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Native company launches wind energy project

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SAN FRANCISCO - Just as a collective of tribes is pushing for federal legislation in favor of tribal-led wind energy projects, a Native company is posed to launch an unprecedented effort to help tribes to become principal owners of turbines.

The Seattle-based company, Native Green Energy, will debut its first endeavor in April in Maine, where it has been working with the Passamaquoddy tribe to install two 100-kilowatt turbines that would power 50 homes on a private grid and allow the tribe to sell back additional energy to private utilities.

The company has already won the backing of some state legislatures and plans next to launch a 2.2-megawatt turbine for a Michigan gaming tribe.

;'We're setting out to make a difference in Indian country,'' said company co-founder Litefoot, a Cherokee musician, actor and entrepreneur. ''We have responsibility from the Creator to take care of this earth and so we are harnessing these things the Creator has provided to sustain our communities.''

Jon Ahlbrand, company co-founder, said the potential for wind energy is blowing constantly across Indian country, but there remains a dire lack of suppliers that ''could bridge the gap'' between the private sector market and its renewable energy demands and tribal governments.

''You can count on your hand the number of existing turbines operating on reservations,'' he said. ''Some of the most advantageous markets for wind energy are on trust land or fee land owned by tribes.''

Energy experts say the Dakota winds in the northern Great Plains alone could meet the nation's entire electrical needs with wind power. But the lack of a federal tax credit has been thwarting a tribal-led green energy future.

Currently, tribes are not entitled to the tax credits provided to non-Native developers for renewable energy production. And if an outside company wants to team up with a tribe, they are not provided a full tax credit.

The Senate and House are currently considering extensions of the renewable energy tax credit, which expires this December. A companion bill in the Senate would allow tribes to be principal owners of renewable energy projects and would provide their non-Native partners with a full tax credit. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., has introduced a similar bill in the House.

Meanwhile, Native Green is working to provide low-cost wind turbines to tribes by leading the manufacturing, marketing and the costly installation of the turbines - often the most expensive element of wind energy ventures.

Tribes have tried to become investors in wind energy, ''but then you see how many projects have actually seen light of day,'' Litefoot said. ''The equipment is toughest. We can have a project up and running in months. We make wind and alternative energy a realistic solution, which it hasn't been.''

The cost to manufacture wind turbines has declined over the last five years, but the demand for wind energy has been growing so rapidly that many developers are now able to charge even more for equipment, Ahlbrand said.

Each of the Passamaquoddy Tribe's wind turbines, for example, is an estimated $370,000, he said.

''In our case, you can put a crane on the back of a flatbed and hire 10 tribal members with their own contracts to get the turbine up and out of ground in two weeks,'' he said. ''We're creating jobs, because with wind energy, you need to leave behind the jobs in the hands of the tribal members.''

Outside capital has been essential to making tribally owned wind projects a reality. Ahlbrand said with Native Green's model, which involves setting up an affiliate company that is partially owned by the tribe, the tribe can eventually buy ownership over the entire company and turbine over time.

And the timing is right, now that many states require utilities to produce at least 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2025, Ahlbrand said. In Maine, the cost of heating oil and electricity is among the highest in the country, he said, with the average household on the reservation paying up to 40 percent of their income on electricity.

''Add in cost of living and you're broke. If we can bring small wind projects into the community and enable the tribal leadership to tangibly power houses, for a majority tribal members who are barely breaking even on a month-to-month basis, instead it becomes, 'I can provide power to my house and a computer for my kids and heat my home - those are real tangible costs.'''

And because of a preference clause for tribal-owned energy companies in the federal energy bill, tribes could someday soon become major suppliers of green power to the federal government, the largest consumer of energy in the world, Ahlbrand said. ''It would be a big advantage to a Native energy company to be able to leverage that,'' he said.

Increasing tribal ownership in wind energy is the first step in making that a possibility, Litefoot said.

''Being Native American, I have a strong understanding of how Indian country works and how we need to position ourselves to get a ground in wind energy,'' he said. ''I want my legacy to be trying to help Indian country pursue this in a way that is realistic and tangible.''