South Dakota Sioux Tribe Rides The Wind
via: asktheroad@ yahoo.com
A South Dakota tribe's utility rides the wind to a brighter and cleaner
By Carlye Adler
Sioux official Tony Rogers
(Photo: Ray Ng)
Tony Rogers is a member of the rose-bud Sioux tribe who lives on the tribe's
South Dakota reservation. He doesn't have an engineering degree, hasn't
worked for a power station, and has never invested in the energy markets.
Yet Rogers is an entrepreneur at the cutting edge of green energy
development. He is director of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Utility
Commission-the group responsible for building the first wind turbine on a
Native American reservation.
Rogers's reservation, located in Rosebud, S.D., is dependent on electricity
from Basin Electric Power Cooperative, a Midwestern utility that generates
most of its power from coal. Basin produces more carbon dioxide per
megawatt-hour than any other utility in the country, according to a recent
report by a national coalition of environmental groups. At the same time,
the Great Plains states have enough wind to generate roughly 2c times the
total electricity consumed each year in the U.S., all of it pollution-free,
says John Dunlop of the American Wind Energy Association, based in
Although wind energy is a $2-billion-a-year industry in the U.S., it
provides less than 1% of the country's total electricity. That is about to
increase, though. Wind is the world's fastest-growing energy technology,
according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Thanks to plummeting costs (at
around 4 cents a kilowatt-hour after subsidies, wind energy can be less
expensive than that produced by some new fossil-fuel power plants),
installed capacity increased 36% last year-enough to light the city of
The Rosebud Sioux stumbled on the idea of converting their wind into
electricity in the mid-1980s, when they started looking for a low-cost
energy source and discovered that the wind on their reservation could
theoretically power one-twelfth of the U.S. "Our jaws dropped," says Robert
Gough, secretary of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy (ICOUP), a
consortium of tribes in the Great Plains. "We had a tremendous resource with
The project took more than eight years and cost $1.2 million. "We wanted to
show that a tribe can own something 100% and benefit from it 100%," says
Rogers. Rosebud Sioux hired a Lakewood, Colo., company, Disgen, to install a
750-kilowatt, 190-foot-tall wind turbine-enough to power 220 homes. Initial
financing came from a Department of Energy grant and a loan from the U.S.
Rural Utility Service.
By creating a cheaper battery for hybrid cars, T/J Technologies hopes to put
more of the energy-saving vehicles on the road. The Ann Arbor, Mich.,
18-person firm is working with the Army to create a lithium-ion battery that
will be more efficient than existing nickel-based ones. "Because of its high
cost, the battery is the obstacle to mass commercialization of hybrid
electric vehicles," says CEO Maria Thompson (above). T/J has procured some
$17 million in contracts from the Army, NASA, and others. The firm is about
two years from its goal.
The tribal commission completed its wind turbine with the help of an an
unusual financing mechanism known as "green tags." Under Department of
Energy rules, the environmental benefits of electricity from renewable
sources such as biomass, solar, and wind can be split off from the actual
electricity and sold in the form of a renewable-energy certificate, or green
tag. Each tag represents one mega-watt of clean energy. Much like the
carbon-emissions credits that are becoming popular in Europe, green tags can
be traded on the commodities market. In addition, individuals or companies
without access to clean energy can buy green tags to offset their dirty
energy consumption. Green tags not only help entities such as the Rosebud
Sioux commission raise money for alternative-energy projects but can also
have direct economic value. In the growing number of states that require
utilities to generate a certain percentage of their electricity from
renewable sources, for example, power companies can buy green tags to help
meet their renewable-energy quotas.
As construction was beginning in 2001, the commission teamed up with
NativeEnergy, an alternative-energy broker and marketer in Charlotte, Vt.
NativeEnergy offered to buy up front most of the green tags that would be
generated over the life of the Rosebud Sioux project. The company in turn
sold the tags to a variety of green-friendly organizations, including Ben &
Jerry's, Clif Bar, the Dave Mathews Band, and the Natural Resources Defense
Council. Green-tag sales raised about $250,000-25% of the cost of the
Rosebud Sioux turbine. Ben & Jerry's isn't exactly a utility, so what does
it get out of buying green tags? Great publicity. "It solidified what our
brand stands for and why people buy our product," says natural resources
manager Andrea Asch. "The investment comes back fourfold in recognition."
Today each wind-kilowatt that Rosebud Sioux sells into the local grid
reduces Basin Electric's dirty-energy production by the same amount. Over
the next 25 years Rosebud electricity will replace 50,000 tons of carbon
dioxide, an amount equal to the emissions from 8,300 cars over the same
period. The tribe hopes that the turbine will also generate revenue and jobs
for the reservation, where unemployment is running at 82%, according to
tribal estimates. Since the turbine's 150-foot blades started spinning last
March, the tribe has inked an agreement to sell some of its power to a local
Air Force base. And that's just the beginning.
The Rosebud Sioux commission is now planning a 30-megawatt wind farm with 18
wind turbines that is expected to go online next January. "Our goal is to
become a service provider for this area and cities that are farther away,"
says Rogers. He sees energy as a better alternative to the reservation's
current cash cow, its casino. "The wind farm will generate more funds, and
wind is more reliable than people's pockets," he explains. "And besides,
it's cleaner money."