is one of the smaller expenses involved.

      The wind assessment at the Owl Feather War Bonnet site was conducted by placing anemometers on an existing radio tower at heights of thirty, forty, and sixty-five meters. (25) These anemometers, or devices used for measuring wind potential, were put in place in May 2001. (26) The data was collected by "utilizing an NRG 9300 Data Logger System." (27) The conclusion drawn from over five years of data collected was that the wind resource at this site was "excellent" and "support[ed] project financing." (28) The rating given to the site was a Class 5. (29) This desination identifies the site as having very high energy production potential. (30) As such, developing wind power in the area was economically viable based on the wind rose, wind shear, peak wind speeds, and turbulence intensity. (31)

      The next study that is often conducted is an ethnographic study. An ethnographic study, which identifies the customs and beliefs of a people, is crucial when conducting an assessment of a wind site in Indian country given the potential for a designated location to have some cultural significance. (32) The ethnographic study conducted at the Owl Feather War Bonnet site determined that the land had some cultural significance. (33) This significance, however, was not to such an extent as to justify tabling the project as unworkable. (34) Instead, special precautions were taken to ensure that measures were in place to protect any artifacts that may be discovered. (35) Having added these precautions, "[n]o impacts to cultural resources [were] expected form [sic] the proposed action." (36)

      The ecological study administered attempted to determine the total effect this project may have on the indigenous wildlife in the area. A project of this size unavoidably displaces a certain amount of flora and fauna, so the goal became to mitigate the impacts at the project site. (37) One aspect of particular cultural importance was the displacement or killing of birds of prey. (38) While some avian mortality must be expected from the constant churning of large blades...

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