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Native American Interview: Honorable Steven J. Morello, U.S. Department of Energy

Steven J. Morello

Honorable Steven J. Morello, U.S. Department of Energy

Native American Interview: Honorable Steven J. Morello, U.S. Department of Energy

Date: 5/6/2008

Q. In September, U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Samuel W. Bodman announced your appointment as director of DOE's newly formed Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs. What are your plans for this office in the coming months?

A. When I started in September 2007, I knew there was only one way I could do this job. There are almost 565 federally recognized tribes in the United States, and each is a sovereign nation with its own cultural and wisdom traditions. I have only 17 months in this job to assist these tribes with their renewable energy needs.

To promote renewable and sustainable energy growth on tribal lands, it was clear from the beginning that I would have to go to Indian Country and personally meet with tribal leaders and citizens. I knew that for some tribes, cultural and wisdom traditions might mediate against energy development. I needed to understand how renewable energy development could enhance the cultures and economies of specific tribes and communicate that clearly.

I have so far logged almost 40,000 miles just this year traveling in Indian Country. As I anticipated, some Indians are wholeheartedly enthusiastic about renewable energy development and some are still trying to decide if this is for real.

I view my function as educational. I want to make sure that the Indian community accepts the fundamentals of the proposed energy project, encourage them to do comprehensive resource assessments, and help them develop partnerships to develop their renewable resources. These partnerships typically include the tribe, a developer that can take advantage of renewable energy tax credits, and a funding source.

My office has no federal money to help tribes develop their renewable energy resources, but fortunately, these projects are better done with private money. My experience is that tribes that want to develop their energy resources can always find private money, especially if they already have customers lined up to buy the power the project will generate. I also explain to tribes that in addition to selling power, the attendant renewable energy credits and tax credits often make these projects attractive to developers and funders.

I have been heartened by my reception in Indian Country. There are wind projects underway in Indian Country that incorporate the attributes of successful renewable energy ventures: can-do managers, community enthusiasm, and forward-looking leadership. My hope is that I can help these and other projects get on firm footing before I leave office.

Describe the biggest challenges to implementing these plans.

A. When you're an unknown quantity — as I am with many of these tribes — you have to do your homework. I travel to meet with individual tribes and work to gain their trust. Although my office can't offer financial support, I can offer what any good lawyer brings to the table: judgment and trust. When I see a tribe with a great resource and enthusiasm about developing that resource, I want to help the tribe's citizens take the next steps.

The challenges of developing renewable energy projects in Indian Country are similar to the challenges of any energy development project, with a few issues unique to tribes. Although wind and other renewable energy resources often resonate with tribal cultural values, Indian tribes typically have the same issues as other groups when they begin to translate their enthusiasm for clean energy development into policies and projects. My job is to help tribes negotiate that process.

Q. What do you see as the greatest opportunities for tribes in developing wind power?

A.Because large-scale wind developments appear to be the most competitive renewable energy installations at today's prices, I encourage tribes to consider them if they have a good wind resource. I find that the primary motivators for tribes to develop wind projects are similar to any business or organization's motivations, with a couple of uniquely Indian twists.

Tribal sovereignty is a big issue for tribes. Large-scale wind projects offer opportunities for tribes to protect and enhance their sovereignty by calling their own shots, moving toward meaningful self-determination, and developing long-term economic health. Carefully planned and executed large wind projects can create revenue streams far into the future. That kind of economic revitalization helps improve the quality of life among tribal elders and children and can create a sense of hope, thus keeping youth away from drugs and other self-destructive behaviors. It also creates good jobs for tribal citizens.

I encourage tribes to think in terms of incorporating as much value for the tribe as possible in any economic development project, and wind projects are no exception. For example, the tribes should always hold an equity position in the project and never simply lease their land to developers. I also suggest that citizens of the tribe learn to service and even manufacture wind turbines. Tribal colleges can offer instruction in operating and servicing wind equipment and plants.

In this way, the wind installation can enhance economic development on many levels, rather than just producing income from the electricity sold. This scenario is much more in line with tribes' concerns about maintaining sovereignty and is more important to them than just getting money from the federal government.

In addition, many Indians believe deeply that Mother Earth is wounded and that it is their responsibility to heal those wounds. Thus, the spiritual dimensions of using renewable wind resources cannot be overlooked! Wind and other renewable energy technologies offer the power to modernize and revitalize communities without damaging the local and larger environment.

Q. What do you think wind energy in Indian Country will look like in 5 to 10 years? What must happen for this to become a reality?

A. I believe that we could see wind turbines in Indian Country generating as much as 5,000 megawatts in the next 5 to 10 years. As turbines get larger, it will take far fewer turbines to generate the same amount of electricity, and many parts of Indian Country have excellent wind resources.

Wind seems to be most economical renewable energy technology today, but it is an intermittent resource. However, when wind is teamed with a clean source of baseload power — say, water or geothermal — the combination can produce electricity 24 hours a day.

Q. If a tribe is interested pursuing a wind energy project, what's the first step? How can your office help?

A. If a tribe is interested in developing a wind energy project, I definitely would like to know about it. I'll come out and sit with the people, and we can explore the possibilities. I can put tribal leaders in touch with outside resources that can help them think through the project. I can also offer my expertise to help put the deal together.

Steven J. Morello is an enrolled citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and is licensed to practice law in Illinois and Michigan.

This information was last updated on May 06, 2008