Winds blow hope to the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe

Tanya Lee, Today correspondent
6/9/09

EAGLE BUTTE, S.D. – Home to four bands of Lakota Sioux, the 2.4 million acre Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in north central South Dakota has tremendous potential for the development of renewable energy generation. The wind blows strong and steady here; the tribe is committed to developing its resources to provide revenues and jobs, and the Obama administration is committed to supporting green energy projects.

Eileen Briggs is president of the board of directors for Ta-tè Topa (Four Winds) Energy, a tribally-owned corporation established to develop wind resources. “Revenues from the sale of our energy, from leases and from our ownership percentage in this project, will help create another revenue source for our tribe and also provide increased services and resources for us to offer our members,” she said.

The tribe has partnered with Citizens Energy Corporation of Boston to develop the proposed 100 to 125 MW wind farm. The nonprofit, explained spokesman Brian O’Connor, has a social as well as an economic mission. “Citizens Energy does not own 100 percent of the project. We give our Native partners a 20 percent ownership right from the start. Also, there are lease and royalty payments.” O’Connor said negotiations with the tribe began about two years ago. Last December, Briggs said, the tribe made a major commitment to resource development by setting up Ta-tè Topa Energy.

The parties have just signed a joint exploratory agreement. “The exploratory joint venture agreement is a five-year arrangement to lay the groundwork for this project,” Briggs said. “We have a stake in the development end of it. This isn’t just a lease agreement where we’re going to get revenues for leasing of lands for turbines. We actually are going to have an opportunity to have a 20 percent interest in the development with a potential to grow that ownership interest over the life of the project.”

About 8,000 tribal members, of a total of roughly 14,000, live on the reservation. “For individual tribal members, one direct benefit is that there will be initial construction jobs – 100 to 200 locally. It’s not long term, but in the short term that is an impact for our individual tribal members and their families, for the reservation as a whole and for the region. We also know this project could create upwards of 20 full-time operation and maintenance positions,” Briggs said.

Not all benefits, however, are monetary. “We’re seeing a lot of people feeling really positive about renewable wind energy development because it’s forward and progressive. Our wind is with us all the time. It means a lot to know that we could have the technology in place and the resources to develop the wind, to make money for the tribe and to create a future-thinking outlook in a place of a lot of despair and hopelessness because there are no jobs.”

O’Connor said the next steps will be to collect and analyze wind data at different elevations, perform required environmental studies and take the project to investors. Federal renewable energy production tax credits, reauthorized by Congress a few months ago, will help attract financing to the project. “Most of the money for the project is expected to come from investors who want to take advantage of production tax credits,” Briggs said. Another potential source of financing is other tribes, particularly gaming tribes that want to diversify their economic development activities.

Financing, transmission capacity and a place to sell the electricity are essential to making a project like this work, and according to Briggs, some changes to federal policies and regulations are needed to level the playing field for Native American tribes looking at renewable energy. “Certain regulations and provisions need to be modified to make tribal lands attractive to investors, such as ensuring that production tax credits can be transferred and really used for projects in Indian country.

“We have to be at the table to promote wind production in Indian country, voicing our preferences, our recommendations and our priorities. We need financial incentives to get onto the existing grid, specifically tax credit allocations and accelerated depreciation for tribal wind production so we can accommodate the lead time that’s needed to get this kind of project going.

“Other issues also affect how Indian country will fare in this new era of green power, such as how the Department of Energy sites new transmission lines. “Then there’s also the issue of federal tribal wind interconnection preference and expedited approval for wind facilities on tribal lands. We need some prioritization of our projects and resolution of transmission line siting issues. Some transmission lines go right through tribal lands. We’re advocating for going beyond federal-tribal consultation, to actually have a voice as those decisions are being made.”

Briggs added that the tribe is “very excited about this opportunity. We’re ready to take this on and we ask for support and good thoughts from Indian country for a project of this size that will benefit not only our local tribes, but possibly the world through its impact on global climate change.”

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