What's keeping tribes from harnessing their wind energy?

KCET|Chris Clarke|May 2, 2017

The Dakota Access Pipeline goes through some of the windiest parts of the Great Plains, and wind power generation in the Plains States has grown rapidly over the last decade. You might think that wind would offer a viable alternative to fossil fuel development for Plains tribes. But in the rush to develop wind power, the Native peoples of the Plains are being left behind.

While private landowners have enjoyed nearly a decade of Obama-era incentives to develop wind energy, Plains tribes seeking to harness the wind blowing past their lands must contend with several unique obstacles to development that don’t face their neighbors.

Tribes endure extra layers of bureaucracy

Oglala Sioux tribal leaders of the the Rosebud Sioux reservation have been eager to build wind turbines on their lands for more than 20 years, and the tribe installed its own 750-kilowatt turbine in 2002 with help from the firm Native Energy. But plans for the larger Owl Feather War Bonnet wind power facility on the Rosebud Reservation were delayed for so long that the would-be buyers of the plant’s electricity backed out in 2008. That facility has yet to be built.

The reason for the delay? The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which has the legal power to approve or deny development on Indian reservations, sat on the Owl Feather War Bonnet project developers’ lease with the tribe for 18 months before approving it. By then, the tribe’s Power Purchase Agreements with two local utilities had expired.

A General Accounting Office report on the BIA’s tribal energy oversight found that the agency had cost Native communities millions of dollars in lost revenue due to delays and mismanagement.  

Rosebud tribal leaders still consider the 30 megawatt Owl Feather War Bonnet project viable, along with the planned 190-megawatt North Antelope Highlands wind project elsewhere on the reservation. But despite some reforms in the BIA’s lease approval process, both projects remain in limbo.

Land ownership obstacles

Another issue delaying wind development on tribal lands is the complex nature of land ownership on some reservations. The 19th Century Dawes Act assigned commonly held land to individual Native people, and mandated that their descendants should inherit equal shares of the undivided land. Now, a single parcel might have thousands of co-owners, all of whom have to sign off on a project. (Imagine getting thousands of your relatives to agree on anything involving money.)

Some reservations are also checkerboarded with non-Native private land or federal lands, another impediment to wind development.

Complex land ownership makes it harder for wind companies to get funding for their projects in the planning stages, which can make it harder for even the most feasible projects to get off the ground.

Transmission shortages

Delays accentuate a third obstacle. Wind power makes the most financial sense in the rural Plains when the power is sold to consumers in cities. But transmission lines can be few and far between in the northern Plains, and tribes’ non-Native neighbors may well saturate that capacity with their own wind installations before the tribe can get its wind turbines built.

A startlingly small percentage of the nation’s wind energy comes from Native lands, despite the fact that tribal lands are disproportionately blessed with abundant winds. About two dozen Native villages in Alaska have installed wind turbines to help phase out their expensive diesel generators, and 25 wind turbines on the Campo Kumeyaay reservation in California sell power to San Diego, generating some income for the tribe as well.

That’s about it for significant wind development on Native lands in the US. On the Plains, the Cherokee Nation signed a lease late last year on 4,000 acres of tribal land near Newkirk, Oklahoma with wind developer PNE, and it looks as though that project may actually be built, bringing the tribe $1 million a year in lease fees.

Aside from that Cherokee project, Native wind development on the Plains is sparse, and limited to small projects such as the Standing Rock Reservation’s single turbine helping power that tribe’s Sitting Bull College.

Native environmental and cultural concerns

It would be a mistake to characterize all Native peoples on the Great Plains as wind power cheerleaders. Even ardent tribal supporters of windpower concede the notion that modern-day  turbines are obtrusive and can interfere with viewsheds, as well as cultural resources under threat from heavy equipment. The potential for wildlife mortalities from turbines is a significant concern as well, especially given the importance of hawks and eagles to many Plains tribes.

Not far from the Cherokee Nation, for instance, the Osage Nation has taken wind developers to court over harm to the tribe’s culturally important viewshed and local wildlife. “The prairie,” Osage Nation Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear told Tulsa World, “is a rare and delicate and endangered ecosystem. And these wind farms are destroying it. We’re going to continue the fight.”

And outside the Plains, the Campo Kumeyaay has opposed at least one large proposed wind development on its lands, citing concerns about the environment and public safety.

Nonetheless, it seems inevitable that Great Plains tribes will become more involved in generating wind energy. Aside from the need for economic development on Native lands, which are some of the least affluent places in the country, Native people in the United States are the most likely demographic to live without any electrical power at all. Jumping from no electricity to 100 percent renewable electricity is a laudable goal indeed — as long as that jump happens in a way that works for Native people.


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