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Native American Interview: Tex Hall, National Congress of American Indians

Tex Hall

Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians

Native American Interview: Tex Hall, National Congress of American Indians

Date: 3/1/2004

Q. Why is wind important to the Tribes of the Great Plains?

A. Wind is an incredible untapped energy resource that could go a long way toward making this country energy independent. It has been said that an ocean of energy crosses the Great Plains every day. Tribes here have many thousands of megawatts of potential wind power blowing across our reservation lands.

Tribes in the Great Plains could look to the wind as a constant source of renewable energy to help meet our own local energy needs in a way that protects our air, water, and land. Tribes are interested in protecting their sovereignty and providing for their reservation communities. Tribally owned wind projects can provide an opportunity to generate power locally in a clean way that meets our needs in an affordable way, now and for the future. Wind power can provide several sources of revenue to the tribe, through the sale of energy, the sale of green tags, and the use of production incentives.

But to realize this potential, tribes need technical assistance from the federal government to assess our resources and site projects. We need to level the economic playing field so that tribes can use the production incentives available to off-reservation development. Tribes need access to the federal grid to bring our value-added electricity to market throughout our region and beyond.

Wind is part of our culture. Most of the Great Plains Tribes have distinct names and stories about the winds that recognize the different personalities and characteristics of the winds coming from the four directions.

Today, our persistent winds represent a fabulous opportunity for all people on the Great Plains to generate clean, reliable electricity without digging up our lands or polluting our air or water.

Q. What can the U.S. government do to assist in the development of wind resources on Tribal lands?

A. A number of national energy policy issues could support native renewable energy development, particularly wind energy development. Tribes need to have equal access to the federal renewable energy incentives. In the Great Plains, we are running into a variety of overriding policy issues, as well as local nuts-and-bolts concerns in the practical application of wind development on Tribal lands.

As a member of Intertribal Council on Utility Policy (COUP), we have proposed several specific policy directions and actions by the executive and legislative branches that will do a great deal to assist Tribes in the development of wind energy. I will address these issues in three areas, which are equally important:

First, it is essential to continue funding the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grants program for renewable energy projects because they provide funding for planning, feasibility, and development of real projects. The DOE and the Wind Powering America program have initiated a meaningful outreach to Tribes through the Native American Wind Interest Groups and technical assistance partnerships. This is a great model that demonstrates the trust responsibility of the U.S. Government to the Tribal Nations.

Second, Congress must authorize the Tribal eligibility for the Production Tax Credit (PTC) that drives all wind projects in this country. Tribes are now penalized in that they cannot attract the private investor to develop partnerships for projects on Tribal lands.

Indians are the only people with a "trust relationship" with the federal government. Our treaties require the federal government to assist us in developing our reservation economies. But all renewable energy incentives go to tax-paying developers via the PTC or to states or subdivisions of state through the Renewable Energy Production Incentive (REPI). Indians are the only group excluded from any of the federal renewable energy incentives, yet we are the only ones with a legal obligation — our treaties — for federal assistance!

Currently, because Tribes are not taxed entities (a status we secured from the United States in return for our giving them most of this continent), any developer that teams up with a Tribe in a joint venture for wind development is penalized by only being able to use a portion of the available PTCs, which are apportioned under federal law by the percentage of ownership in the production facility. So if a tribe has any ownership in a project on Tribal lands, our partner must forego any incentives represented by our ownership. The PTC is the main driver for wind development in this country, but this federal incentive policy steers investment capital away from Indian lands.

Intertribal COUP once proposed a Tribal energy production incentive to correct this federal oversight. Wryly called a "TEPI", it gently reminded Congress that it had an obligation to provide an equal playing field for Indian energy development. The Senate version of the federal energy bill contains language to allow Tribes and other non-taxed entities (such as municipal utilities and rural cooperatives) to sell, assign, or trade any tax credits that might become available to them, but those provisions were removed by the House in the conference committee. A current COUP proposal is a little more restrictive in scope, allowing joint ventures between Tribes and non-Indian developers to allocate the Tribe's share of the credits to their tax-paying partners. This proposal would be tax neutral, but it removes the penalty for investment in Indian Country through Tribal joint ventures. Tribes could still be principal owners of the project, but our partners would not be financially penalized.

Finally, in my opinion the next most important need is to allow Tribes access to the federal transmission grid and the purchase of wind energy to meet existing power needs of cooperatives, municipal utilities, and other regional utilities.

As to the nuts-and-bolts issues, we have learned the significance of using wind to meet off-grid applications versus interconnecting to the local and regional power grids. Off-grid applications require back-up power or storage systems. These systems can operate independently, although it can be more costly due to the back-up requirements, but it can be economic if it would actually cost more to run transmission lines to serve a remote load. Interconnecting to the local and regional grids that are owned and operated by non-Tribal utilities raises a host of issues, including jurisdiction, rights of way, demand charges, net metering, and others. When Tribes evolve from consumers of electricity to actual power generators, we are moving into a new territory that is already occupied by established interests who may not be so willing to let us participate on an equal footing. We can look for partnerships and for fair dealing with the contributions we can make to the nation's energy supply, but we will need to address many technical and policy obstacles along the way.

To date, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe; the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe; the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe; and the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation have joined in the Intertribal COUP Environmental Justice Community Revitalization demonstration project for 80 MW of wind power on the reservations. Each Tribe will be dealing with Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) procurement and interconnection policy and the Basin Electric policy issues on demand charges and firming power. Intertribal COUP feels it is in the best interest of both WAPA and Basin (in which Tribal people own shares as co-op members) to partner with the Tribes and firm wind energy to power the reservations. We can also join to export wind power on the WAPA/Basin integrated transmission system to generate revenue for economic restoration in the Missouri Basin.

Q. We are aware that the federal government buys electric power from other generators and on the open market to meet contract obligations. How can Tribes benefit or participate in the procurement of energy?

A. Again, I need to emphasize that Indians are the only people with a "trust relationship" with the federal government. The treaties included the cession of vast areas of Tribal lands in turn for the federal government promise to help the Tribes restore their economies. This is further manifested in public law, such as the Buy Indian Act, which requires the purchase of Indian goods and services, and the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act, which includes the contracting of certain functions of the federal government relative to federal obligations and Indian preference in procurement and contracting.

Q. What are the biggest payoffs for Indians if wind energy is developed on their lands?

A. In the West, we have seen more than four years of drought. Most of the utility-scale energy generated in the West is from burning fossil fuels, a non-renewable energy source. Today, the world uses so much fossil fuel that we see the impacts on the price we pay at the gas pump, on the quality of our air (even in rural America), and as the scientists tell us and as Indian people have seen first hand, on our larger regional and global climate. Carbon dioxide is a prime greenhouse gas that is associated with the long-term weather changes we are now experiencing. Our current energy policies contribute to the drought conditions that reduce the snowpack in the Rockies where the Missouri River starts and throughout the northern plains.

Our cheap electricity may contribute significantly to the ruin of our ranching and farming economies through the prolonged drought associated with climate change and increased weather extremes and variability. With less hydropower due to the low water levels, the current federal policy is to buy and burn more fossil fuels, creating more greenhouse gases and filling the sky with sulfur, nitrogen, and carbon gases. Our current coal, gas, and nuclear generators also consume a tremendous amount of precious water through steam generators and power plant cooling systems. In the face of this, wind power projects on the Great Plains can generate electricity on a large, utility scale without consuming water in the process. People may even pay an extra premium for wind power if it can help to preserve our regional water supply. Tribal wind projects could replace diminished hydropower in the federal grid system while building up sustainable Tribal homeland economies.

The continuation of the drought conditions, climate change, and the necessary emissions reductions will only result in an increase in the cost of power from fossil fuel sources such as coal. Wind energy can be produced at a fixed, non-escalating cost for up to 30 years. No other source of power can claim that. The Tribes can save the federal government money, generate Tribal revenue and jobs, and increase the flexibility and improve management of the Missouri River.

Q. You are the President of the National Congress of American Indians. What role can the NCAI play in wind energy development in Indian Country?

A. As the oldest and longest-standing Indian organization, NCAI plays an important role in helping to shape national executive and legislative policies that promote the interests of American Indians and Alaskan Natives. We bring an important voice with regard to the concerns and aspirations of native peoples from across the country.

Q. How has the Rosebud Sioux Tribe's wind project influenced your thinking on wind energy development in Indian Country?

A. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe's single 750-MW wind turbine project demonstrates that an Indian tribe can develop the capacity to plan, build, own, and operate a utility-scale wind project. It demonstrates the potential of becoming a self-sustaining source of electricity to meet Tribal loads at their casino and hotel.

They have also broken the trail for commercial sale of Tribal green power to our federal treaty partners, the U.S. Government, by interconnecting through their local distribution system into the federal transmission grid (operated by WAPA) to supply renewable energy to the Ellsworth Air Force Base. The federal government is the largest consumer of energy in the world, making it a tremendous market. The federal grid system that was built to transmit renewable hydropower from the dams like the one that has flooded our reservation at Ft. Berthold links all the reservations across the Plains. Indian tribes could become a major supplier of green power to federal facilities and other markets around the country.

Rosebud has also demonstrated some novel methods for financing a tribally owned wind project through negotiating the first federal rural utilities service (RUS) loan for a Tribal renewable project and by participating in the upfront sale to NativeEnergy of the green tags to be generated over the life of the project separately from the sale of the energy. These are financing models for development that allow Tribes to own our projects and not merely lease our resources.

Q. What plans do the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara have for wind energy development at Ft. Berthold?

A. We have an unbelievable wind resource at Ft. Berthold. According to the wind potential resource maps produced by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, we have many thousands of times more power in the wind than the amount of energy we use on the reservation. Although we would never develop all of this resource, just a small fraction could become a foundation for sustainable economic development on the reservation, powering Tribal projects such as our planned gas refinery and for sale and export over the regional transmission grid.

Our Tribe has received an initial grant from DOE to develop a single turbine to provide power for our casino and hotel at Newtown, ND. We completed all the studies and broke ground late last year. We are currently completing final negotiations with regard to interconnection to meet Tribal load and perhaps sell off occasional surplus power for those times when the wind produces more energy that we can use directly.

We are also engaged in a second round of feasibility studies that examine the wind development potential at other sites on the reservation.

Our Tribe is a member of Intertribal COUP, and one of our Tribal members, Terry Fredericks, serves as its vice president. We are participating in the COUP environmental justice community revitalization demonstration project, which lays the road map for collaborative Tribal wind energy development. Ft. Berthold will site an initial 10-MW project as part of an 80-MW distributed generation intertribal project. A collaborative 80-MW project could attain an economy of scale that would make a local 10-MW project affordable. A 10-MW project at Ft. Berthold would, along with our WAPA hydropower allocation, help to meet most of our Tribal energy requirements. We could use this power directly at our planned refinery, providing even more local jobs and economic opportunities, and it would otherwise be absorbed in the local distribution system. This project would connect us to the grid for potential export and expansion. Wind, combined with some of our future gas production, could allow Ft. Berthold to provide power directly to the grid.

Q. What can the U.S. DOE and the Wind Powering America program do to help Native Americans achieve their interests in wind energy development?

A. The U.S. Department of Energy held its first Tribal energy summit in conjunction with the NCAI Executive Meeting in Washington, DC, this past February. This is an important first step to building a closer relationship between the administration and Tribes. We need the DOE to request funding for a variety of Indian energy initiatives, especially in the field of renewables, in which over the past ten years the DOE has never once requested appropriations at the levels authorized by Congress. Tribes also need direct assistance for weatherization so that our overall energy usage can be more efficient and our application of renewable energy can be more cost-effective.

The Wind Powering America has done an excellent job of bringing program information to Native Americans throughout the country, to Indian Tribes and to Native Alaskans and Hawaiians. With limited funding compared to those available for state programs, the WPA Native American Initiative has helped build Tribal capacity through the anemometer loan program and through the WEATS program, to which our Tribe has sent several representatives for training in wind energy applications.

Tribes could use more technical assistance in working through the interconnection issues to be able to connect utility-scale wind energy to the federal grids. We need to find a way to integrate the tremendous wind resources throughout the West into the federal hydropower grid system, which was originally built to deliver renewable energy throughout the region. With the drought conditions likely to continue, lower water levels for the foreseeable future, and increasing hydropower costs, now is the time to bring significant Tribal wind power into the mix for long-term savings over the annual retail purchases of supplemental power at retail rates. At Ft. Berthold, for example, we have sacrificed much of our reservation homeland for Lake Sakakawea behind the Garrison Dam, which is capable of producing over 500 megawatts of hydropower. If we could integrate about 100 megawatts of wind power with this hydropower, we could build a significant Tribal economy based on clean energy generation.

This information was last updated on August 02, 2011