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Native American Interview: Dave Danz, Grand Portage Band of Chippewa

Dave Danz

Dave Danz is a planner with the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa.

Native American Interview: Dave Danz, Grand Portage Band of Chippewa

Date: 11/13/2008

Location: MN

Dave Danz has been a tribal planner since 1978 and a planner with the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa in northeast Minnesota since 2006. He is, as he puts it, "A white guy in Indian Country with no background in wind energy." Until recently, that is.

A Minnesota Department of Commerce study concluded that the north shore of Lake Superior did not have a wind resource capable of generating electricity. To the folks who lived in the area, that finding seemed counterintuitive.

We'll let Dave pick up the story from there.

Q. How did you become interested in wind development?

A. Dr. Michael Mageau, assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth and director of the Center for Sustainable Community Development (CSCD), decided to determine the validity of the state of Minnesota's study. In January 2004, CSCD and Grand Portage staff mounted an anemometer and a data recorder at 20 meters on the fire lookout tower at Mount Maude, elevation 1,754 feet. Although not ideal — wind data is more reliable at heights of at least 50 meters above the ground — the study indicated that a 1.5- to 2-megawatt (MW) wind energy project was viable on the Grand Portage reservation.

In 2006, I attended the Wind Energy Applications Training Symposium (WEATS) organized by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). WEATS is an opportunity to observe large and small wind systems in operation in the field, meet with leaders in the U.S. wind energy industry, and get acquainted with Native American tribal citizens and attendees from other countries.

Among many other valuable things, I learned that NREL has an anemometer loan program through which the tribe could borrow equipment capable of gathering accurate and comprehensive wind data. We hired Northern States Tower Service to install the equipment in January 2007. This time, the anemometers were mounted at 30, 50, and 80 meters off the ground on TV towers on Mount Maude.

The data indicate that we have average wind speeds of about 18 miles an hour — an excellent wind resource. In fact, it's possible that the site could produce up to 50 MW, and it takes just 1 MW to run the village of Grand Portage.

Q. What are the steps a tribe and its partners must take in developing a wind project?

A. First, they must analyze the potential sites for the installation. Some of the questions they might ask include: Who owns the land? Is it accessible? Is the project politically and spiritually acceptable to the tribe?

Next, the wind development team should conduct a detailed wind assessment. I encourage tribes to take advantage of the NREL WEATS training and anemometer loan program to help reduce the costs of assessing their wind resource.

Once they are confident that they have a wind resource worth developing, the team must secure the site, negotiate or execute leases, establish rights-of-way, etc. They must also perform a transmission interconnection study to establish how they will distribute the power from the turbines to the utility grid and develop power purchase agreements with the entities that will buy the electricity the turbines produce.

Before construction can begin, the team will also have to conduct an environmental assessment at the site and obtain the necessary permits. In addition, engineering reports and construction cost estimates are necessary to secure financing. Other tasks include selecting turbines and negotiating agreements with vendors, arranging financing, attracting investors, and working out development/ownership/management agreements. And after construction of the wind energy facility is completed, there are ongoing operation and maintenance tasks.

Throughout this process, it is critical that everyone involved focus on protecting tribal interests. Wind development can be an economic boon to a tribe if all the participants share that value from the beginning.

Although all of this sounds pretty daunting, there are organizations that help tribes work through the process.

Q. Where is the Grand Portage Band in this process?

A.We are in talks with Citizens Energy about helping us develop a wind project. We are also working on access to transmission lines, and have assessments to do at different sites to ensure that the wind resource is consistent.

Q. What are the biggest challenges to getting wind energy projects installed on native lands and under native ownership?

A. At the beginning, the challenges for a tribe are typically internal. The first step is educating people so that they understand the benefits — both economic and environmental — of generating electricity from the wind. Then the tribe must find partners who can help complete each of the steps cited above.

For us, the WEATS training was critical, and NREL's anemometer loan was significant. Knowing that we had reliable technical resources to call on helped to move the process along and reduce our anxiety level about taking on such a big project. The contacts we made at WEATS were invaluable.

Q. What is the timeline for the Grand Portage project?

A. We are still a couple of years out from getting investors in on a project. As an initial effort, it seems that a 1- to 2-MW project is probably manageable from the tribe's perspective.

Q. How are these projects financed?

A.One of the real deficiencies in U.S. energy policy is the lack of funding for clean energy projects. The benefits of these projects for all concerned would seem to argue for more robust funding opportunities. This is particularly true for resource assessment and feasibility studies.

Q. Can other tribal citizens interested in exploring the possibility of developing their own wind resources contact you?

A. Sure. Using the wind to supply energy for use in our daily lives does not require sending young warriors to foreign lands or make permanent scars on the land. Nor does it offend gichi-manidoo, the Great Spirit. We encourage other tribal citizens to learn about minwaabaji noodi, "getting use of the power of wind." They can contact me using the information below.

Dave Danz is a tribal planner with the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa. You can reach him at 218.475.2844 or dave.danz@gmail.com.

This information was last updated on November 13, 2008